HOCUS POTUS

You can’t control the government—but you can hex it

Because we may as well try everything we’ve got.
Because we may as well try everything we’ve got.
Image: AP Photo/Winfried Rothermel
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Ever since Donald Trump’s election to office in November 2016, the witches of America have been trying to curse the US president and bind his power.

Last year, witches gathered outside of Trump Tower to hex him and cast spells; Breitbart postulated that it’s part of a feminist conspiracy related to a rise in witchcraft. Other groups have continued to lay on the hexings, including Lana Del Rey, who tweeted invites to a worldwide anti-Trump ritual. There’s even a gathering planned next week, with the Witches of Color congregating in Washington, DC on Jan. 20 for the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration.

And it’s not just the US presidency: Last Halloween, a group of witches assembled in San Francisco to hex City Hall for a healthier future. The spell, “HOUSING ABOLITION REPARATIONS SANCTUARY,” was posted to the Facebook event so witches not in physical attendance could still hex in solidarity. In this way, witchcraft is a kind of distributed power—and its incantation is a form of distributed protest.

There is a vibrant history of magic being used in political action. From the performative levitation of the Pentagon in the late 1960s to British witches hexing Hitler, magic has long been a political weapon in the witching world’s spellbook.

A quick history of witchy political protest

It arguably all started with Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca. Just before midnight on Aug. 1, 1940, the retired British civil servant gathered with a coven of other witches in an old forest outside of Highcliffe-on-Sea, where they attempted to hex Hitler. They gave the event a pseudo-military name, “Operation Cone of Power,” which is a term used in ritual magic as a way of raising energy.

Jennings, co-owner of Catland, an occult bookstore in Brooklyn, highlights how important this hexing was in terms of pop-culture presence and cultural acceptance of witchcraft. “This is one of my more favorite stories [because] it functions as a political act on two levels,” Jennings says. “First off, it’s a very political use of magic. Second off, the telling of the story is a very political use of magic. As you might imagine, in 1940s Britain, the attitude toward witchcraft as a thing appearing in pop culture was somewhat skeptical. The effect it had of ‘we were cursing Hitler the whole time’ was a very well-designed ritual [that] increased the acceptance of this group.”

a witch in front of a fire
Burn it to the ground.
Image: AP Photo/Jens Meyer

Twenty years later, there was a movement toward artistic and theatrical protest, from the Bread and Butter Theater’s use of giant puppets to creative, large-scale anti-war demonstrations. Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Yippee movement, was at the forefront of creating and coming up with these kinds of protests.

In 1967, Hoffman tried to levitate the Pentagon 300 feet in the air. Planned on the same day as a massive march on the Lincoln Memorial, the levitation of the Pentagon was intended to draw all sorts of protesters, from the casual to the more serious anti-war revolutionaries. Over 35,000 people who marched from the Lincoln Memorial protest toward the Pentagon attended.

At about the same time, W.I.T.C.H, the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, was also started. Founded in New York, it had chapters all over the world and has recently been reignited as an anonymous magic protest group in Portland, Oregon. Depending on what they were protesting, the acronym would shift to suit what was needed, such as “Women Interested in Toppling Commercial Holidays” or “Women Infuriated at Taking Care of Hoodlums.” Their protest targets were equally diverse, ranging from anti-war protests to universities, wedding fairs, beauty pageants, Wall Street, and Playboy clubs.

Today, spirituality and religious practice are still finding a place in politics. Quakers protested the Vietnam War for almost two decades, Tibetan monks protested the Chinese occupation of Tibet by lighting themselves on fire, and the Satanic Temple engages in all different forms of theatrical and ”legislative” protest. When you couple the current political climate with the building popularity of witchcraft, no wonder witchy protests are on the rise.

A ritual practice

The notion of ritual is integral to both witchcraft and protest. The act of protesting—of chanting and carrying signs—is already ritualistic in and of itself. The way we say something over and over again as a group in order to give power to a thought is structurally similar to magic’s incantations.

There are many different forms of the occult and witchcraft, but an underlying theme between them all is an emphasis on ritual and repetition. Janus Kopfstein, researcher and chaos witch, explains her practice this way: “Chaos magic is kind of a DIY occult practice that is centered around the creation of rituals that you form based on your own meanings and intentions. A lot of chaos magic rituals are focused on sigil and sigil magic—taking an intention and inscribing it in a pictograph (a sigil) and imbuing that sigil with power behind the statement.”

Isn’t this exactly what we do with peace signs and HOPE posters and clenched raised fists? When we protest, aren’t we all taking part in one huge, unwitting ritual?

The way a spell manifests and the way a protest manifests can also be very similar. Both are about ritualized behavior that can be distributed from person to person, and both are about relationships to power. Jennings ran a series of events at Catland about protest and magic, and emphasized this similarity.

“Let’s look at the components of a prototypical ritual and a prototypical protest action,” he says. “Chanting a phrase over and over again, marching along a particular path that has symbolic meaning, writing letters of repeal to the powers that be—they are very similar things in the objective actions that are taken. Obviously the details and intents are different, [but] there’s a lot of similarity within the ways of engaging in a symbolic action.”

But why are we seeing a sudden spate in political hexings right now? The answer is part tolerance, part eminence. According to a Viacom study in 2013, millennials are more tolerant of religious practice than ever. When you combine this acceptance of spiritual practice together with the occult having a moment in the cultural zeitgeist, witches are now able to practice witchcraft openly in public.

The flying popularity of witchcraft

As occult references have creeped into pop culture and our tolerance for different religious practices has increased, witchcraft has become more and more normalized. We can see this in teens’ appetite for Harry Potter and Twilight, a “witchyaesthetic creeping into fast fashion, and Oujia boards being sold as toys. Barnes and Nobles even has entire sections on witchcraft and the occult now. In this way, magic is becoming both popularized as an aesthetic choice, as well as a recognized form of spirituality.

Both Jennings and Helen Tseng, a self-identified witch and the co-host of the Astral Projection Radio Hour, agree that there was some sort of boom around 2012. This built off popular 1990s movies and TV shows such as The Craft, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Writer, curator, and practicing witch Pamela Grossman even named 2013 “The Year of the Witch” in an article for the Huffington Post.

Commodification and ownership are helpful in normalizing ideas and creating more permeable cultural. Clothing, artifacts, jewelry, music—these are the signifiers of subculture, group identity, and exist as a secret language in signaling who your comrades are. Tseng and her collaborator crafted a term, “peak witch capitalism,” which is “kind of the general aesthetic right now,” she says.

“It’s a combination of witchcraft, the occult, secret societies, crystals, and general new age-y-ness that I see as being merchandised quite a lot, like in Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie,” Tseng says. “I think because of that, people are prone to have decks of designer tarot cards in their homes and buying crystals for various spiritual purposes.”

“I’ve also noticed a lot of people turning toward spiritualism as a way to deal with whatever we want to call this moment: post-capital collapse, fascism, chaos,” Tseng continues. “It feels like a way to ground and center and deal with this. From my West Coast perspective, people over here aren’t religious in certain ways, and this feels like a way of doing that that is unhindered from dogmatism.”

How we deal with power, assign power, and protest power is timely. With #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein hanging in the air—along with all of the transgressions of president Trump—subverting harmful power structures and finding new ways to challenge them has never been more important. If something, whether it’s witchcraft or religion, gives people the feelings of hope, control, and, most importantly, support, then let them do it.

This is a moment of civil unrest. We should be giving power to whatever powers give people hope. Whether it’s a daily ritual or a large group gathering, magic practices provide a good grounding for what small, specific, collective action looks like.