April 24, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
‘Light and Heat,’ the Politics of the Occult
It doesn't make any sense, because it's not supposed to.
Since the start of the pandemic, the president has acted often as if a cure for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, were just around the corner. He does this, I suppose, because someone somewhere is going to believe him as long as he says it with enough confidence. (And Donald Trump is nothing if not bigly confident.)
One of his advisers must have told him that hydroxychloroquine, an old malaria treatment, was being studied as a possible remedy. That was enough for the president to blow up a possibility into a guaranteed reality. Of course, someone somewhere believed him, took it and died. The FDA issued a warning today, saying that um, yes, ingesting it might actually kill you. Otherwise, it had no effect on the seriously ill.
It’s natural to call Trump an idiot. It’s understandable to call him deranged. But I’d like to suggest another view.
That Trump was proven wrong is no impediment to continuing his shuck and jive. This president will not recognize the authority of facts, reason, scientific method or empirical truth. Yesterday, during a press briefing, he hinted at another surefire cure that, again, someone somewhere is almost certainly going to believe, inject and die.
I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets inside the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs.
In front of TV cameras, Trump also asked the White House task force coordinator, Deborah Birx, to look into “a rumor that—you know, a very nice rumor—that you go outside in the sun or you have heat and it does have an effect on other viruses.” Addressing the good doctor, the president added: “Speak to the medical doctors to see if there’s any way that you can apply light and heat to cure, you know, if you could.”
It’s natural to call Trump an idiot. It’s understandable to call him deranged. A more sophisticated reaction might be that he’s a conspiracy theorist or a fascist demagogue or an anti-intellectual populist. I have touched on all of these. But today, I’d like to suggest another view: that Donald Trump’s politics are the politics of the occult.
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I’m borrowing from Joan Didion’s Political Fictions. In the introduction, she explains her difficulty comprehending the 1988 election. “There remained about domestic politics something resistant, recondite, some occult irreconcilability that kept all news of it just below my attention level. The events of the campaign as reported seemed to have taken place in a language I did not recognize. The stakes of election as presented did not compute. … I could clearly bring no access, no knowledge, no understanding.”
Didion’s chief complaint in her classic analysis is that the campaign press corps invents a vernacular that only those already inside the machinations of Washington can understand, leaving those outside the circles of power to wonder what it all means, which is detrimental to the American principle of democratic self-determination.
I think “occult” can be adapted for our own times if we think of it as more than belief in “vampires or fairies and movements like ufology and parapsychology,” to quote occultism’s Wikipedia entry. If we think of the politics of the occult as those things just outside our normal human comprehension, things just behind the reach of our senses and our reason, but also things hostile toward established knowledge, then virtually everything associated with Trump is more coherent, because it’s clear it’s not supposed to be clear—unless, you’re already on the inside the politics of the occult.
None of it makes sense, because it was never intended to make sense, and forcing it to make sense empowers it.
Coronavirus protesters, sovereign citizen militias, Deep State conspiracists, QAnon (the belief that Democrats worship Satan and have orgies with children), and even white evangelical Christian preachers defying stay-at-home orders and turning congregants into idolaters—all of these and more can be better described as variations on a theme of the politics of the occult. None of it makes sense, because it was never intended to make sense, and our trying to force it to make sense actually empowers it.
I don’t intent to besmirch the good names of genuine believers in the occult or the earth-centered religion of magick. (I’m thinking specifically of the late Margot Adler, an esteemed NPR reporter and Wiccan priestess who wrote the book that established what’s now known as neopaganism.) But the fact is, occultism has a bad reputation, and I’m not above exploiting it to put Trump’s politics in a rhetorical box.
So the next time a white evangelical preacher says his followers can defend against the new coronavirus by drenching themselves in the blood of Christ, know he’s not practicing the Christian faith so much as practicing the politics of the occult. Same thing goes for anyone deciding it’s a good idea to inject themselves with bleach.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.