Trickle-Down Metaphysics and the Dawn of a Trumpian New Age

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Maybe this is unfair to Neville Goddard, a quirky, long-dead New York City mystic, but his 1939 book, At Your Command, reads like a pocket guide for fascists.

“Can a man decree a thing and have it come to pass? Most decidedly he can!” is the book’s opening line. “The measurements of right and wrong belong to men alone. To life there is nothing right or wrong,” the mystic explains. And finally, “…every man’s conception of himself is going to be his reward.”

In other words, At Your Command is a book about the emptiness of traditional morality and the triumph of the will.

Funnily enough, neo-Nazi types are noticing. James J. O’Meara published an eager review of the book last month on the future-white-stormtroopers-of-America website Counter-Currents, noting that the co-incidence of the book’s release with Donald Trump’s presidential win was “eerily appropriate.”

When At Your Command first came out in 1939, almost nobody read it. But Neville’s work has been rediscovered in the past decade. That’s partly because it resembles Rhonda Byrne’s wildly successful books-and-movies franchise, The Secret. Like Neville, Byrne teaches that envisioning certain outcomes can bring them to pass in real life. Also like Neville, she declares this link between mind, will, and reality to be a basic law of the universe.

TarcherPerigee, a Penguin Random House imprint, republished At Your Command this fall, hoping to ride that wave. “Having influenced some of today’s bestselling New Age writers….Neville’s core principle that imagining creates reality has captivated modern readers,” the promo copy explains.

The publisher probably didn’t expect the book to resonate quite so uncomfortably with the political moment when they chose November 8th—Election Day—as its publication date. But indeed, Donald Trump’s distinctive style has roots in the spiritual tradition of which At Your Command and The Secret are both a part. Neville was just ahead of his time.

Born in Barbados, Neville lived and taught in New York City, where he said that he received mystical teachings from a mysterious Ethiopian Jew named Abdullah. His theology is complicated, and I won’t try to do it justice here. But some of his key conclusions about the relationship between the mind and the world crop up again in again in American thought.

It’s not just The Secret. The basic idea here—that positive thinking can shape reality—infuses everything from Oprah episodes to TED talks to the prosperity gospel. It’s also key to the thinking of Norman Vincent Peale, the popular 20th century preacher and positive thinking guru whom Trump has cited, more than once, as an important influence.

As many commentators have observed, Trump’s most natural Christian spiritual home, both in terms of his actual alliances and his rhetorical affect, is the prosperity gospel. But to call Trump an adherent of prosperity gospel theology would be as imprecise as to call him a fascist. His pitch seems to be appealing to many Americans, in part, precisely because it does not fit easily into those ideological boxes.

Still, the president-elect does highlight how certain tenets of New Age thought can grade easily into authoritarian-style rhetoric. The Neville dictum that a man can “decree a thing and have it come to pass” is not all that different from the totalitarian state’s insistence, in George Orwell’s 1984, that the will of the party should trump empirical reality.

Curious to explore these connections further, I called up Mitch Horowitz, an historian of the American occult and Tarcher/Penguin’s editor-in-chief.

Horowitz specifically situates Neville—and himself—in the New Thought movement. When I told him that Neville’s book had seemed kind of fascist to me, he said that “New Thought philosophy has always faced that ethical dilemma. If you take it as a given that the mind can shape reality, what are the implications of that?” And further, “I don’t think New Thought has ever properly come to terms with the ethical implications of what it is promulgating.”

Horowitz argued that the thought of Neville—and others—did often make space for ethical traditions. He also said that there were some ongoing tensions here:

New Thought is divided today between people who want to save the world, who have the social justice vision, and people who have more of a strictly self-development vision. And the self-development folks would say, ‘Well, look, it’s almost like a trickle-down metaphysics. If I improve myself, that improves everybody else around us.’ Whereas the save the world faction would say, ‘No, we start with our world and our communities first.’

“New Thought has always accommodated both tendencies, and it has always accommodated within it both deeply conservative and radically progressive tendencies,” he said.

It’s easy to dismiss the New Age scene as a fringe—or, worse, frivolous—phenomenon. But it is part of a loose set of spiritual ideas that infuse all kinds of American conversations about right and wrong, self and other, and the nature of the good life. Arguably, that complex of American individualism and optimism encompasses both prosperity gospel Christians and California yogis, who may often have more in common than they realize.

As the ideological shake-out of the Trump era unfolds, it will become more important than ever to hold these ideas accountable, to probe their ethical cores, and to understand where they come from—and where they might go.

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Also on The Cubit: The world’s most influential yoga teacher is a homophobic right-wing activist