Saturday, January 16, 2021

Liberate Criticism: Trump’s Rolling Reopen Revolts & Their Roots at the Intersection of Religion & Counterculture


Originally shared with friends via email in late April and early May 2020. Seems incredibly important to share publicly after 1-6-2021

I’m not in any regard a real serious fan of click-bait, hot-takes, or of-the-moment think-pieces, but the rolling revolts of the reopen America movement have really captured my attention, so my following mixture of sober observation and wild speculation about this whole unfolding drama. Maybe you can find some insights herein, maybe this is evidence I have been staying home too long. 

To begin, I have seen a lot of utterly baffled and indignant liberals and lefties denouncing this movement as the ultimate in white privilege hypocrisy and anti-science stupidity. We are social-distancing, not because we do not miss our families, schools, churches, concerts, games, and the like, but because we understand the communal, compassionate rationale for sheltering in place, together apart. 

Some of the denunciations reach a pitch of such demonization, part and parcel to the current polarization, that it’s hard to imagine my colleagues and comrades would be so deaf to the romantic adrenaline, the innate humanity, and passionately libertarian logic of the protesters. Mind you, I don’t agree with any of it, but I am trying to “get it.” In other times and contexts and for different causes, we would be the first to join the caravans and fuel the freedom rides. 

So the certain certainty of our dismissals frustrates me, in part because even on social media, I welcome postures that seek unity and commonality even across these divisive divides, but moreso, because a part of me not-so secretly sympathizes with the protesters rhetoric for the relaxation of restrictions and their hunger for human connection. For another, I would love to see people leave the Trump scene behind, not get more deeply recruited into its folds, because they are fiercely libertarian anti-quarantine. 

In fact for me, ideologies since 11/9/2016 have so cross-pollinated, fused, and mutated, such that I see folks on “both sides” (forgive me I hate these endless equivocations) lose their place in the cultural narrative. The strange appeal and disdain surrounding the Tulsi Gabbard presidential run would be a perfect example of this, but there are so many more, as we will soon see traces in different places. 

To be honest, I too have bristled at the more belligerent supporters of the shutdown, with their apparent need to police how others practice their social distancing. Early in my collection of pandemic poetry (to be published soon, I hope), I penned a piece of sympathy for the spring break revelers. Not that I supported the behaviors, but rather, I understood the kids’ determination to keep their plans to party. In retrospect, early March seems so early in this arc, that we really didn’t know that much then about all the coming risk, death, and devastation. 

But something triggered inside me watching the Michigan protests. I lived in that great Great Lake state for 12 formative teenage and twenty-something years in the last century, and it holds such a special place in my heart. While I have not followed Governor Whitmer closely, she is a powerful Democrat, alleged on the short-list for Biden’s VP. In part due to the heart-breaking Covid 19 disaster in my dear Detroit, the Michigan shutdown has been strict. The internet-fueled insurrection there in Lansing, in Ohio, Kentucky, elsewhere, however, egged-on by Trump’s “liberate” tweets has given me great pause, prompting some speculation herein.

To begin, late April is terrible timing. Last week, this week, next week, we should remember all the anniversaries: Oklahoma City Bombing, Waco standoff, Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, and the far-far-right’s favorite--Hitler’s birthday. This unfolding and unraveling moment seems like a mess of extremist memes, coming to life before our very eyes. Mix all this with the warming spring weather and generalized cabin fever, and I fear this is only the beginning of a highly contentious, chaotic, destabilizing spring and summer. 

I decided I needed to write and share this, this week, because my hunch is that some of this could get much worse and fall off the rails if the worst elements were to get out of hand. I want to be wrong about this getting violent. Many of the “open America” protesters are pleading that they come from a good place. In the first part of this piece, I have tried to show how I sort-of get them, to a point.

When I got to Tennessee toward the end of the Clinton years, I was a leftish anti-authoritarian who had not voted for a President since Jesse Jackson in the 1988 Michigan primary, and I would have loved to have been at the Battle of Seattle. Always a mystic, I was a lapsed Christian who dabbled in Taoism, Buddhism, New Age, and neopagan practices, most closely aligned with the feminist activist Starhawk. Some of my other best influences were the anarchist writer Hakim Bey and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. I also marched incessantly against Bush 2 and the endless wars, after finding jobs as a university instructor in two different Tennessee college towns, while living amid a rural counterculture that mixed hippies and homesteaders. Today, I am again Christian, even a theologian and pastor. The neopagan piece will come relevant in a moment. 

Early in the new century, I started to notice a certain trend and tendency around the second college town where I landed. I called them the intersection of “Granola” and “Good Ol’Boy.” Others would just call them hippy rednecks or redneck hippies. But some of them were more born-again Christian beatnik espresso hipsters or buzzed-and-dyed Jesus rockers in leather jackets with goth paintings saying “This Blood’s For You.” I wasn’t sure if this was just Tennessee, but a conservative author would later identify these folks as a determined radical milieu. Please see Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (Or at Least the Republican Party).

What I am getting at here is this: there has always been an actual “alt” as in “alternative counterculture” in the so-called alt-right. So for one, don’t think these protesters today are just leftovers from the Klan rallies when MLK day was initiated in the 1980s or leftovers from the militia movement of the late 1990s, but this surge of course pleases said legacies. The far-right has been holed up on outrageous outposts of the internet for a long time, and there are mind-boggling nodes of this far-right movement everywhere. 

Much like the 1970s right stole the hippies, this new movement has stolen ravers, punks, goths, whatevers. The far-right recruits, and at least for some of them, it is fomenting another civil war. It is incredible to think that a standing President, rather than promoting peace and prosperity, would be sowing dissent and insurrection. I am going to propose a theological theory as to why. This doesn’t even follow all the ideas out there about Russia, etc. So this next part is going to get weird. Stay with me. 

To cut to the current part of this observation-revelation in relation to the rolling revolts: I noticed in some recorded and disseminated footage from last week, cultural signs that I would have at an earlier time affiliated with the anti-authoritarian left, such as the Adbuster flag and the V-for-Vendetta mask. Thus, this weird rebel, radical edginess, bohemian assuredness to this new protest milieu.

I think someone needs to take a deeper look as well, at all the weird meme magic mania of the online bunkers where some of these “revolutionaries” gather, their weird Pepe the Frog symbols, the Boogaloo Boys, their right wing imaginary utopian Kekistans, their actual fascination with arch-racial-tribal-“traditionalism,” with heavy metal and punk rock paganisms, and more. 

(Lots more background readings and understandings would be needed to fully grapple with all this, and many are frustrating goofy tangents, but some serious study can be found in a somewhat recent book by serious studier of all things occult, Gary Lachman, in his text, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump).

My tentative theories and theses for all this follow: Trump and his most loyal people as chaos magicians. The really evil, evil side of the counterculture occult. Like as in the Hells Angels at Altamont, Jim Jones, Charles Manson, that kind of weird-bad. Trolling and gaslighting. Gaslighting and trolling. Twitter mobs and the right’s versions of cancel-culture. Some well-meaning conservatives and libertarians have already been swept up in it, more may soon as November approaches.

The Trump phenomenon at its base and out-on-the-outposts of its multiple online bases actually has elements of crazed counterculture, pure prank, trippy trickster, jackbooted jester, yes even the Ken Kesey and Abbie Hoffman-style mischief of this moment. (By the way, I loved the recent Joker movie, but these queasy elements may be why some critics saw it as fuel for basement-dwelling YouTube-inhaling incel-terrors.) 

This is not just Trump supporters but Trump himself. Trump, with his avowed roots in New Thought and power-of-positive thinking thoughts, Trump with his wealth and bizarre erotic entitlement, is now creepy chaos curator, an angry alienated agitator, a wicked witch. I need not go so far as to call him Satan or the anti-Christ, mainly because that has been so overdone with every President since Reagan. 

Trump uses magic in its Crowleyan sense: the ability to cause change in accordance with the will. Now, as a former dabbler in the dark arts, so to speak, now as a devout follower of Jesus, I am very suspicious and cautious concerning all things occult. But hopefully not in a kneejerk-fundamentalist way. But like the aforementioned Starhawk, I know many practitioners in pagan-and-new age-and-tarot circles who I believe to be people of great integrity who use magic for good. It simply isn’t a place I will go. God’s will, not my will, be done.

Even as a leftwing evangelical, I am also an academic-minded inclusive religious-studies scholar, so I do not reject other religions or magical modalities out-of-hand. Based on the Crowleyan concept of magic, depending on the will, the discipline could be a tactic, deployed for good or ill. But with Trump’s mastery of this magic, I am clear that it’s not good or for good, but you can do your own homework and draw your own conclusions on that. Simply administrative wrangling, the nasty parade of tweeting and trolling, this says enough for me.

Although I have never taken a deep dive into all of Trump’s evangelical friends, because-who-has-time-for -these-charlatans, I have never believed they have authentic fidelity to the crucified Christ. I also don’t buy the born-again King David stories about Trump. See, the Putin-apologist Franklin Graham seems all-in for the white male masculinity archetypes of hyper-chauvinism pro-Hell anti-gay crap. And pastor-adviser Paula White’s viral anti-witchcraft rant of January 2020 was itself a particularly perverse kind of incendiary incantation. What I am saying is: too much of what calls itself evangelical Christianity in this country is increasingly a toxic brew of white supremacy and anti-body anti-earth Gnostic magic of its own ilk. 
Years ago, I learned about heavy-metal fans in northern europe burning churches, hating Christians because we are the weak religion, the powerless religion. The magic of the far right as I see it follows Nietzsche to his logical conclusions.

Giles Fraser explains this problem,
“Nietzsche's case against Christianity was that it kept people down; that it smothered them with morality and self-loathing. His ideal human is one who is free to express himself (yes, he's sexist), like a great artist or a Viking warrior. Morality is for the little people. It's the way the weak manipulate the strong. The people Nietzsche most admired and aspired to be like were those who were able to reinvent themselves through some tremendous act of will. I have never seen anything to admire in Nietzsche's view of morality or immorality. He was badly interpreted by the Nazis. But his ethics, if one can call them that, are founded on the admiration of power as the ultimate form of abundant creativity. His hatred of Christianity comes mostly from his hatred of renunciation and the promotion of selflessness. Jesus was a genius for having the imaginative power to reinvent Judaism but a dangerous idiot for basing this reinvention on the idea that there is virtue to be had in weakness. The weak, Nietzsche insists, are nasty and cruel.”

I have a fellow preacher friend, also a lighter-skinned American of European-descent like me, who says he follows who he calls “the Black Jesus.” Jesus is the dark-skinned mystic, the crucified-by-empire, the resurrected Palestinian Jew. He became powerless to show us God’s power. Right wing evangelicalism in America is not of this Jesus, and this to me is not just an issue of interpretation, but rather the co-optation of church for empire by an emperor who would end the empire itself with his extreme notions of power and economy.

Indeed in this moment where we have an unraveling, off-the-rails, white power President fomenting a grassroots movement of insurrection and revolt, in a way against his own country, of which he is the alleged commander-in-chief, we are inside a crazy moments of chaos. 

For these particular forces of existential darkness disguised in patriotic lights, Covid 19 and Coronavirus are just the latest, most convenient pretext to launch their latest fantasies to change America into their implausibly postmodern playground. It is heart-breaking that the truly vulnerable and marginal, especially those with higher risk profiles in this pandemic, would suffer most from an abrupt reopening. As for the civil unrest piece and my hunch that it is intentionally driven by racism and a "white" witch and much worse converging and diverging, let me be wrong.

Maybe their bad magic won’t work. Maybe good forces will prevail. Maybe this speculation only addresses a fringe minority of Trump’s people who do not deserve the attention I give them. Maybe this speculative gesture is just that. Maybe the pro-Jesus, religious-aspect is too much for you. Yes, I would like to be wrong about all of it, except the love that motivated me to write it and the allegiance to-the-Jesus-that-saves-me, despite myself. 

I pray nothing horrible happens this week, and I pray we continue to social distance as long as is needed. Moreover, I pray that the rainbow coalition of beloved communities as inaugurated by Christ, not this Trumpian fantasy of tribal prosperity chaos, comes to be. 

-A.W. Smith, from my personal monastery bunker of voluntary isolation and inner liberation