I recently read and enjoyed John Michael Greer’s The King in Orange: The Magical and Occult Roots of Political Power (2021). Comparisons are likely be made with Gary Lachman’s Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (2018), a book that I’ve mentioned previously. Both examine the magickal aspects of Trump’s election to US President, but from very different perspectives. Lachman might be said to have written more on the political dimension of magick, whereas Greer addresses the magical dimension of politics. Lachman’s book is more academic. Greer’s, with its forays into aeonics and prophecy, is clearly slanted towards occultists.
Greer warns us at the outset “this book won’t be easy reading” (Greer 2021: 9) because to understand the rise of Trump it is necessary to confront issues of class prejudice that both liberals and conservatives have done their best to render unsayable. In reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, Greer has provoked indignation for supposed pro-Trumpism. I think this is too simplistic. It seems to me that Greer has no great love specifically for The Donald:
[A] brash and blustering New York real estate mogul who’d taken up a second career as a wrestling promoter and a third as a reality television star […] someone was going to do it sooner or later. Trump happened to be the person who got swept up in this particular tide and carried by it to an improbable destiny. (Greer 2021: 170)
Greer does not tell us who he voted for in 2016, but he does state that he voted (Greer 2021: 12). My guess would be that he voted for Trump. Personally, I could never have done that, but if Greer did then it was with the best intentions:
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 […] If you don’t happen to belong to the privileged classes, life in today’s America is rapidly becoming intolerable (Greer 2021: 25-6)
Not many Trump enthusiasts would argue, as Greer does, that the Democrats idiotically rigged their own nomination process to exclude Bernie Sanders, and that – had he been allowed to stand – Sanders would have won (Greer 2021: 17). In fact, I am not sure I can share Greer’s faith in that, having witnessed in the UK the outcome of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 General Election campaign, which demonstrated, yet again, the enduring determination of turkeys to vote for Christmas.
Greer attributes Trump’s rise to the class conflict between the “wage class” and “salaried class”, tracing the deep origins of this split in the geography and history of the US. I suspect that he uses these terms rather than “working class” and “middle class” to make his analysis sound a little less Marxist than it actually is. Where Greer certainly departs from Marxism, however, is in his scepticism that class struggle leads inevitably or justifiably to “an orgy of revolutionary violence” (Greer 2021: 63).
Greer has identified himself as a Burkean conservative, influenced by the writings of the political philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797). “[W]hen human beings try to set up a system of government based on abstract principles, rather than allowing it to take shape organically out of historical experience”, Greer asserts, “the results will pretty reliably be disastrous” (Greer 2016). This grounded and pragmatic perspective originates from Burke’s ideas on how the high ideals that propelled the French Revolution of 1789 nevertheless led to appalling outcomes.
Searching inside myself, this is not a perspective I share. The English Civil War (1642-1651) is a period that fascinates me, because I always felt a strong affinity with the Parliamentarian side. Had I been on the scene, no doubt I could not have resisted supporting that monumental decision to execute the king. Even though this had no historical precedent, and the consequences were not foreseeable – although it must have been apparent they could be dire (as, indeed, Cromwell’s rule turned out to be) – I could not have passed up such a unique opportunity to destroy a tyrant and enter into something utterly new. I am not necessarily proud of this, but I know what I am like, and considering the many other revolutionary debacles of history, it seems plenty of others share this trait.
Greer, with disarming honesty, outlines some of his own affiliations. He describes the predicament of those denied membership of the salaried class: “a familiar subculture for me, not least because I belong to it: a great many occultists these days do” (Greer 2021: 93-4).
How would a vote for Trump square with Burkean conservatism? Caution, compromise, stability, the safeguarding of proven institutions – Trump neither promised nor delivered any of these. Greer highlights similarities between Trump and Julius Caesar: both wealthy aristocrats who bypassed their political class and appealed directly to the masses (Greer 2021: 31). Is this the basis of a Burkean apology for Trump – that being a modern Caesar makes him a known, dependable entity?
I would suggest that maybe the supposed “abstract principles” that revolutionary political systems have been founded upon are, in truth, nowhere near abstract enough. Surely, rights and ideals are notions born of human suffering and of history, just like any other notion. Revolution, therefore, is not necessarily a metaphysical delusion. It, too, is an ancestral bequest. I suspect no one seriously believes they are obeying a metaphysical imperative if they relieve Charles I and Louis XVI of their heads, or stick it to the Democrats by voting for Trump. We do these things because – honestly and humanly – we hope it will make us feel better.
The consequences of the French Revolution appeared horrendous to Burke in the 1790s. They seemed horrendous still to Margaret Thatcher at its bicentenary (Johnson 1989). In her comments, she pretty much channelled the ghost of Burke. But her views on the revolution were in the minority by then and widely criticised. How (and when) can we ever judge an action from “historical experience” when, evidently, the meaning of this shifts radically over time?
We are powerless to be anything other than human, but does this mean that to be human is to be powerless?
This is a question that perhaps haunts The King in Orange, and maybe Greer’s writing and approach to magick in general. He rejects the contemporary view that magick originates in the conscious choices of human beings. Instead, a proficient magician will aim to “trim their sails accordingly and not waste time and effort trying to sail into the teeth of a rising gale” (Greer 2021: 126). For Greer, the fledgling chaotes whose meme magick conjured Trump into office were ignorant of this, “swept up in something over which they had no control at all. The shortest description of 2016 is that that’s what happened” (Greer 2021: 101).
His fascination with the Lovecraftian mythos seems to provide an arena for these themes. Greer has created an entire cycle of Lovecraft-inspired novels in which the elder gods, monsters, and their human adherents are actually the good guys: “just one more religious minority targeted by hateful propaganda and violent persecution” (Greer 2021: 7). This inversion suggests it is alliance with the non-human that offers salvation, in contrast to the “crazed rationalists” of the other side, fomenting a human-driven ecological collapse.
For Lovecraft, the other was horrific, yet all too real and alive. But what is terrifying to Greer, it seems, is the rigid, bloodless deathliness that arises from a wilful exclusion of the other. The pallid revolutionary renounces the non-human, without recognising that this severs their connection to the basis of human life. Unlike Lovecraft, an unusual presence is a lesser horror to Greer than familiar absence.
Personally, I am not convinced that building the New Jerusalem necessarily follows this trajectory. But from the perspective Greer takes, maybe it becomes understandable how the overt awfulness of Trump might seem to command a greater appeal than the righteous nastiness of the lesser evil.
John Michael Greer (2021). The King in Orange: The Magical and Occult Roots of Political Power. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
John Michael Greer (2016). A Few Notes on Burkean Conservatism, https://tinyurl.com/3vnrmrzz (resilience.org). Accessed October 2021.
Maureen Johnson (1989). Thatcher Remarks Renew France and Britain Rivalry, https://tinyurl.com/yuuennhn (apnews.com). Accessed October 2021.
Gary Lachman (2018). Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump. New York: TarcherPerigree.