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The King in Orange: The Magical and Occult Roots of Political Power

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• Details the magical war that took place behind the scenes of the 2016 election
• Examines in detail the failed magical actions of Trump's opponents, with insights on political magic from Dion Fortune's war letters
• Reveals the influence of a number of occult forces from Julius Evola to chaos magick to show how the political and magical landscape of American society has permanently changed since the 2016 election

Magic and politics seem like unlikely bedfellows, but in The King in Orange, author John Michael Greer goes beyond superficial memes and extreme partisanship to reveal the unmentionable realities that spawned the unexpected presidential victory of an elderly real-estate mogul turned reality-TV star and which continue to drive the deepening divide that is now the defining characteristic of American society.

Greer convincingly shows how two competing schools of magic were led to contend for the presidency in 2016 and details the magical war that took place behind the scenes of the campaign. Through the influence of a number of occult forces from Julius Evola to chaos magicians, as well as the cult of positive thinking, Greer shows that the main contenders in this magical war were the status quo magical state, as defined by the late scholar Ioan Couliano, which has repurposed the "manipulative magic" techniques of the Renaissance magi into the subliminal techniques of modern advertising, and an older, deeper, and less reasonable form of magic—the "magic of the excluded"—which was employed by chaos magicians and alt-right internet wizards whose desires coalesced in the form of a frog avatar that led the assault against the world we knew.

Examining in detail the magical actions of Trump's opponents, with insights on political magic from occultist Dion Fortune's war letters, the author discusses how the magic of the privileged has functioned to keep the comfortable classes from being able to respond effectively to the populist challenge and how and why the "Magic Resistance," which tried to turn magic against Trump, has failed.

Showing how the political and magical landscape of American society has permanently changed since the 2016 election cycle, Greer reveals that understanding the coming of the King in Orange will be a crucial step in making sense of the world for a long time to come.
Year:
2021
Publisher:
Inner Traditions/Bear & Company
Language:
english
Pages:
238
ISBN:
B08KRG1RZK
File:
EPUB, 1.90 MB
Download (epub, 1.90 MB)

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THE KING IN ORANGE





“Against a humorous and informed survey of the American political landscape, Greer analyzes the 2016 U.S. presidential election through the lens of magic. Taking his cue from Ioan P. Couliano’s masterpiece Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Greer shows the power of symbols in forming popular opinion and political action and with it the competing and combating views of magic of the two principal parties: the magic of the privileged versus pragmatic positivism and where they meet in the Faustian dream of perpetual progress. An essential book for anyone seeking to understand the direction in which ‘cancel culture,’ the industrial world, and its formerly liberal democracies are heading.”

MARK STAVISH, AUTHOR OF EGREGORES





“John Michael Greer is one of the true original minds on the scene in these rather dire days of the wobbling American experiment. His books hack through the precooked ideology of our so-called thinking classes to present always-fresh connections between events on the ground and the deep mysteries of our being here in the first place, especially the issues of good and evil, which so befog us today.”

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER, AUTHOR OF THE LONG EMERGENCY





Contents





Cover Image


Title Page


Epigraph


Introduction. Under Some Kind of Magic Spell


Chapter 1. A Season in Carcosa: The Political Dimensions of Magic


Chapter 2. Lengthening Shadows: Magic and the American Class System


Chapter 3. The Pallid Mask: Spells of Privilege, Prejudice, and Injustice


Chapter 4. The Orange Sign: The Coming of the Kek Wars


Chapter 5. The Court of the Dragon: The Magic Resistance, the Shadow, and the Changer


Chapter 6. The Hands of the Living God: Magical Cultures Past, Present, and to Come


Chapter 7. The Tatters of the King: Magic and Power in Post-Trump America


Notes


Bibliography


About the Author


About Inner Traditions • Bear & Company


Books of Related Interest


Copyright & Permissions


Index





Along the shore the cloud waves break,

The two ; suns sink beneath the lake,

The shadows lengthen


In Carcosa.





Strange is the night where black stars rise,

And strange moons circle through the skies,

But stranger still is


Lost Carcosa.





Songs that the Hyades shall sing,

Where flap the tatters of the King,

Must die unheard in


Dim Carcosa.





Song of my soul, my song is dead,

Die thou unsung, as tears unshed

Shall dry and die in


Lost Carcosa.


“CASSILDA’S SONG” IN THE KING IN YELLOW





INTRODUCTION


Under Some Kind of Magic Spell





Ne raillons pas les fous; leur folie dure plus longtemps que la nôtre. . . . Voilà toute la difference. (Don’t make fun of madmen. Their madness lasts longer than ours. . . . That’s the only difference.)



FROM “THE REPAIRER OF REPUTATIONS”

IN THE KING IN YELLOW





We like to think, most of us, that we live in a world that makes rational sense. The dominant narratives of the industrial world portray the universe as a vast machine governed by rigid deterministic laws, in which everything that will ever happen could be known in advance, if only we could just gather enough data. Our political expectations are much the same: we elect candidates because they claim to be able to make the machinery of representative democracy do what we want it to do, and the mere fact that things never quite manage to work that way never seems to shake the conviction that they will, or at least that they should.

It’s all a pretense, and we know it. The reason we can be sure it’s a pretense is that when some part of the world misbehaves in a way that won’t allow the fantasy to be maintained, a great many of us respond with rage. We aren’t baffled or intrigued or stunned; we’re furious that the universe has seen fit to break the rules again—and of course it’s that “again,” stated or unstated, that gives away the game. We know at some level that the rules in question are simply a set of narratives in the heads of some not very bright social primates on the third lump of rock from a midsized star nowhere in particular in a very big universe. Most of us cling to the narratives anyway, since the alternative is to let go and fall free into a wider and stranger world, where we can’t count on being able to predict or control anything.

Sometimes, though, the pretense becomes very, very hard to maintain. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in one of those times. It’s a source of fascination and wry amusement to me that the event that plunged us into a realm of paradox, tore open the familiar world of halftruths and comfortable evasions, and sent a great many of us spinning off into the void, wasn’t any of the grandiose cataclysms or cosmic leaps of consciousness so luridly portrayed by the last three or four generations of would-be prophets. It wasn’t the arrival of the space brothers or the Second Coming of Christ or the end of the thirteenth baktun of the Mayan calendar. No, it was the election of an elderly reality-television star, wrestling promoter, and real estate mogul named Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America.

Just when we crossed over the border into nonordinary reality is an interesting question, and it’s one I’m far from sure I can answer exactly. Well over a year before the 2016 election, certainly, I noticed that something very strange was happening out there in the twilight realms of the American imagination, something that the corporate media weren’t covering and pundits and politicians seemed to be going out of their way to ignore. By the new year I was certain that politics as usual were about to be chucked out the window, and less than a month later—on January 20, 2016, to be precise—I posted an essay to the blog I wrote in those days, The Archdruid Report, titled “Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment.” In it I talked about some of the reasons that the bipartisan political consensus in the United States was coming apart at the seams and predicted that Trump would win the election.

In the months that followed I expanded on that prediction, watched in bemusement as Trump’s campaign turned nimble and clever while Clinton’s stumbled from one self-inflicted disaster to another, and caught my first glimpses of deeper and stranger forces at work under the pretense of business as usual. I started hearing about “the chans,” Pepe the frog, a forgotten Europop song titled “Shadilay,” and an ancient Egyptian god named Kek. In my blog posts I tried to sketch out a first tentative outline of the landscape of politics and consciousness that was coming into view as Trump’s campaign shrugged off the sustained attacks of the entire U.S. political and corporate establishment and pulled off a victory that most respectable thinkers at the time considered utterly impossible.

It was the aftermath, however, that made it clear just how far we’d strayed into the absolute elsewhere. Just after the election, I thought that the tantrums being thrown by the losing side were simply a slightly amplified version of the typical sulky-toddler behavior we saw from Republicans after the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and Democrats after the election of George W. Bush in 2000. I honestly expected that the Democrats, once they’d gotten over the ritual period of wailing in anguish because they’d lost the White House, would pick themselves up, learn from the manifold mistakes that their candidate made during the campaign, and figure out why a significant number of voters who normally sided with them had taken their chances on Donald Trump instead.

That didn’t happen. Not only did the tantrums keep coming, they turned more shrill and surreal with each passing week. What’s more, not only did the Democrats fail to learn from their many mistakes, they doubled down on them, angrily rejecting any suggestion that would help them make sense of why they lost the election and keep them from doing the same thing over again. People watching from the sidelines, with various blends of astonishment and mordant glee, began talking about “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” Meanwhile Trump began to use the overreactions of his opponents as an instrument of political warfare, bombarding the internet with carefully timed Twitter salvoes to keep his critics distracted while he carried out the most dramatic reshaping of the American governmental landscape in living memory. It really did look at times as though Trump’s opponents were under some kind of magic spell.





In a certain sense, of course, that’s exactly what was going on. I say “in a certain sense” because it’s very difficult to talk about magic in modern industrial society and be understood clearly. That’s not because magic is innately difficult to understand. It’s because our culture has spent the last two thousand years or so doing its level best not to understand it.

Magic is the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. Let’s repeat that and give it due emphasis: magic is the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. That’s the definition proposed a century ago by Dion Fortune, an influential twentieth-century theoretician of magic (and also a crackerjack practitioner). Yes, I know that’s not how magic is presented in the corporate mass media, and there are good reasons for that. The babblings of the corporate mass media don’t matter, though, because that definition is how magic is understood by many of the people who actually do it.

But what about the robes and candles and wands, the billowing clouds of incense, the sonorous words of power, the strange glyphs drawn on talismans or held intently in the mind’s eye? Those are tools for, ahem, causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. The rational mind, the most recently evolved part of our cognitive equipment and far and away the most fragile, occupies only a small and relatively feeble corner of human consciousness. The rest still speaks the old vivid language of myth and symbol, and can be reached by dramatic action focused on nonrational clusters of symbolism—that is to say, by ritual and other magical practices—far more effectively than it can be reached by verbal reasoning.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you think there’s anything supernatural going on in magical practices, by the way. It doesn’t matter whether you think there’s anything going on at all. Operative mages—people who practice magic—have been experimenting with these practices for many thousands of years. If you follow their instructions you can get the same results they do. That’s why people in every human society in history have practiced magic, and why plenty of people practice magic in the modern industrial world right now.

I’m one of them. In my early teens, bored out of my wits by the tacky plastic tedium of an American suburban existence, I went looking for something—anything—less dreary than the simulacrum of life that parents, teachers, and the omnipresent mass media insisted I ought to enjoy. Since I was a socially awkward bookworm—the diagnosis “Asperger’s syndrome” wasn’t in wide circulation yet—that search focused on books rather than the drugs, petty crime, and casual promiscuity in which most of my peers took refuge. In among the flying saucers, werewolf legends, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! trivia, I began to notice references to magic: not as a plot engine in fairy stories and fantasy novels, but as something that people actually did. One hint led to another, and eventually to books on the subject. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun experimenting with magical rituals and discovered that they do indeed work—that is, done correctly, they cause change in consciousness in accordance with will. Not long after my twenty-second birthday I began the kind of systematic program of study and practice that in magic, as in anything else, is necessary if you want to get past the bunny-slope level.

That was more than thirty-five years ago. Well before Donald Trump began his journey to the White House. In other words, I knew my way around the theory and practice of magic, and I also had a fair grasp of its history. I’d written quite a few books on magic and also translated or edited some of the major classics in the field. I’d put many hours of close study into books such as Ioan Couliano’s Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, with its edgy but accurate identification of modern advertising as a debased form of magic, and Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism, which got past the haze of mythmaking that has surrounded that subject since 1945 to show how a subculture of reactionary occultists in Germany and Austria laid the foundations for the coming of National Socialism. I’d also read and reread Carl Jung’s prophetic essay “Wotan,” written in 1936, which challenged the casual dismissal of Hitler as a two-bit Mussolini wannabe—yes, that’s what serious people thought of him then—and showed how the Nazi movement fed on irrational forces rooted in the deep places of the European mind.

Donald Trump isn’t Hitler. The newborn populist movement, which helped put him into office, backed him straight through his term in spite of all the efforts of the political establishment and the corporate media, and remains a massive presence in American public life despite the outcome of the 2020 election, has very little in common with the movement Hitler led to a string of sordid triumphs ending in catastrophe. Yet the huge and passionate crowds in red MAGA caps who flooded stadiums to hear Trump speak signal the presence of something other than the scripted faux-enthusiasm of politics as usual in the United States. The debased magic of modern political advertising has slammed face first into something older, deeper, and far less reasonable, and the shockwaves from the impact are leaving few of our culture’s comforting certainties intact.

That was what I saw taking shape in late 2015, as Donald Trump emerged from the pack of Republican presidential candidates, and the entire political landscape of the United States began to warp around him like spacetime twisting around a neutron star. That’s what I’ve watched since then, as we’ve moved further and further into an unfamiliar world where the regular rules no longer apply and strange shapes rise from the depths.





When you practice magic you get used to encountering the bizarrely meaningful coincidences that Carl Jung called “synchronicities.” You do a ritual invoking the forces assigned to the planet Mars, whose symbols include the color red and the number five, and when you walk to the grocery an hour later the only vehicles that pass you are five bright red cars: that sort of thing. At the same time as the Trump phenomenon was beginning to take shape, I had a classic example of the sort show up on my doorstep—or more precisely on my keyboard.

Among the many things I read back in my teen years in search of alternatives to boredom was the fiction of iconic American weird-tales author H. P. Lovecraft. Most people think of Lovecraft as a horror writer, but I never found his stories scary. The tentacle-faced devil-god Cthulhu, the shapeless shoggoths, and the other critters who inhabit his adjective-laden pages never struck me as particularly horrifying. Me, I found them oddly endearing, and they were certainly better company than most of the people I knew.

Lovecraft was a passing phase for me, though I returned to his stories in the years that followed. Then in the spring of 2015—yes, right about the time that Donald Trump launched himself into the presidential race—I suddenly had a fantasy novel come crashing into my imagination, set in a quirky reimagining of Lovecraft’s fictive cosmos in which his monsters and gods were the good guys, their supposedly sinister cultists turned out to be just one more religious minority targeted by hateful propaganda and violent persecution, and the villains of the piece belonged to a vast and powerful organization of crazed rationalists who wanted to turn all that rhetoric about Man’s Conquest of Nature into an ecocidal reality. Eight weeks later—I have never written anything else so fast or with so few missteps—I had a 70,000-word first draft of The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, the first installment of what turned into a seven-volume epic fantasy with tentacles, accompanied by four equally tentacular novels, which took place in the same eldritch setting.

As the rest of the series began to take shape, I saturated myself in classic weird tales from before the Second World War: Lovecraft’s to begin with, and then those of the writers he admired or befriended. I borrowed freely from a great many of those to fill out the fictive landscape of The Weird of Hali, and in the process began to notice just how precisely the world seemed to be following in the footsteps of my fiction. Sometimes the resonances were exact. I borrowed the toad god Tsathoggua from the stories of Lovecraft’s friend Clark Ashton Smith, for example, and within a week heard for the first time of the sudden prominence of the frog god Kek in the online subculture of the alt-right. Equally, a few years later on, these lines from Robert W. Chambers’ book The King in Yellow took on new relevance in the age of Covid-19:





STRANGER: I wear no mask.

CAMILLA: [terrified, aside to Cassilda] No mask? No mask!





Even so, the general ambience seems even more significant than such details. As in Lovecraft’s story “The Call of Cthulhu” and a hundred other weird tales, something vast and dreadful was stirring in the depths, gathering strength from among those that the respectable dismissed as the dregs of society, haunting the dreams of a world that believed that all such primeval horrors had been laid to rest forever.

Of all the classic weird tales I read while working on The Weird of Hali, the ones that seemed to catch the flavor of our time most precisely were the linked short stories Robert W. Chambers gathered in The King in Yellow. Most of those stories are set in the ordinary world of Chambers’ time, but prosaic reality begins to twist and shudder as a different reality seeps through the crawlspaces: the reality of Carcosa, the city of the King in Yellow, where the shadows of thought lengthen in the afternoon and black stars hang in the heavens. That same vertiginous sense of shifting realities, it seemed to me, has been spreading throughout American public life in the age of Trump, and the madness that played so central and disquieting a role in Chambers’ stories was there in ample supply as well. The one great difference I could see was that the force warping the political and cultural landscape of our time had orange rather than yellow for its keynote color. The titles of this book and its chapters, and much of the imagery that shapes the following pages, followed promptly.





A word of caution is in order before we begin. For those readers who’ve bought into the narratives pushed by the corporate media and its tame pundits for the past forty years or so, this book won’t be easy reading. To make sense of the Trump phenomenon and the magical politics that made Trump’s ascent to the presidency inevitable, we’ll have to look clearly at the realities of social class and class prejudice in today’s America, the consequences of policies that have been treated as sacrosanct by the people who benefited from them most, and the ways that rhetorics of moral superiority have been weaponized to justify those policies and stifle dissent. We’ll have to talk frankly about the nature of history and the contemporary cult of progress, and glimpse the shape of a future that has little in common with the cheapjack Tomorrowland imagery the mass media has been pushing so frantically at us for so many years.

What makes these things difficult for most people nowadays is not that they’re unfamiliar. Quite the contrary, they rouse such strong emotional reactions because we all know them already. They’re the tacit realities we live with every day but most of us never dare to mention or even think about, as unavoidable as they are unspeakable—and they’re the reasons why Donald Trump became president of the United States.

Ever since the 2016 election, it has been fashionable in the cultural mainstream to insist that Trump was an anomaly. Deep down we all know better. Trump was anything but an anomaly. His election in 2016 was the necessary result of forty years of policies that benefited certain classes in our society at the expense of others, while tacitly forbidding any discussion of that fact. The populist movement that came together in response to his candidacy and is now beginning to take its first independent steps grew partly out of the reaction to those policies, partly out of a schism in America’s culture and consciousness that goes all the way back to colonial times, and partly out of something far more inchoate that reaches not back but forward: the first stirrings of a distant future within the hard shell of the present.

These are the realities we most need to grapple with today. To borrow and repurpose a metaphor from Chambers’ stories, we’ve seen the Orange Sign, and there’s no way back from that moment of revelation. We can close our eyes to our own knowledge and be blindsided by the future, or we can open our eyes and see the world that’s beginning to take shape around us. This book is my attempt at that first necessary glance.





1

A Season in Carcosa


The Political Dimensions of Magic





This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali; and my mind will bear for ever the memory of the Pallid Mask.



FROM “THE REPAIRER OF REPUTATIONS”

IN THE KING IN YELLOW





Like millions of other Americans on November 8, 2016, I took part in the pleasant civic ritual of electing a president. My polling place at that time was in an elementary school in a rundown neighborhood of Cumberland, Maryland, a gritty, impoverished, and rather pleasant town of 20,000 people in the north central Appalachians, and I walked there early that afternoon, when the lunch rush was over and the torrent of people voting on the way home from work hadn’t gotten under way. There was no line at the polling place. I went in just as two old men came out the door, comparing notes on which local restaurants gave discounts to patrons who wear the “I Voted” stickers that polling places hand out, and left five minutes later as a bottle-blonde housewife in her fifties came in to cast her vote. Maryland had electronic voting for a while, but did the smart thing and went back to paper ballots that year, so I’m pretty sure my votes got counted the way I cast them.

The weather was cloudy but warm, as nice a November day as you could ask for, and the streets I walked down were typical of the poorer parts of flyover country: every third house abandoned, every third street corner hosting an off-brand church. It’s the kind of neighborhood where, on a warm summer evening, all the porches have people sitting on them, and despite the stereotypes you’ll hear endlessly repeated in the corporate media, you’ll have to look long and hard to find even one of those porches where everyone tipping back a beer has the same skin color. The kids playing basketball in the rundown playground close by are just as complete an ethnic mix, and interracial marriages and mixedrace children are common in that part of town.

That afternoon, as I went to vote and then returned, that impoverished, rundown, ebulliently multiracial neighborhood was also an unbroken forest of pro-Trump signage. Trump’s name and his slogan “Make America Great Again” were everywhere. And Clinton? If you wanted to see any of her signs you had to walk uphill to a different part of town. That way lies one of Cumberland’s few well-to-do neighborhoods, where you won’t see friends tipping back beers on porches or mixed-race couples walking down the street holding hands. That’s where you found the Clinton campaign signs—“I’m With Her”—on that pleasant November afternoon. They were with her. The workingclass people down the hill, struggling to get by after decades of increasingly bleak times in America’s flyover states, were with Trump.

That wasn’t the way the corporate media or the comfortable classes presented the contest, of course. After that November day, and especially once the shock of Hillary Clinton’s defeat settled in, the conventional wisdom insisted loudly that every single person who voted for Donald Trump must have been motivated by racism, sexism, or some other form of socially unacceptable prejudice, and could not possibly have had any other reason for voting that way. The same media outlets and affluent circles insisted just as stridently that Trump had colluded with the government of Russia to rig the election, or simply blamed Trump’s victory on hate, as though that unfashionable emotion had done the thing all by itself. You heard these claims rehashed across a broad slide of the political spectrum, from the far left through the center to the “Never Trump” wing of the Republican Party—from everyone, in short, but the people who voted for Trump, or those who took the time to listen to them and find out what they thought.

To some extent, of course, this was yet another round of the amateur theatrics that both parties indulge in whenever they lose the White House. In 2008, Barack Obama’s victory was followed by months of shrieking from Republicans, who insisted that the outcome of the election meant that democracy had failed, the United States and the world were doomed, and Republicans would be rounded up and sent to concentration camps any day now. In 2000, Democrats chewed the scenery in a comparably grand style when George W. Bush was elected president. In 1992, it was the GOP’s turn—I still have somewhere a pamphlet circulated by Republicans after the election containing helpful phrases in Russian, so that American citizens would have at least a little preparation when Bill Clinton ran the country into the ground and handed the smoking remains over to the Soviet Union. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember when Republicans rather than Democrats were finding sinister Russians under the bed.) American politics and popular culture being what they are, this kind of histrionic silliness is probably unavoidable.

Fans of irony had at least as much to savor in 2016 as in these earlier examples. We saw people who were talking eagerly about how to game the Electoral College two weeks before the election, who turned around and started denouncing the Electoral College root and branch once it cost their party the presidency. We saw people who had insisted that Trump, once he lost, should concede and shut up, who demonstrated a distinct unwillingness to follow their own advice once the shoe was on the other foot. We saw people in the bluest of blue left-coast cities marching in protest as though that was going to change a single blessed thing, since protest marches that aren’t backed up with effective grassroots political organization are simply a somewhat noisy form of aerobic exercise.

Still, more was involved than theatrical posturing. A great many people on the losing side of the election reacted with genuine feelings of shock, disorientation, and fear. At least some of them believed wholeheartedly that the people who voted for Trump hated women, people of color, sexual minorities, and so on, and could have been motivated only by that hatred. What was more, that belief became more deeply entrenched, not less, as people who had actually voted for Trump tried to explain why it was wrong, and it became even more widespread after Trump took office and failed to do the extreme things his opponents insisted he was going to do, and pursued a series of policies that, as we will see, benefited a great many Americans who had been left behind or actively harmed by the much-ballyhooed policies of previous administrations.

Were there people among Trump’s supporters who were racists, sexists, homophobes, and so on? Of course. I knew a couple of thoroughly bigoted racists who cast their votes for him, for example, including at least one bona fide member of the Ku Klux Klan. The point the Left ignored, and has insisted on ignoring ever since, is that not everyone in flyover country is like that. A few years before the election, in fact, a group of Klansmen came to Cumberland to hold a recruitment rally, and the churches in town—white as well as black—held a counter-rally on the other side of the street and drowned the Klansmen out, singing hymns at the top of their lungs until the guys in the white robes got back in their cars and drove away in humiliation. Surprising? Not at all; in a great deal of Middle America, that’s par for the course these days.





To understand why a town that ran off the Klan gave Donald Trump 70 percent of its vote in the 2016 election, it’s necessary to get past the stereotypes and ask a simple question: Why did people vote for Trump in 2016? I spent a lot of time listening to people talk about the election before and after it happened, and these are the things they brought up over and over again.

1. The Risk of War. This was the most common point at issue, especially among women—nearly all the women I know who voted for Trump, and I know quite a few of them, cited it as either the decisive reason for their vote or one of the top two. They listened to Hillary Clinton talk about imposing a no-fly zone over Syria in the face of a heavily armed and determined Russian military presence, and looked at the reckless enthusiasm for overthrowing governments she’d displayed during her time as Secretary of State. They compared this to Donald Trump’s advocacy of a less confrontational relationship with Russia, and they decided that Trump was less likely to get the United States into a shooting war.

War isn’t an abstraction in flyover country. Joining the military is very nearly the only option young people there have if they want a decent income, job training, and the prospect of a college education, and so most families have at least one relative or close friend on active duty. People respect the military. Even so, the last two decades of wars of choice in the Middle East have done a remarkably good job of curing Middle America of any fondness for military adventurism it might have had. While affluent feminists swooned over the prospect of a woman taking on another traditionally masculine role, and didn’t seem to care in the least that the role in question was “warmonger,” a great many people in flyover country weighed the other issues against the prospect of having a family member come home in a body bag. Since the Clinton campaign did nothing to reassure them on this point, they voted for Trump.

2. The Obamacare Disaster. This was nearly as influential as Clinton’s reckless militarism. Most of the people I know who voted for Trump made too much money to qualify for a significant federal subsidy, and too little to be able to cover the endlessly rising cost of insurance under the absurdly misnamed “Affordable Care Act.” They recalled, too clearly for the electoral prospects of the Democrats, how Obama assured them that the price of health insurance would go down, that they would be able to keep their existing plans and doctors, and so on through the other broken promises that surrounded Obamacare even before it took effect.

It was bad enough that so few of those promises were kept, and that millions of Americans lost health coverage that met their needs at a reasonable price and instead got poorer coverage with drastically higher premiums. The real dealbreaker, though, was the round of double- or triple-digit annual increases in premiums announced just before the election, on top of increases nearly as drastic a year previously. Even among those who could still afford the new premiums, the writing was on the wall: sooner or later, unless something changed, a lot of people were going to have to choose between losing their health care and being driven into destitution—and then there were the pundits who insisted that everything would be fine, if only the penalties for not getting insurance were raised to equal the cost of insurance! Faced with that, it’s not surprising that a great many people went out and voted for the one candidate who said he’d get rid of Obamacare.

3. Bringing Back Jobs. This is the most difficult issue for a great many people on the Left to understand. In flyover country, the great-granddaddy of economic issues is access to full time working-class jobs at decent pay. Such jobs used to be readily available in cities, towns, and rural areas across the country, back when government regulation was modest, substantial tariffs and trade barriers protected domestic manufacturing industries, and immigration was strictly regulated. As each of these policies was reversed, wages dropped and jobs became more scarce. Until quite recently, every respectable mainstream economist insisted heatedly that the plunge in working-class wages and the decrease in job availability had nothing to do with the policy changes just listed. A great many people in Middle America didn’t believe them—and there was reason for their skepticism.

All through the campaign, Clinton pushed the bipartisan consensus that supported more regulation, more free trade agreements, and more immigration. Trump, by contrast, promised to cut regulation, scrap or renegotiate free trade agreements, and crack down on illegal immigration. He was the only candidate who offered something other than a continuation of existing policies, and that was enough to get a good many voters whose economic survival was on the line to take a chance on Trump.

4. Punishing the Democratic Party. This one is more of an outlier, because the people I know who cast their votes for Trump for this reason mostly represented a different demographic from the norm in flyover country: younger, politically more liberal, and incensed by the way that the Democratic National Committee rigged the nomination process to favor Clinton and shut out Bernard Sanders. They believed that if the campaign for the Democratic nomination had been conducted fairly, Sanders would have been the nominee, and they also believed that Sanders would have stomped Trump in the general election. For what it’s worth, my guess is that they were right on both counts.

These voters pointed out to me, often with some heat, that the policies Hillary Clinton supported in her time as senator and secretary of state were all but indistinguishable from those of George W. Bush—that is, the policies Democrats used to denounce so forcefully back before they themselves started pursuing them. These voters argued that voting for Clinton in the general election when she’d been rammed down the throats of the Democratic rank and file by the party’s oligarchy would have signaled the final collapse of the party’s progressive wing into irrelevance. They were willing to accept four years of a Republican in the White House to make it brutally clear to the party hierarchy that the shenanigans that handed the nomination to Clinton were more than they were willing to tolerate.

Those were the reasons I heard people give when they talked about why they were voting for Donald Trump. They didn’t talk about the issues that the corporate media considered important, such as the shenanigans around Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Nor did they display any particular hatred toward women, people of color, sexual minorities, and the like; many of them were women, people of color, and/or sexual minorities—despite stereotypes common in the coastal enclaves of the comfortable, Cumberland not only has the ethnic mix I discussed earlier, it has a gay bar and an annual drag queen pageant. The Trump voters here had their own reasons, which I’ve listed above.

When this was pointed out to people on the leftward side of the political spectrum, the usual response has been to insist that, well, yes, maybe Trump did address the issues that matter to people in flyover country, but even so, it was utterly wrong of them to vote for a racist, sexist homophobe! We’ll set aside the question of how far these labels actually apply to Trump, and how much they’re the product of demonizing rhetoric on the part of his political enemies. Even accepting the truth of these accusations, what the line of argument just cited claims is that people in the flyover states should have ignored the issues that affect their own lives, and should have voted instead for the issues that liberals think are important.

In some idyllic Utopian world, maybe. In the real world, that’s not going to happen. People are not going to embrace the current agenda of the American Left if that means they can expect their medical insurance to double in price every few years, their wages to continue lurching downward, their communities to sink further in a death spiral of economic collapse, and their kids to come home in body bags from another pointless war in the Middle East. That anyone should have thought otherwise is a helpful measure of the strangeness of our times, and points straight to the deeper, magical dimensions of contemporary politics.

One of the fascinating things about all this is that the issues just listed are all things the Democratic Party used to address. It wasn’t that long ago, in fact, that the Democratic Party made these very issues—opposition to reckless military adventurism, support for government programs that improved the standard of living of working-class Americans, and a politics of transparency and integrity—central not only to its platform but to the legislation it fought to get passed and its presidents signed into law. Back when that was the case, the Democratic Party was the majority party in this country, not only in Congress but also in terms of state governorships and legislatures. As the party backed away from offering those things, in turn, it lost its majority position. While correlation doesn’t prove causation, I think that this once a strong case can be made.

Nor was it especially difficult to find out that the things listed above were the issues that American voters cared about, and that they voted for Trump because he seemed more likely to provide them than Clinton did. Yet across this country’s collective conversation in the wake of the election, next to no one other than Trump voters wanted to hear it. Suggest that people voted for Trump because they were worried about the risk of war, afraid that Obamacare would bankrupt their families, hoping a change in policy would bring back full-time jobs at decent wages, or disgusted by the political trickery that kept Sanders from winning the Democratic nomination, and you could count on being shouted down. It became an item of unshakable dogma in the media and the realm of public discourse that every single one of the voters who supported Trump could only have been motivated by sheer evil.





To understand that bizarre but pervasive reaction is to plunge into the heart of what happened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The conventional wisdom offers no guidance here. Instead, the route to understanding begins with a corpse in a bathroom.

The bathroom in question was on the University of Chicago campus, on an otherwise lovely spring day in 1991. The corpse belonged to Ioan Couliano, a Romanian-American historian of ideas who had earned a stellar reputation for a series of books on the odder byways of Renaissance thought. Couliano had been shot once in the head by an unknown assailant. It remains an open case, though the victim had been heavily involved in attempts to unseat the regime that took power in Romania after the Communist collapse in 1989, and rumors then and now attribute the killing to that regime’s security forces.

We’ll be returning to Couliano’s career and grisly death more than once in the pages ahead. The aspect of his work that concerns us just now is his 1984 book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, which cut straight through modern misunderstandings of magic to show how it has become the basis of political power in the modern industrial world. Though this wasn’t widely known until after his death, Couliano was a practitioner of magic as well as an academic; he had made a close study of the magical writings of Giordano Bruno, a defrocked Dominican friar who was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600, and that background gave him the key to understand the magical politics of the present day.

The most important of Giordano Bruno’s magical writings, De Vinculis in Genere (On Bindings in General), identified desire—eros, in Bruno’s Latin prose—as the key to magic. Look at today’s mass-media advertising, Couliano pointed out, and everything you see is meant to manipulate consciousness through images that evoke desire. Advertising and public relations are the magic of today: that was one of Couliano’s core messages.

Yet that identification of advertising as magic led him to further insights. From his perspective, authoritarian regimes of the old-fashioned jackbooted kind were anachronisms in today’s world. The nations of the modern industrial West need nothing so clumsy to maintain conformity and keep the existing order of things from being disturbed, when advertising and public relations can do the same job ever so much more efficiently. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance thus presented an edgy vision of modern industrial societies as “magician states” in which the mass media maintains an artificial consensus that supports existing distributions of power and wealth by tacitly excluding all alternatives.

There’s much to be said for Couliano’s interpretation, and several other equally subversive currents of thought have made the same point in their own way. The most important thing being sold by an advertisement, after all, is not the product it ostensibly promotes, but the set of beliefs and attitudes that makes the product seem desirable. An ad for fizzy brown sugar water, say, wastes no time extolling the notional virtues of fizzy brown sugar water; instead, it cycles obsessively through images meant to evoke desires for love, friendship, popularity, or what have you, and linking those desires to the consumption of fizzy brown sugar water. Underlying the whole ad is the claim that people who want love, friendship, popularity, or what have you can get it by buying a product. The mere fact that this belief is obviously false, and indeed absurd, does nothing to decrease its impact on the unthinking.

The power of such imagery is undeniable. Yet there was always a problem, a severe one, with Bruno’s approach to magic, and with Couliano’s interpretation of that approach. Both men, it bears remembering, ended up messily dead, and in both cases that happened because the magical manipulations in which they put their trust turned out to be less potent than they thought: Bruno’s incantations failed to keep him out of the hands of the Inquisition, while Couliano’s brought him lethal blowback from the regime he tried to destabilize. As we’ll see, the standard political discourse in the United States came to rely just as heavily on the manipulation of desire as the marketing of any other prepackaged product, and failed in the same way as Bruno’s and Couliano’s rather different campaigns. All things considered, Hillary Clinton was lucky to get off as easily as she did.





Study the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign and you can see Couliano’s style of magic in high relief. That campaign started out as equivalent campaigns here in the United States have done for years, with carefully scripted campaign launches by political insiders who avoided the issues that actually mattered to most voters and fixated instead on advertising of exactly the sort we’ve been discussing. Jeb Bush, who was expected to take the Republican nomination and go head to head with Hillary Clinton in the general election, offers a good first approximation of the whole process, because his campaign was a letter-perfect copy of the successful presidential campaigns of the past three decades.

Bush really did do everything he was supposed to do, according to the conventional wisdom of the pre-Trump era, and according to the approach to magic Bruno and Couliano discussed. He lined up plenty of big-money sponsors; he assembled a team of ghostwriters, spin doctors, and door-to-door salesmen to run his campaign; he had a PR firm design a catchy logo; he practiced spouting the kind of empty rhetoric that sounds meaningful so long as you don’t think about it for two minutes; he took carefully calculated stands on a handful of hot-button topics, mouthed whatever his handlers told him to say on every other issue, and set out to convince the voters that their interests would be harmed just a little bit less by putting him in the White House than by any of the alternatives.

That sort of content-free campaign is what got George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama onto the list of U.S. presidents. What it got Jeb Bush, though, was a string of humiliating defeats. Some observers at the time suggested that his tearful exit from the race in the wake of the South Carolina primary was the act of a child who had been promised a nice shiny presidency by his daddy, and then found out that the mean voters wouldn’t give it to him. I think, though, that there was considerably more to it than that. I think that Bush had just realized, to his shock and horror, that the rules of the game had been changed on him without notice, and all those well-informed, well-connected people who had advised him on the route that would take him to the presidency had been smoking their shorts.

If anything, though, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign offers an even clearer glimpse into the magical dimensions of the American political process. She did exactly the same things that Jeb did—it’s indicative that the two of them both splashed their first names across their equally banal campaign logos—and she also managed, as he never did, to get the apparatchiks of her party lined up solidly on her side before the campaigning season got under way. By the ordinary rules of U.S. politics, she should have enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the primaries to the Democratic convention while Jeb Bush wrestled with his opponents, and then gone into the general election with plenty of money to spare, saturating the air waves with a deluge of nearly content-free advertisements designed to associate her, in the minds of American voters, with a set of desires just a little more appealing than those her opponent was able to deploy.

But the rules had changed. Bernard Sanders staged a brilliantly effective challenge against Clinton’s march to her coronation, and only lost the nomination because Democratic Party insiders pulled every dirty trick they knew to bias the process against him. Then, instead of going up against another bland insider in the kind of tepid race to the center that can easily be clinched by vacuous advertising, she had to face Donald Trump, who had seen off every other Republican candidate with contemptuous ease, and who proceeded to turn the same tactics that won him the nomination on the Clinton campaign with devastating effect.

Now of course Clinton made Trump’s victory much easier than it had to be. All through the campaign, her attitude toward the election looked like nothing so much as what happens when someone puts money into a defective vending machine. She put in her quarter and pushed the right button, but the presidency didn’t drop into her hands. The rest of her campaign can be best described as a matter of jabbing the button over and over again, and finally pounding on the thing and screaming at it because it wouldn’t give Clinton the prize that she’d paid for. I honestly don’t think she ever considered the possibility that the electorate might not simply be a passive mechanism that would spit up a presidency for her if she just manipulated it in the right way. Until the night of November 8, I doubt it entered her darkest dream that the American people might decide to cast their votes to further their own interests rather than hers.

That analysis seems plausible to me for a variety of reasons, but high among them is the way that Clinton’s supporters among her own class-and-gender subcategory demanded that American women back the Clinton campaign for no reason at all. I’m thinking here particularly of Madeleine Albright, who made the news with an irate public statement insisting that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” That’s a common trope among a certain well-paid class of Second Wave feminists. It’s become controversial, and for good reason, among a great many other feminists, particularly in the partly overlapping sets of women of color and women in the working class. Listen to them, and you’ll hear at some length how they feel about being expected to help rich and influential women like Madeleine Albright pursue their goals, when they know perfectly well the favor won’t be returned in any way that matters.

What, after all, did a Clinton presidency offer the majority of American women, other than whatever vicarious rush of ersatz fulfillment they might get from having a female president? The economic policies Clinton espoused—the bipartisan consensus of the pre-Trump era, from which she showed no signs of veering in the slightest—blithely ignored the poverty and misery suffered by millions of American women who didn’t happen to share her privileged background and more than ample income. Her tenure as Secretary of State was marked by exactly the sort of hamfisted interventions in other people’s countries to which Democrats, once upon a time, used to object: interventions, please note, that were responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. If Clinton took the same attitudes with her into the White House, a good many American women might well have faced the experience of watching their family members come home in body bags from yet another brutal and pointless Mideast war.

The reaction to Albright’s public tantrum is in many ways as instructive as the tantrum itself. A great many American women simply didn’t buy it. More generally, no matter how furiously Clinton and her flacks hammered on the buttons of the vending machine, trying to elicit the mechanical response they thought they could expect, the voters refused to fall into line and respond passively to the magical images dragged in front of them. Trump and Sanders, each in his own way, showed too many people that it’s possible to hope for something other than business as usual. In their wake, a great many voters decided that they were no longer willing to vote for the lesser of two evils.

That’s a point of some importance. To my mind, it’s far from accidental that for the past few decades, every presidential election here in the United States has been enlivened by bumper stickers and buttons calling on voters to support the presidential ambitions of Cthulhu, the tentacled primeval horror featured in H. P. Lovecraft’s tales of cosmic dread. I’m sorry to say that the Great Old One’s campaign faces a serious constitutional challenge, as he was spawned on the world of Vhoorl in the twenty-third nebula and currently resides in the drowned corpse-city of R’lyeh, and as far as I know neither of these are U.S. territories. Still, his bids for the White House have gone much further than most other imaginary candidacies, and I’ve long thought that the secret behind that success is Cthulhu’s campaign slogan: “Why settle for the lesser evil?”

The reason that this slogan reliably elicits laughter, in turn, is that the entire rhetoric of presidential politics in the United States for decades now has fixated on the claim that one party’s pet stooge won’t do anything quite as appalling as the other side’s will, even though they all support the same policies and are bought and sold by the same interests. Over and over again, we’ve been told that we have to vote for whatever candidate this or that party has retched up, because otherwise the other side will get to nominate a Supreme Court justice or two, or get us into another war, or do something else bad. Any suggestion that a candidate might do something positive to improve the lot of ordinary Americans is dismissed out of hand as “unrealistic.”

What Trump’s election showed conclusively, in turn, was that the lesser-evil rhetoric and its fixation on “realistic” politics have passed their pull date. There are very good reasons for this. The pursuit of the lesser evil means that the best the American people are allowed to hope for is the continuation of the current state of things—that’s what you get, after all, if your only talking points fixate on stopping things from getting worse—and for most Americans today, the current state of things is unbearable. Cratering wages and soaring rents, a legal environment that increasingly denies even basic rights to everybody but corporations and the rich, an economy rigged to load ever-increasing costs on working people while funneling all the benefits to those who already have too much—well, you can fill in the list as well as I can. If you don’t happen to belong to the privileged classes, life in today’s America is rapidly becoming intolerable, and the “realistic” politics that both parties have pursued with equal enthusiasm for decades are directly responsible for making it intolerable. Thus the reason that a large and growing number of ordinary working Americans are refusing to accept another rehash of the status quo this time around is that their backs are to the wall.





That’s a situation that comes up reliably at a certain point in the history of every society. To make sense of that recurrent pattern, it will help to call on another thinker not often heard from these days, the German historian Oswald Spengler. A high school teacher by trade, dry and acerbic, he devoted his spare time over the course of several decades to a polymath’s banquet of historical studies. Unlike most Western historians of his time, he didn’t limit his studies to Europe and its dependencies: the politics of the League of Mayapan in preconquest Central America, the rise of gardening as one of the fine arts in Chinese society, the debates that shaped ancient Indian philosophy, all these and much more were grist for his mill.

We’ll talk further on about Spengler’s broader analysis and the unmentionable reasons why the favorite historian of the Beat poets has been consigned to oblivion today. The theme of his that needs discussion here is his analysis of the way that democracies die. Spengler argued that democracy suffers from a lethal vulnerability, which is that it has no defenses against the influence of money. Since most citizens are more interested in their own personal advantage than they are in the destiny of their nation, democracy turns into a polite fiction for plutocracy just as soon as the rich figure out how to buy votes, a lesson that rarely takes them long to learn.

The problem with plutocracy, in turn, is that it embodies the same fixation on personal advantage that gives it its entry to power, since the only goals that guide the rich in their plutocratic rule are personal wealth and gratification. Despite the foam-flecked ravings of economists, furthermore, it simply isn’t true that what benefits the very rich automatically benefits the rest of society as well. Quite the contrary, in the blind obsession with personal gain that drives the plutocratic system, the plutocrats generally lose track of the hard fact that too much profiteering can run the entire system into the ground. A democracy in its terminal years thus devolves into a broken society from which only the narrowing circle of the privileged derive any benefit. In due time, those excluded from that circle look elsewhere for leadership.

The result is what Spengler calls “Caesarism”: the rise of charismatic leaders who discover that they can seize power by challenging the plutocrats, addressing the excluded majority, and offering the latter some hope that their lot will be improved. Fairly often the leaders who figure this out come from within the plutocracy itself. Julius Caesar, who contributed his family name to Spengler’s vocabulary, was a very rich man from an old-money Senatorial family, and he’s far from the only example. In 1918, Spengler predicted that the first wave of Caesarism in the Western world was about to hit, that it would be defeated by the plutocrats, and that other, more successful waves would follow. He was dead right on the first two counts, and the 2016 election shows that the third prediction is coming true on schedule.

To a very real extent, Hillary Clinton’s faltering presidential campaign is a perfect microcosm of what Spengler had in mind in his cold analysis of democracy in extremis. Her entire platform presupposed that the only policies the United States can follow are those that have been welded in place since the turn of the millennium. Those policies have not brought any of the good things their promoters insisted that they were going to bring. Another four years of the same policies weren’t going to change that fact. Every American voter knew as much, and so did Hillary Clinton, which is why her campaign focused on everything but the issues that concerned the majority of American voters. That’s what lent a savage irony to Madeleine Albright’s brittle insistence that American women had to support Clinton even though, for all practical purposes, she was offering them exactly what they got from George W. Bush. Albright’s was the voice of a senile plutocracy on its way down, demanding a loyalty from others that it has done nothing to earn.

We got to see plenty of the same sort of irony as the election lurched toward its end. Clinton and her flacks kept on trying to reintroduce her to voters who already knew her quite well enough, thank you; there were endless encomiums about what a nice person she is—as though that mattered one jot to people who knew that four more years of the policies she supported might well have landed them out of a job and out on the street. Facile claims that everything was fine, the economy was booming, and the American people were happier than they had been in decades spread through the mass media. No doubt things looked that way to those who lived in a bubble of privilege, and took good care never to step outside it and see how the other 80 percent live. For that matter, it’s true that if you take the obscene gains raked in by the privileged few and average them out across the entire population, that looks like economic betterment—but those gains were not being shared by the entire population, and outside the comfortable classes, at least, the entire population knew this perfectly well.





That was where Donald Trump came in. In his own way, the man is brilliant, and I say that without the least trace of sarcasm. He figured out very early in his campaign for the nomination that the most effective way to rally voters to his banner was to get himself attacked, in the usual tones of shrill mockery, by the defenders of the status quo. The man had the money to pay for the kind of hairstyle that the salary class finds acceptable, to cite an obvious example. He deliberately chose otherwise, because he knew that every time the media trotted out another round of insults directed at his failure to conform to the fashions of the privileged, another hundred thousand working-class voters recalled the sneering putdowns they experienced from their supposed betters and thought, “Trump’s one of us.”

The identical logic governed his deliberate flouting of the current rules of acceptable political discourse, before and after the election. Every time Trump tweeted something that sent the pundits into a swivet, and the media set out to convince itself and its listeners that this time he’d gone too far and his campaign or his presidency would surely collapse in humiliation, his poll numbers went up. What he says, you see, is the sort of thing that you’ll hear people say in taverns and bowling alleys when subjects such as political corruption, media dishonesty, illegal immigration, and Muslim jihadi terrorism come up for discussion. The shrieks of the media simply confirm, in the minds of the voters to whom his appeal is aimed, that he’s one of them, an ordinary Joe with sensible ideas who’s being dissed by the suits.

Notice also how many of Trump’s early rounds of unacceptable-to-the-pundits comments focused with laser precision on the issue of immigration. That was a well-chosen opening wedge, as cutting off illegal immigration is something that the GOP has claimed to support for many years. As Trump broadened his lead during the campaign, in turn, he started to talk about another side of the equation, the offshoring of jobs by U.S.-based corporations. The corporate media response did a fine job of proving his case: “If smartphones were made in the United States, we’d have to pay more for them!” Of course that’s true: the comfortable classes will indeed have to pay more for their toys if working Americans are going to have jobs that pay enough to support a family. That this is unthinkable for so many people among the comfortable classes just named—that they’re perfectly happy allowing their electronics to be made for starvation wages in overseas hellholes, so long as this keeps the price down—may help explain the boiling cauldron of resentment into which Trump tapped so efficiently.

Those points were crucial, because the issue at the heart of the 2016 election was whether the bipartisan consensus, which had been welded firmly in place in American politics since George W. Bush’s first term, would stay intact. What set Donald Trump apart from nearly all the other candidates in the 2016 election was that he rejected core elements of that consensus: he called for an end to the federal policies that support offshoring of jobs, for the enforcement of U.S. immigration law, for sharp cuts in Federal regulation, and for a less rigidly confrontational stance toward Russia. To this day, Clinton’s supporters insist that nobody actually cared about these issues, and that Trump’s supporters were motivated by hateful values instead, but that rhetoric simply won’t wash. The reason why Trump was able to sweep aside the other GOP candidates and then win the election despite the unanimous opposition of this nation’s political class is precisely that he was the first presidential candidate in a generation to admit that the issues just mentioned actually matter.

That was a ticket to the nomination, in turn, because outside the bicoastal echo chamber of the affluent, the U.S. economy has spent decades in something close to freefall. The much-vaunted “recovery” of the Obama years benefited only the upper 20 percent or so by income of the population; the rest were left to get by on declining real wages, while having to face skyrocketing rents driven by federal policies that propped up the real estate market, and stunning increases in medical costs driven by the Affordable Care Act. It’s no accident that death rates from suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning soared among working-class people. They were being driven to despair and destitution by a bipartisan policy consensus from which only Donald Trump was willing to dissent.

Most of the time, affluent liberals who are quick to emote about the sufferings of poor children and endangered species in conveniently distant corners of the Third World like to brush aside the issues I’ve just raised as irrelevancies. I long ago lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people insist that the American working class isn’t suffering, that its suffering doesn’t matter, or that the suffering was the fault of the working classes themselves. (I’ve occasionally heard people attempt to claim all three of these things at once.) On those occasions when the mainstream Left deigns to recognize the situation I’ve just sketched out, it’s usually in the terms Hillary Clinton used in her famous “basket of deplorables” speech, in which she admitted that there were people who hadn’t benefited from the recovery and “we need to do something for them.” That the people in question might deserve to have a voice in what’s done for them, or to them, is not part of the vocabulary of affluent Americans.





Glance at all this through the precisely adjusted lenses of Oswald Spengler’s historical vision and the pattern is clear. Donald Trump is our Julius Caesar. How many people remember today that Caesar, rich as he was, was immensely popular with ordinary Romans, precisely because he spoke to them and for them against the interests of the immensely rich senatorial class that dominated the Roman Republic in its last century? Trump is just as popular because he fills the same historical role. The parallels are close enough that commenters on my blog early on took to referring to Trump as “the Orange Julius.”

Spengler drew an important distinction between those aspects of history that follow repeating patterns and those that vary from one example to the next: in his melodramatic language, between Destiny and Incident. In the case of Julius Caesar, it was Incident that he happened to be the political figure who recognized that riding the populist backlash against a kleptocratic senatorial class could be his ticket to power, but it was Destiny that someone would do this and act on it. It was Incident that the backlash against him would take the form of an assassination plot, but it was Destiny that there would be a backlash of some kind. It was Incident that his nephew Octavius would pick up where he left off—it could as well have been Mark Antony, Pompey, or Julius Caesar himself, if he had escaped assassination—but it was Destiny that someone would do so. It was Incident that the result was the replacement of the Republic with an imperial monarchy, rather than a major reform of the Republic, but it was Destiny that something had to give.

In exactly the same way, the personalities of Donald Trump and his opponents, the tactics that won him the election and the very different tactics that lost it for Hillary Clinton, the machinations of the Democrats since 2016 and the details of how those machinations play out, and the broader magical context in which those tactics and machinations have their place, are all Incident in Spengler’s sense of the term. What was Destiny was simply that sooner or later, an ambitious politician would figure out that addressing the concerns of the tens of millions whose voices had been shut out of the political conversation of our time was a ticket to power. Someone else would have done it if Trump hadn’t. At this point, of course, the proverbial cat is out of the bag. A generation of rising politicians have taken note of his success and are prepared to duplicate it in other elections and, once he’s gone, in the race for the presidency as well.

Trump’s opponents haven’t gotten that memo. As we’ll see in the chapters to come, there’s no way they could have gotten it, because their power depends on exactly the same willed blindness to the consequences of their preferred policies that Hillary Clinton displayed so colorfully all through her run for the presidency—a willed blindness that is the inescapable blowback from the style of magic she and they have used. It’s thus an unshakable article of faith among Trump’s foes that he has to be a temporary and incomprehensible aberration in the serene onward flow of a future that was supposed to give them everything they wanted. That conviction, too, is part of what Spengler would have called the Destiny of our times, and it set the stage for the magical politics of the 2016 election and the years that followed.

Magic, remember, is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will. The 2016 election and its aftermath make the most sense when they’re seen as a magical struggle between two parties of contending sorcerers. One party set out to summon certain unspeakable realities of American public life into visible appearance. The other party staked everything it had on an attempt to banish those same realities from sight forever. The two sides used radically different approaches to magic, and the success of one and the failure of the other unfolded from the mismatch between their approaches. Understand what those unspeakable realities are, how they reach down into the crawlspaces of American politics and culture, and how they made the mismatch of magical strategies inevitable, and you understand the history of our era.





2

Lengthening Shadows


Magic and the American Class System





In the desolate sky there was something that wearied, in the brooding clouds, something that saddened. It penetrated the freezing city by the freezing river. . . . A fine icy sleet was falling, powdering the pavement with a tiny crystalline dust. It sifted against the window-panes and drifted in heaps upon the sill. The light at the window had nearly failed, and the girl bent low over her work.



FROM “THE STREET OF THE FIRST SHELL” IN THE KING IN YELLOW





Every society has a set of acceptable narratives that frame public discourse about any controversial subject. The main function of these narratives is to confine discourse on those subjects to approved channels, and those approved channels inevitably exclude crucial details and head off necessary questions. That isn’t accidental; quite the contrary, it’s their job, the core of what the narratives in question are meant to do. It is part of the magic by which the status quo maintains the illusion of its own inevitability and heads off challenges before they can even be thought clearly.

In today’s United States, this is at least as true as elsewhere, and the saturation of our society by corporate advertising and public relations is among the major factors that make and keep it true. As a result, the facts concerning nearly every significant crisis we face can thus be divided up neatly into two entirely separate categories. The facts that most Americans are willing to talk about belong to one of these categories. The facts that matter belong to the other.

To understand the phenomenon of Donald Trump, in other words, we’ll need to leave behind a great many common assumptions about our society. In particular, it’s going to be necessary to ask my readers—especially, though not only, those who consider themselves liberals, or see themselves inhabiting some other position left of center in the convoluted landscape of American politics—to set aside a widespread but inaccurate belief: the notion that the only divisions in American society that matter are those that have some basis in biology. Skin color, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability—these are the lines of division in society that Americans like to talk about, whatever their attitudes to the people who fall on one side or another of those lines.

Please note, by the way, the four words above: “some basis in biology.” I’m not saying that these categories are purely biological in nature. Every one of them is defined in practice by a galaxy of cultural constructs and presuppositions, and the link to biology is an ostensive category marker—a pointing finger, if you will—rather than a definition. I insert this caveat because I’ve noticed that a great many people go out of their way to misunderstand the point I’m trying to make here.

Are the lines of division just named important? Of course they are. Discriminatory treatment on the basis of those factors is a pervasive presence in American life today. The facts remain that there are other lines of division in American society that lack that anchor in biology, that some of these are at least as pervasive in American life as those listed above—and that some of the most important of these are taboo topics, subjects that most people in the United States today simply will not talk about.

Here’s a relevant example. It so happens that you can determine a huge amount about the economic and social prospects of people in America today by asking one remarkably simple question: Where do they get most of their income? Broadly speaking—there are exceptions, to which I’ll get in a moment—it’s from one of four sources: returns on investment, a monthly salary with benefits, an hourly wage without benefits, or a government welfare check. People who get most of their income from one of those four things have a great many interests and experiences in common, so much so that it’s meaningful to speak of the American people as divided into an investment class, a salary class, a wage class, and a welfare class.

It’s probably necessary to point out explicitly here that these classes aren’t identical to the divisions that Americans like to talk about. That is, there are plenty of people with light-colored skin in the welfare class, and plenty of people with darker skin in the wage class. Things tend to become a good deal more lily-white in the two wealthier classes, though even there you do find people of color. In the same way, women, gay people, disabled people, and so on are found in all four classes, and how they’re treated depends a great deal on which of these classes they’re in. If you’re a disabled person, for example, your chances of getting meaningful accommodations to help you deal with your disability are by and large considerably higher if you bring home a salary than they are if you work for a wage.

As noted above, there are people who don’t fall into those divisions. I’m one of them. As a writer, I get most of my income from royalties on book sales and subscriptions from my online writings, which means that a dollar or so from the sale of every book of mine gets mailed to me twice a year and a certain number of people send me $5 or $10 a month via the internet. There are so few people who make their living this way that the royalty-and-subscription classlet isn’t a significant factor in American society. The same is true of most of the other ways of making a living in the United States today. Even the once-mighty profit class, the people who get their income from the profit they make on their own business activities, is small enough these days that it lacks a significant collective presence and thus any kind of political clout on the national level. The four categories I’ve listed above, by contrast, contain enough voters to matter.

There’s a vast amount that could be said about the four major classes just outlined, but I want to focus on the political dimension, because that took on overwhelming relevance in the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath. Just as the four classes can be identified by way of a very simple question, the political dynamite that blew the certainties of American politics to smithereens in that election can be seen by way of another simple question: over the half century or so before the 2016 election, how did the four classes fare?

The answer, of course, is that three of the four have remained roughly where they were. The investment class has had some rough sailing, as many of the investment vehicles that used to provide it with stable incomes—certificates of deposit, government bonds, and so on—have seen interest rates drop through the floor in recent decades. Still, alternative investments and frantic government manipulations of stock market prices have allowed most people in the investment class to keep up their accustomed lifestyles.

The salary class, similarly, has maintained its familiar privileges and perks through a half century of convulsive change. Outside of a few coastal urban areas currently in the grip of speculative bubbles, people whose income comes mostly from salaries with benefits can generally afford to own their homes, buy new cars every few years, leave town for annual vacations, and so on. On the other end of the spectrum, the welfare class has continued to scrape by pretty much as before, dealing with the same bleak realities of grinding poverty, intrusive government bureaucracy, and a galaxy of direct and indirect barriers to full participation in the national life, that their equivalents had to confront back in 1966.

And the wage class? Over the half century leading up to 2016, the American wage class has been destroyed.





In 1966 an American family with one breadwinner working full time at an hourly wage could normally count on having a home, a car, three square meals a day, and the other ordinary necessities of life, with some left over for the occasional luxury. In 2016, an American family with one breadwinner working full time at an hourly wage was probably living on the street, and a vast number of people who would happily work full time even under those conditions could find only part-time or temporary work when they could find any jobs at all. The catastrophic impoverishment and immiseration of the American wage class is one of the most important political facts of our time—and it is also one of the most unmentionable. Until Trump, it was so thoroughly hedged about with magical spells that next to nobody was willing to talk about it, or even admit that it happened. Even today, it remains one of the least discussed issues in contemporary American life.

The destruction of the wage class was largely accomplished by way of three major shifts. The first was the dismantling of the industrial sector of the American economy and its replacement by imports from the Third World. The second was the tacit encouragement of mass illegal immigration from Third World countries. The third was the metastatic growth of government regulations that consistently benefited large corporations at the expense of small businesses. All three of these measures are, among other things, ways of driving down wages—not, please note, salaries, returns on investment, or welfare payments—by means of the law of supply and demand. Decrease the number of wage-paying jobs on the one hand, and increase the number of people competing for those jobs on the other, and wages on average go down: yes, it really is that simple.

It’s probably going to be necessary to discuss these three factors in a little more detail, since a great deal of obfuscatory rhetoric has been deployed to confuse the issues surrounding them. Ever since David Ricardo first proposed the theory of free trade in the early nineteenth century, it has been a matter of blind faith among devout economists that free trade must be good for everyone, because it allows people in every country to specialize in whatever kind of economic activity they do best. In theory, maybe; in practice, since wages make up the bulk of production costs in the vast majority of industries, what happens is that jobs move to wherever wages and standards of living are lowest, driving down wages in countries with higher standards of living. This is why Britain’s immense nineteenth-century economic boom time also featured the catastrophic impoverishment of the working classes that Charles Dickens chronicled so ably. It is also why U.S. manufacturing jobs shipped overseas were never replaced, despite easy promises made by politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle.

U.S. immigration policy had the same effect in a different way. Under the policies in place up to 2016, legal immigration to the United States was relatively difficult but illegal immigration was easy. The result was the creation of an immense work force of noncitizens who had no legal rights they had any hope of enforcing, and who could be used by corporate interests—and were used, over and over again—to drive down wages, degrade working conditions, and advance the interests of employers over those of wage-earning employees.

The metastatic expansion of government regulation in the United States, finally, had the same effect in yet a third way. One of the reliable findings of economic research is that small businesses generate many more jobs per dollar of economic activity than large businesses. Federal regulations, in turn, systematically benefit large businesses at the expense of their smaller competitors in a galaxy of ways from the subtle to the blatant, and thus choke off one of the economy’s prime engines of job creation for the wage class.

The next point that needs to be discussed here—and it’s the one at which a very large number of my readers will likely balk—is who benefited most from the destruction of the American wage class. It has long been fashionable in what passed for American conservatism in the pre-Trump era to insist that everyone benefits from the changes just outlined, or to claim that if anybody doesn’t, it’s their own fault. It’s been equally popular in what passes for American liberalism to insist that the only people who benefit from those changes are the villainous ubercapitalist running dogs who belong to the 1 percent. Both these are evasions because the destruction of the wage class has disproportionately benefited one of the four classes I sketched out above: the salary class.

Here’s how that worked. Since the 1970s, the lifestyles of the salary class—suburban homeownership, a new car every few years, overseas vacations, and so on—have been an anachronism. They were only possible for a while because of the global economic dominance the United States wielded in the wake of the Second World War, when every other major industrial nation on the planet had its factories pounded to rubble by the bomber fleets of the warring powers, and the oil wells of Pennsylvania, Texas, and California pumped more oil than the rest of the planet put together. That dominance went away in a hurry, though, when U.S. conventional petroleum production peaked in 1970, and the factories of Europe and Asia began to outcompete America’s industrial heartland.

The only way for the salary class to maintain the lavish lifestyles it preferred in the teeth of those transformations was to force down the cost of goods and services relative to their own buying power. Because the salary class exercised (and still exercises) a degree of economic and political influence disproportionate to its size, this became the order of the day in the 1970s, and it remained the locked-in political consensus in American public life until 2016. The destruction of the wage class was only one consequence of that project, but it’s the consequence that matters most in terms of today’s politics.

All this was possible because since the Second World War, the salary class has been in the ascendant across the industrial world. Read novels from before then, and it’s taken for granted in such tales that what sets people apart as members of the privileged classes is the possession of enough investment income that they don’t have to work. I’m thinking here, because it’s a favorite book of mine, of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. In the denouement, the detail that tells you that the protagonist Larry Darrell is on his way to a destiny most of the other characters can neither follow nor understand is that he has gotten rid of his investments, given the money away, and thus irrevocably removed himself from among the self-proclaimed Good People of his era.

If Maugham were writing today, Darrell’s quest for freedom would have had him quit a job with a seven-figure salary and an ample benefits package, because that’s what marks you in today’s world as one of the Good People, or in other words a member of the privileged end of the salary class. The ascendancy of the salary class explains why in 1920, the CEOs of major corporations were the obsequious lackeys of the boards of directors, while now it’s the other way around. It’s also why interest rates, the most basic measure of the returns that provide the investment class with their income, have spent so many years at rock-bottom levels. Members of the salary class borrow more money than they invest, and so benefit from low interest rates; members of the investment class invest more than they borrow. The level at which interest rates are set is thus a good first measure of the balance of power between the two classes.

The ascendancy of the salary class also explains why every proposal enacted to help the two less prosperous classes, to benefit the environment, or to solve any other problem you care to name, always benefits the salary class far more than it does the purported beneficiaries of the proposal. Consider the loudly ballyhooed claims of the last couple of decades that unemployed members of the wage class could get back on board the bandwagon of prosperity by going to college and getting job training. That didn’t work out very well for the people who signed up for the student loans and took the classes—getting job training, after all, isn’t helpful if the jobs for which you’re being trained don’t exist, and so a great many former wage earners finished their college careers with no better job prospects than they had before, and burdened with hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt into the bargain. For the banks and colleges that pushed the loans and taught the classes, though, these programs were a cash cow of impressive scale, and the people who work for banks, colleges, and federal and state education bureaucracies are mostly members of the salary class.

This is also why the environmental reforms promoted by well-founded think tanks and corporate media outlets impose costs solely on farmers, coal miners, and other people outside the salary class, while the earth-wrecking behaviors of the salary class—the frequent-flyer miles, the long commutes in SUVs, the vacations in Puerto Vallarta or Mazatlan, the sprawling and nearly uninsulated McMansions that use as much electricity as a city block in eastern Europe or an entire town in Indonesia, and the rest of it—get a free pass. Any time you see an environmental protest that focuses on getting governments to do something, while neglecting the massive carbon footprints of the people involved in the protest, you’re looking at a display of salary-class privilege. The same points can be made just as precisely of sprawling bureaucratic welfare systems that pay miserable benefits to their supposed beneficiaries but provide vast numbers of college graduates with salaries and benefits, and so on through the litany of covert privilege that defines so much of the social landscape of our era.

The ascendancy of the salary class was defended, as the ascendancy of any dominant class is normally defended, by the magical strategy made famous by Margaret Thatcher’s notorious slogan “There Is No Alternative”—TINA for short. By redefining the collective conversation so that only one set of policies is thinkable, it’s possible to prevent any discussion of alternatives even when the policies in question have disastrous consequences for a very large share of the population. That gambit works even if there’s some degree of social mobility, so long as you make agreement with the policies in question one of the unwavering requirements for access to influence and wealth.

Educational systems are the usual venue for this filtering process. Whether you’re in the Chinese Empire and aspire to influence and wealth through membership in the mandarinate, or in the British Empire and aspire to influence and wealth through membership in the imperial civil service, or in modern America and aspire to influence and wealth through membership in this or that corporate hierarchy, the same rule applies: your chance of fulfilling those aspirations depends on your unswerving allegiance to whatever set of ideas your superiors want you to have, which are in turn those that maintain your superiors in power.





This has been the case now for quite a while in the United States, and the nations of the industrial West more broadly. Among those who have wealth and influence as well as those who aspire to both, the approved range of political, economic, social, and cultural attitudes is very narrow and very rigidly defined. Those who are rich enough can get away with violating those norms from time to time, so long as none of their rivals decides to use their strayings as a weapon against them. Those less privileged, though, have to watch their every word and action, knowing that these are being watched by their rivals and superiors. The ones who pass that test, who have talents and skills their superiors value, and who also have a larger than usual helping of old-fashioned luck, can hope to enter the lower circles of our society’s aristocracy.

That’s what we’re talking about, of course. “Aristocracy” isn’t a word that sees much use in that context, but it has more than a little to teach. As the term itself implies—it comes from the Greek words aristoi, “the best,” and krateia, “power, rule”—an aristocracy is a group of people who believe that they rule because they’re better than everyone else. The sense in which they consider themselves better is subject to all the usual historical and cultural vagaries, of course, but as an aristocracy ripens, those vagaries give way to an interesting uniformity.

Consider the meanings of the words noble and gentle in today’s English. Originally, those words meant simply “belonging to the upper class.” Similarly, consider the meanings of the words churl and villain in today’s English. Originally those words meant nothing more than “a member of the lower classes.” Those details of linguistic history express the standard pattern just mentioned. Every aristocracy comes to believe that it’s morally superior to the people it rules. Aristocrats inevitably think of themselves as the Good People, the morally virtuous people, and they just as inevitably work out an ornate code of virtue signaling that’s used to communicate their notional goodness to others of their class, and to exclude the rabble.

This matter of exclusion is of high importance. Every aristocracy is defined by who it excludes, but tries to excuse that definition in terms of what it excludes. That’s what underlies both the pervasive virtue signaling of today’s comfortable classes and the constant shifts in which virtue signals are expected. Both these are essential to the function of virtue signals as class signals—ways by which those who belong to today’s American aristocracy, or who aspire to that status, can make themselves stand apart from the deplorable masses.

Such signals have become of great importance due to recent shifts in the composition of America’s aristocracy. Not much more than a century ago, the upper end of the social pyramid in this country was defined strictly by gender and ethnic markers: the highest circles of power were restricted to heterosexual men whose ancestors all came from northwestern Europe, whose cultural background was overwhelmingly Anglo-American, and who went on Sundays to the Episcopalian (or, more rarely, Methodist) church. That set of criteria for exclusion made other kinds of class signal less necessary—a detail that permitted some degree of variation in behavior and opinions among aristocrats and those who aspired to their status.

As times changed and the American aristocracy caught onto the dangers of excluding too many of the talented, the criteria of exclusion changed. Over the course of the twentieth century, political and cultural markers replaced ethnic and gender markers to a certain extent. While most of the people in the highest circles of power still bear a close resemblance to their equivalents in 1900—look at a group photo of the U.S. Senate some time—a modest trickle of women and ethnic minorities have been permitted to rise into those same ranks, so long as they embraced all the right opinions, engaged in all the right virtue signaling, and shed all but the thinnest cosmetic veneer of whatever ethnic culture they or their immediate ancestors might have had.

The shift in the criteria of exclusion left a fascinating track through the history of popular culture in the United States. As with most such tracks, this one is best followed by way of a specific example. The one I have in mind is a simple musical instrument. It could once be found all over the subculture of the politically avant-garde, but at this point it has been erased from that setting, and the received history of the American Left, as thoroughly as one of Stalin’s rivals from a Politburo group photo. The instrument I have in mind is the mountain dulcimer.

Mention the word dulcimer nowadays, and dollars will get you doughnuts most of your listeners will think you’re talking about the hammered dulcimer, an ancestor of the piano with a long history in various corners of Eurasia. The mountain dulcimer, Appalachian dulcimer, or lap dulcimer—all three terms have been used for it—is not a hammered dulcimer. It’s plucked or strummed, not played with hammers; it’s got four strings, asymmetrically arranged; it’s got a fretboard like a guitar, but with oddly spaced frets—music geeks will recognize it as a diatonic rather than a chromatic fretboard. It’s made in various shapes and played in various styles, and it came into being somewhere in the southern end of Appalachia, where half a dozen old European folk instruments may have helped inspire the anonymous craftspeople who originated it a couple of centuries ago.

It’s easy to make a dulcimer that sounds good, even if you’re dirt poor and your access to raw materials is limited to what you can get in a little village up in the mountains of Kentucky or Georgia, and it’s easy to learn how to play it well enough to provide a little additional beauty to the folk songs and Christian hymns that make up most of traditional Appalachian musical culture. That’s why the mountain dulcimer became one of the standard folk instruments across the Appalachians, and that, in turn, is why Jean Ritchie learned it as she grew up in the little town of Viper, Kentucky. Later, she left home to get trained in social work, which is how she ended up in New York City, where local beatniks (that’s how the word hipsters was spelled in those days) were entranced by her dulcimer music.

Folk music, you see, was the music of the avant-garde back then—and no, we’re not talking about the folk music of foreign cultures conveniently distant from the gritty realities of American life. If you were young and hip in the 1950s, you listened to American folk music. That wasn’t the only thing the avant-garde liked to hear, to be sure. Folk music from some other countries, notably Ireland, also got substantial audiences in that demographic. Jazz was another major musical genre there, the more recherché the better—you can still get a reminiscent smile onto the face of people who were there at the time by mentioning Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, et al.—but American folk music was one of the common musical currencies of the alternative scene in those days.

Think about that for a moment: the cultural avant-garde, politically liberal, socially conscious, idealistic . . . listening enthusiastically to the music of the deplorables. Unthinkable as it is today, that was a widespread social reality from the 1950s through the 1970s.

That’s the way things were when Jean Ritchie found her dulcimer playing attracting the rapt attention of beatniks in New York City. Of course the inevitable happened; craftspeople with a taste for woodworking started making dulcimers, starry-eyed young people started playing them, and for some decades thereafter, the mountain dulcimer was a minor phenomenon all across the leftward end of society. You could get instructional books from all the folk music publishers, you could buy dulcimers in any well-equipped folk music store, and the drone-andmelody version of “Boil Them Cabbage Down”—traditionally the first tune everyone learns on the dulcimer—could be heard in pretty much every corner of the country.

Of course none of this happened in a vacuum. From the 1950s through the early 1980s, folk culture—honest, handmade, endearingly clunky, and regionally specific—was a major resource for the leftward end of alternative culture. High technology marketed by big corporations? That was the mark of the Establishment, which had about the same connotations in the youth culture of the time that the Mark of the Beast has among rock-ribbed Christian fundamentalists today. A great many people, not all of them young by any means, recognized the downsides of dependence on a profit-centered and environmentally destructive corporate industrial system, and folk crafts, folk music, and folk culture generally were among the resources they used to build an alternative.





I spent a lot of time underfoot in the Pacific Northwest version of that subculture in my teen years. It overlapped to a great extent with the appropriate-technology scene, which was a major interest of mine; unsurprisingly, a lot of people who recognized that modern industrial society was sawing off the branch on which it sat found plenty to learn from regional folk cultures that didn’t depend anything like so much on the products of fossil-fueled industry. It also overlapped to nearly as large an extent with the alternative-spirituality scene, which was another major interest of mine; unsurprisingly, a lot of people who were passionately exploring the far reaches of human potential in those days found plenty to value in learning to do and make things for themselves, rather than sucking at the teat of the industrial economy.

What I didn’t realize, as I strummed out “Boil Them Cabbage Down” on my first mountain dulcimer, helped build a wind turbine for a little communal farm in Bellingham, Washington, and immersed myself in the daily meditations and abstruse studies of traditional Western occultism, was that the overlapping subcultures that appealed so strongly to me were in their last autumnal days before the coming of a bitter winter. I recall with quite some clarity the day in the mid-1980s that I walked into a folk music store in Seattle to find not a single book of mountain dulcimer music, and a question to the store clerk got the snarled response, “We don’t carry that stuff here.”

That was when the avant-garde dropped American folk music like a hot rock, and “folk music” thereafter meant the music of folk cultures distant enough from the United States to be wrapped in a warm glow of romantic fantasy. Right around that same time, the periodicals that catered to the avant-garde stopped talking about crafts and folk culture, and started babbling instead about the wonders of the newly hatched internet and the gaudy high-tech future we were all going to get once we stopped asking hard questions about the environment and got with the program. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, it was morning in America, and this nation was on its way into a long vacation from reality.

None of this should have been unexpected. It’s not at all uncommon for a rising social movement in American public life to start out embracing American folk culture and end up stuffing it into the first convenient memory hole it could find. Nor is it the first time that the poor and working-class people of the flyover states have found themselves suddenly redefined, by one and the same middle-class cultural sector, from adorable to deplorable.

Go into any library that hasn’t done a thorough job of censoring the past via Orwellian purges of its book collection—a fashionable habit these days among library administrators—and you may just find a copy of the Works Project Administration folklore and folk culture handbook for your state. Back in the early days of the New Deal, young idealists fired up by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision of national unity prowled the backroads of the nation, taking down stories and songs and folk customs. American folk music was a hot cultural property then, too, when Burl Ives was a young man and Woodie Guthrie was still on the right side of the grass. Fast forward twenty years or so, and those same individuals, no longer young and not half so idealistic as they claimed, were cultivating a taste for opera and pretending they’d never so much as seen a guitar. Their children in the Sixties, of course, then followed the same trajectory in turn.

That trajectory has a long history. It happened in the Progressive era; it happened among the Transcendentalists, whose vegetarian, pacifist, long-haired hippie communes circa 1820 gave Nathaniel Hawthorne the raw material for his brilliant novel The Blithedale Romance; it happened before the Revolutionary War, when communes sprouted in rural Pennsylvania and Rhode Island was a hotbed of occultism and deviant religion. After the middle-class turn to folk culture comes the turn away from it: the former radicals sell out, settle down, embrace everything they claimed they’d rejected forever, and become clones of the older generation they once affected to despise.

Behind this dynamic is the most enduring of the cultural divides in American society, the chasm between the urban enclaves of the periphery—prosperous, irreligious, and culturally dependent on European models—and the impoverished hinterlands, with their loyalty to Protestant religiosity and American folk culture. That divide came into being long before the Revolutionary War and it’s been a massive influence on our culture and politics ever since. What makes this relevant to the present subject is that the peripheral urban enclaves are the seats of institutional power in the United States, while the rural hinterlands are an immense but usually inert source of political power