Quick, off the top of your head, who’s the intellectual founder of modern conservatism? Maybe you think it was Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Irish statesman who critiqued the French Revolution and served as an intellectual foil for leftist radical Thomas Paine. Or perhaps you think that modern conservatism stems from the 20th-century British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who ruminated on the “conservative disposition” that was supposedly “cool and critical in respect of change and innovation.” Then again, maybe you think modern conservatism goes back to Sarah Palin, who once saw Russia from her house.
If you picked any of these figures, you’re wrong. Modern conservatism doesn’t stem from a well-known political philosopher or a politician. The foundations of modern conservatism lay in the teachings of a disembodied spirit-entity known as “Seth,” as channeled through the writings of a mid-20th century occultist named Jane Roberts.
Before I go any further with Seth, however, let’s back up a bit and talk about the conservative worldview and the nature of reality. To be conservative is to hold tightly to a set of unassailable shibboleths: tax cuts for the wealthy stimulate economic growth, Jehovah sanctions American exceptionalism, poor people are poor because they’re lazy, etc. Each of these shibboleths fail to hold up to evidence-based research, but that hardly deters the true believers from, well, believing. Modern conservatism’s drift away from the glassy waters of empirical evidence and into the stormy seas of what Trump sycophant Kellyanne Conway memorably called “alternative facts” echoes a cornerstone of New Age/Occult beliefs: that you can create your own reality.
While conservatism in the age of Donald Trump thrives on creating alternate realities that The Orange One’s supporters lap up like well-trained cocker spaniels at a kibble party, the idea that “believing is seeing” has been a defining element of conservatism since the dawn of the new millennium. Consider the administration of George W. Bush. Dubya openly joked about his pedestrian academic achievements. In fact, he downplayed egg-headed wonkery in favor of a dubious combination of faith-based intuition and gut instinct to guide his presidency. Inspired by the Evangelical faith that saved him from a life of callus boozing, Bush preached the gospel of faith-created reality to everyone in his administration, and they took his teachings to heart.
Reporter Ron Suskind observed this phenomenon in a long-form piece for The New York Times magazine. “Once he [Bush] makes a decision — often swiftly, based on a creed or moral position — he expects complete faith in its rightness,” Suskind wrote. No one emphasized Bush’s “rightness” more than a then-anonymous advisor later revealed to be Bush’s top svengali, Karl Rove.
The media, Rove grumbled, were members of “the reality-based community;” in other words, people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Like his boss, Rove believed that conservatives had the power to imagine a scenario that comported with their ideological preferences and then make that scenario into a reality through sheer force of will. Thus, a quagmire in Iraq could become a triumph of American nation building, and deficit-exploding tax cuts could pay for themselves via a continuously swelling GDP. All conservatives had to do was will these things to happen. When Suskind challenged Rove with Enlightenment principles like “reason” and “evidence,” Rove brushed them away like flies on a Texas sheet cake. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” Turd Blossom claimed, “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
“New realities.” “Alternative facts.” If these notions strike you as, well, weird, that’s because they have a very weird origin, and that brings us back to Seth.
In 1963, a New York-born aspiring poet and novelist named Jane Roberts, along with her husband Robert Butts, began experimenting with a Ouija board in order to learn more about Extrasensory Perception (ESP). Soon enough, Roberts started receiving messages from an entity that first called itself “Frank Withers” but eventually identified its true name as “Seth.” Seth described himself as an “‘energy personality essence no longer focused in physical reality.'”* For the next few decades until her death in 1984, Roberts “channeled” the teachings of Seth by slipping into a trance state and letting Seth speak through her voice. She then transcribed Seth’s teachings into a series of books (known collectively as the Seth Materials) that became popular among seekers of “alternative spiritualities.”
Although Seth’s teachings encompass a wide range of pseudo-religious ideas (including reincarnation and theosis), they all revolved around a core notion, as outlined in Seth Speaks (1972): “you create your own physical reality.” Seth claimed that all humans possess a subconscious mind, which he called the “inner ego,” or “the inner perceiver of reality that exists beyond the three-dimensional.”* Using the inner ego, the human mind has the ability to create and form matter and thereby turn thoughts, beliefs, and desires into actual reality. This belief — that people can create physical realities out of their own metaphysical thoughts — became the core component of the post-World War II “New Age” movement in America.
An astonishingly wide variety of occult beliefs and practices (“occult” merely means “hidden”) fit under the big tent of “New Age” spirituality. The phrase “New Age” itself eludes a straightforward definition, but historian Robert Fuller assigns a loose set of criteria to New Age beliefs. First, they draw eclectically from science, world religions, and psychology. Second, they have practical applications for everyday life by helping people find fulfillment in the here and now. Third, they create a mystical connection to the divine that’s unencumbered by frocked intermediaries.* The Seth Materials incorporate all of these criteria, especially the need to find earthly fulfillment through the practical application of the metaphysical.
The idea that “you create your own physical reality” proved tempting to an American population that was already accustomed to employing their spiritual values in the pursuit of material wants. Seth’s core teaching wormed its way equally into the sacred and secular woodwork of American life, and in the early 21st century, it took a firm hold on conservatives who increasingly saw objective reality drift further and further away from their beliefs about how society should function. Trickle-down economics brought not widely shared prosperity and growth, but vast inequality and staggering debt. Same-sex marriage went from unthinkable act of deviance to law of the land. And, perhaps most importantly, America as conservatives imagined it — a forever dominant superpower characterized by white hegemony, endless economic growth, and “traditional” culture — seemed to collapse following the election of a liberal black guy with a “Muslim”-sounding name.
As a conservative, what do you do when reality as you perceive it no longer exists? You have an inkling of what to do, because you remember the George W. Bush presidency. You remember how it felt to have your leaders confirm your reality, even if they fell short in the process. So you simply create a new and better reality. Like Seth, all you need is a channeler, someone to receive your discordant, reactionary thoughts and process them into a straightforward narrative that provides a clear roadmap for restoring the heretofore-diminished greatness of your perceived reality. In other words, you need Donald Trump.
Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012 blindsided conservatives who had spent years cocooned in the right-wing media bubble that reassured them of the impossibility of a Mitt Romney loss. No one epitomized this alternate reality better than creepy former Clinton aide-turned Fox News media stooge, Dick Morris. Morris declared emphatically in October 2012 that Romney would win in a “landslide.” Morris’s attempt to create his own reality in 2012 failed, but four years later, a triumphant President Trump insisted that he clinched the 2016 election with “the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan” and drew Inauguration Day crowds that dwarfed those of Barack Obama. That these claims were patently, verifiably, objectively false misses the point of what Trump is up to. Trump doesn’t care that he’s lying. Trump’s supporters don’t care that he’s lying. Trump and his goons aren’t taking advice from Karl Rove, they’re channeling Seth. They’re creating their own reality. And they’re succeeding.
The Trump Administration is the ultimate experiment in occultism as political cudgel, characterized by the construction of new realities that fit comfortably within the confines of predetermined right-wing orthodoxies. For example, Trump’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is a full-on climate change denier. And why shouldn’t he be? Roughly half of conservative Republicans don’t believe in it either. The reality of climate change, after all, suggests that industrial capitalism, far from being sanctioned from on high, can actually be detrimental to the world. Better to deny that reality and create a new one in its place.
The new realities just keep coming. The proliferation of “fake news” in the age of Trump, which conservatives are more likely than liberals to embrace, allows Trump to spread his occult wisdom directly to his followers through disingenuous propaganda outlets like Breitbart. Trump also claims that he can bring back manufacturing and coal mining jobs that have been automated out of existence. When reminded that he actually lost the popular vote and therefore doesn’t have a true mandate for his agenda, Trump insisted, sans evidence, that millions of illegal aliens committed voter fraud to support Hillary Clinton. In order to deny any connections to Putin’s Russia, Trump accused former President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. The source for the latter claim is Mark Levin, the kind of right-wing talk radio apparatchik who has been creating alternate realities via Red America’s airwaves for years.
Understanding Red America is essential to understanding Trump’s attempts to create a new conservative reality. The vast cultural geography of Red America has for years crackled with the concentrated propaganda of right-wing talk radio, online media like World Net Daily and the Drudge Report, and, of course, Fox News. As a result, conservative voters have been primed to embrace alternative realities that exist in defiance of observable and verifiable facts.
Even outside the formal sphere of politics, New Age occultism permeates conservative subcultures from the Heartland to the biggest metropolises. So-called “prosperity gospel” hucksters like Joel Osteen promote the idea “that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.” While nominally Christian, the prosperity gospel comes straight from the disembodied mind of Seth. It promises the faithful that believing is receiving. No wonder Trump has long courted prosperity preachers. As Time’s Elizabeth Dias writes, Trump didn’t need a “come-to-Jesus conversion” to draw in conservative voters, “his economic success is the truest sign of God’s blessing.”
The triumph of occultism on the Right is the result of a multi-year effort to process developments in the modern world that run contrary to conservative ideologies. It’s unlikely that any conservative would admit to cribbing their ideas directly from the Seth Materials, and they’d almost certainly be telling the truth. Just as most believers in New Age spiritualities would never use the phrase “New Age” to describe their belief systems, conservatives don’t need to be tinkering with Ouija boards in order for their subcultures to be steeped in magical thinking. Seth’s insistence that “you create your own physical reality” took hold in America because it gelled perfectly with Americans’ lust for material and spiritual success. The idea of creating your own reality proved especially appealing to those for whom objective reality no longer seemed appealing — or even tolerable. But all occult movements need a leader, a spiritual teacher to channel and legitimize their nascent suspicions about the “true” nature of reality. A great leader can make everything great again, and that’s a yuge deal.
* See Jon Klimo. Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1998), 29-33.
* See Robert C. Fuller. Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 98-99.