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Dark Star Rising: Magic and power in the age of Trump, by Gary Lachman

07 September 2018

Mark Vernon finds a clue to the roots of political breakdown

alamy/courtesy everett collection

Dr Norman Vincent Peale and Ruth Stafford Peale, 1952, in a US TV series, What’s Your Trouble?, which followed the publication of The Power of Positive Thinking

Dr Norman Vincent Peale and Ruth Stafford Peale, 1952, in a US TV series, What’s Your Trouble?, which followed the publication of The Power of Positiv...

THIS book, more than any other, has helped me to understand a time when politics as we have known it has broken down. Lachman is a historian of the esoteric traditions of the West. In his latest book, he shows how that learning can make sense of things now.

It is a Christian story, in part, because the mind of Donald Trump was profoundly shaped by the teaching of Norman Vincent Peale, author of the bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking. Mr Trump went to the church of this American pastor. There he learnt about New Thought, one of the main strands of 20th-century esoteric philosophy. New Thought teaches that an ardent wish or desire, properly focused, can make things happen. “Thoughts make reality.” This is the belief that powers President Trump’s life.

New Thought has a deep hinterland. It connects with figures who unexpectedly but fundamentally shaped the modern world. Gandhi was positively influenced by it, as the British realised when they felt the force of his resolute self-belief. More darkly, several of the intellectuals behind 20th-century fascism bought into it, too, notably the Italian philosopher Julius Evola. One of Evola’s most significant fans today is Steve Bannon.

The magic of Lachman’s title refers to the use of chaos which such operators deploy. They aim to be disruptive, and then to be ready to seize the political opportunities that emerge from the resulting confusion. President Putin is, arguably, the most brilliant and ruthless current player of the game. Lachman tracks his links to New Thought, as well.

The analysis raises the issue how to respond, not least as the liberal political traditions of the West have been seemingly rendered incapable. One reaction in the United States can be found among liberal religious leaders such as Fr Richard Rohr and Bishop Michael Curry. They are “Reclaiming Jesus”, as their movement is called, which means substituting the rhetoric of positive thinking for sacrificial love.

Personally, I’m more persuaded by the insights of the Inkling Owen Barfield, about whom Lachman has written, too. This friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien argued that the central modern problem was a general scepticism about the truth-bearing power of the imagination. When the capacity to trust our moral intuitions and sense of the infinite erodes, we are left floundering in the face of the next tweet or troubling headline. It is the collective state of mind that Presidents Trump and Putin and their acolytes are so successfully deploying.

Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book is The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy (Idler Books, 2016).


Dark Star Rising: Magic and power in the age of Trump
Gary Lachman
TarcherPerigee £13.99
Church Times Bookshop £12.60

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