Shortly after midnight one night in late February, outside of the grimly palatial Trump Tower in Manhattan, a Trump supporter was screaming at a small group of anti-Trump protesters clustered on the sidewalk. In some ways, the confrontation was fairly typical: "You only like democracy when it works in your favor!" the Trump supporter, an ardent, bespectacled woman with her hair in a ponytail, bellowed at one point.
By most measures, however, the scene was unusual. The protesters were sitting beside a makeshift altar, brandishing candles and a tarot card, and had just finished casting a spell on the US president. Their lone detractor, who later described herself as a "Christian mystic," was aggressively wielding a small, round mirror, shrieking repeatedly that she was reflecting their magical intentions back on them.
"I hope to protect Donald Trump," she said.
Across the country, according to reports, something similar was taking place: Countless witches and other occult enthusiasts had pledged to partake in a simultaneous mass ritual at midnight on February 24 in order to "Bind Donald Trump and All Those Who Abet Him." (The point in performing a binding spell, as the spell instructions carefully noted, is not to harm an individual, but rather to prevent them from harming others. "This is not the equivalent of magically punching a Nazi," the Medium post containing the ritual incantation stressed. "Rather, it is ripping the bullhorn from his hands, smashing his phone so he can't tweet, tying him up, and throwing him in a dark basement where he can't hurt anyone.")
By the time the mass ritual was performed, it had become a media sensation, covered everywhere from BuzzFeed to Breitbart, and had attracted exactly one high-profile celebrity to the cause (Lana del Rey, obviously). It had also become, to some particularly fervent people, a high-stakes battle over the state of the deeply unpopular president's soul—a rightwing Christian group, incensed by the "blasphemy against God," announced that they would be praying to counteract the spell. "This is a declaration of spiritual war, and it requires a response," they wrote. "We ask you to join us in praying for the strength of our nation, our elected representatives, and for the souls of the lost who would take up Satanic arms against us." This absurd development buoyed the dominant media narrative, which framed the event as a quirky spectacle or novelty: "Witches and Christians Are Prepared to Battle over Trump," or something to that effect, wrote several headline editors.
This is not the equivalent of magically punching a Nazi.
But this isn't the first time witches have meddled in Trump's affairs, and the magical Trump resistance is far more fractured than most media coverage would suggest. Liberal witches, like much of the left, vehemently disagree on how to handle the embattled former reality star and his administration; some find the rhetoric of the binding spell too divisive, while others worry that the populism of the mass ritual could dangerously dilute any desirable magical effects.
Michael Hughes, the magician who publicized the Trump-binding ritual, conceived of it as a fairly straightforward act of self-defense against the current administration, which he describes as "an obvious danger." He was not, he said, expecting the backlash from the occult community. As the spell started to go viral, witches began flocking to the comments section of the Medium article Hughes had published to express their dismay and horror. Some of them were worried the spell's imprecise wording—the ritual chant originally asked that Trump "fail utterly" without specifying at what—could have unintended, cataclysmic consequences for national security; others cautioned that the planets weren't aligned correctly on the specified date. The majority of the ritual's detractors, however, worried that the spell, being too negative, was running afoul of the "Rule of Three," which states that whatever energy a person puts into the world will return to them threefold.
Some critics of the ritual suggested that, instead of a binding spell, the mass magical action should focus on enlightening Trump and making him cognizant of the harm he's doing to others, with the hopes that this would encourage him to change his autocratic behaviors. Hughes scoffed at the notion. "The idea that magic has to be all love and light, and we should be trying to enlighten these people who are clearly damaged and crazed individuals who are breaking everything they touch—that seems kind of silly to me," he told Broadly in a phone interview.
We aren't just fighting Trump. We're fighting the people around us. We're fighting the Sons of Kek, too.
Other witches decried the fact that the ritual, by going viral, had involved far too many inexperienced or first-time magic users. "The idea of circulating this far and wide and bringing in thousands of magic users is appealing," wrote John Beckett, a respected Druid, in a post on Patheos. However, he warned, "not all magic users are equal. Some are well-trained, experienced magicians. Some are beginners who are still trying to figure out what they're doing... Just bringing more people into the working isn't going to make it effective."
In effect, the left-leaning witchcraft community was rehashing several contentious political arguments about how to best handle Trump, only with spells—there were the "they go low, we go high" witches who hoped to reason with Trump supporters using enlightenment invocations, and there were those who were skeptical about the value of appealing to the masses with watered-down magic.
But the spell wasn't only about binding Trump, as several witches emphasized: "All those who enable his wickedness," too, were included in the ritual. Pressingly, some of these Trump supporters had started to dabble in the occult on their own, and claimed that doing so had helped the current president rise to power. "We aren't just fighting Trump. We're fighting the people around us," Carrie St. Aaron, a nonbinary witch who'd participated in the ritual, told Broadly over email. "We're fighting the Sons of Kek, too."
A byzantine series of coincidences toward the end of Trump's campaign led 4chan users to jokingly construct their own occultist belief system, sometimes referred to as the Cult of Kek. The basic idea behind it is that Pepe the Frog—a meme of an amphibian who vacillates between morose and smug, who somehow went from innocuous cartoon to hate symbol in the past year—is actually an avatar through which members of 4chan unknowingly resurrected Kek, the frog-headed Egyptian god of chaos and primordial darkness. The figure of Kek-as-Pepe enjoyed a mild public apotheosis on September 11, 2016, which is when the Clinton campaign posted about Pepe on Hillary Clinton's official website, calling the meme "a symbol associated with white supremacy." On the same day, Clinton herself left a 9/11 memorial service abruptly, appearing unsteady on her feet.
"Kek—Pepe—emerged into plain sight on September 11," explains vlogger Davis Aurini in an instructional animation about the Cult of Kek. "This is when he was denounced by Hillary Clinton, and she shortly thereafter fainted and passed out. On 9/11, which, again... is also the [date of the] Benghazi attack that she was responsible for. So we've got these repeating patterns. She declared [Pepe] an enemy of the state. Here we have this old woman yelling about a cartoon frog, and then she gets brought down on the anniversary of her treachery."
After this series of synchronicities, the narrative around the Cult of Kek coalesced into something resembling a legitimate fringe spiritual belief: "Out of this, 4chan starts to realize that they're 'memeing' Donald Trump into the White House via Pepe the Frog and the ancient Egyptian godform (Kek) that Pepe represents," as the anonymous person behind the "Truth About Pepe" website, who asked to be referred to only as ATL, told Broadly over email.
In his book Occult Memetics, occultist Tarl Warwick draws a comparison between certain memes and the concept of the egregore, an autonomous magical entity often defined as a "thoughtform" or "collective group mind." An egregore is summoned into existence by a group of like-minded people, according to the writings of occult author W. E. Butler; as the number of individuals feeding into it increases, "so the power and range of the egregore increases... Each member of the group pours energy into the collective thought-form but, equally, into each member there also passes the influence of the group as a whole." Pepe, Warwick writes, "is an egregore of unimaginable force."
Here we have this old woman yelling about a cartoon frog, and then she gets brought down on the anniversary of her treachery.
According to ATL, Pepe can be seen as a form of chaos magic, an ancient belief system that relies on magic symbols, or sigils, to project one's will into the universe. "When a lot of people pool their united willpower towards a single sigil, it's called a hypersigil, and it's exponentially more potent," he explained on his website. "Millions of the 'little people' that browse 4chan have embedded the image of Pepe with their hatred for Hillary's alleged corruption, and their hope for Trump's victory over her in November. Whether they did this consciously or not, it's exactly what has happened."
He is, of course, not entirely serious. "I've read many articles taking this far too seriously and assuming that the guys on 4chan all believe that they have magic power. I'm not in anybody's head, but the short answer is: they don't," Théodore Ferréol, a French journalist who has covered meme magic extensively, told Broadly over email. "Well, maybe, in a way, some do, but if you believe it too much then the joke is on you. If you believe it too much, consider yourself trolled."
"It's a prank, but it's not a joke," Ferréol added, somewhat perplexingly.
If the whole thing is an elaborate prank, it's one with a fanatical following—Kek followers have their own fictional country, their own theme song, complete with several remixes, and several spiritual tomes available for purchase on Amazon. I asked ATL if anyone involved with Kek was actually serious, and whether it even mattered if they were. "If it's seen as a joke, all the better," he replied. "A memetic magician's power is bolstered by laughter. Humor is a high-energy wavelength. These anti-Trump witches have none. Sad!"
Donald Trump is the new Slender Man.
Ferréol compared the Cult of Kek to Creepypastas, user-generated horror stories that are shared extensively around the internet. Most notably, this practice birthed Slender Man, a creepypasta that became powerful enough to (allegedly) influence a murder. "I feel meme magic is, in that case, a way to see how that collective can impact on the real world...Thoughts becoming forms, like Slender Man, who went from a simple [photoshopped image] to a collective nightmare," he said. "Donald Trump is the new Slender Man."
For their part, the anti-Trump witches seem to think the alt-right occultists are sincere, if unthreateningly amateur: "A lot of these 4chan folks really believe that magic helped them push this election over the top for Trump," Hughes said. "There have been some of them coming out of the woodwork, who have said, Good luck, we are stronger than you, and we have Kek and Pepe."
"From what I can tell, few of them have more than a shallow understanding of the art," he added later, in an email. "I see no need to defeat them, as their impact is marginal and soon they'll get tired and move on to something else."
For their part, the followers of Kek remain self-assured. When asked what he thought of the mass binding spell, ATL immediately adopted a gloating tone. "Nothing is certain, but I do believe they're too little, too late," he said. "Our memes have achieved a momentum that will be extremely difficult to disrupt. If Trump's incredible first speech to Congress was any indication, their ritual was a resounding failure."
Those who partook in the binding spell on Trump strongly disagree. Carrie St. Aaron sent Broadly an effusive email the day afterwards, describing the palpable rush of energy they'd felt once the spell was complete. "Wow. That was incredible. There's 1.4 thousand Facebook RSVPs, and that's only the Facebook users. Lana del Rey herself participated. I'm kind of stunned that it got this big. I feel like the Christian opposition and the Sons of Kek were just completely overpowered," they wrote. "I honestly feel like we're ushering in a new age, and it's... incredible, to say the least."
Hughes, too, was excited, telling me that the feedback had been overwhelmingly positive and that he'd heard from magic practitioners from all around the world. "The longer-term goal of removing Trump from office will take time, which is why the rituals are ongoing. But I will most definitely be watching closely, especially as the administration begins its planned full-scale assault on our democracy, its people, and its institutions," he said. "Each rebuke to that destructive agenda will be ours to savor, and I suspect the harder he pushes, the harder the resistance will push back."