On a typical Wednesday, by the light of the waning moon, Kate Doucette joined several thousand strangers on the internet in casting a spell to “bind” Donald Trump.
Doucette — which is her married name, not her legal name — is one of the “resistance witches,” an at least 13,000-strong umbrella group of internet neo-pagans, Wiccans, solo practitioners who self-identify as “hedge witches,” longtime magical practitioners in various traditions, and committed activists. They’ve come together each month since Trump’s inauguration with one goal: to perform a spell — equal parts quasi-religious ritual and activist performance — to “bind” the president, forming a collective known as the #MagicResistance.
The spell, a variant on a traditional “binding” spell found in many contemporary neo-pagan and other occult practices, involves channeling energy to limit Trump’s power, “so that he may fail utterly/that he may do no harm.” (Practitioners have the option to add, “You’re fired.”)
Some members, like Doucette, cast the spell alone at home, communicating with fellow activists by Facebook Messenger around each monthly ritual, which is timed to coincide with the waning moon, and exchanging photographs of home altars. Others like Magic Resistance NYC’s moderator, known as Katherine Gojira, practice right in front of their stated enemy: casting the binding spell in front of Trump Tower.
But nearly all “resistance witches” share a passion for the collective aspect of their practice, allowing them to channel feelings of powerlessness about the current administration, while reviving a sense of community and ritual many report missing from their daily experience. Doucette was raised Catholic in a predominantly born-again Protestant Christian area. She said she left the church after finding its attitude toward sexuality and social issues regressive. She told Vox that for her, the binding spell was “very similar to prayer — which I’ve had no use for, for most of my life” — as well as to meditation, which she prefers.
Like many practitioners of the spell, Doucette was interested in the occult before. She’d signed up for classes at the online School of Witchery, but never cast a spell before she saw fellow interested witches post about the binding spell online. Yet the idea of joining an inclusive, welcoming community — and doing something to address her fear and anger in the wake of the election — motivated her to transform interest into practice. “I like the occult and I like activism,” she said. The #MagicResistance offered her a chance to do both.
The practice, members say, reinforces a sense of community and identity much in the same way a more “traditional” Sunday morning church service might. At the same time, its roots in internet culture allow individuals and communities within the #MagicResistance to reimagine the binding spell to suit their own needs. The practice can satisfy a desire to meditate constructively alone or to make connections online with other activists who may not have as many anti-Trump allies on the ground. Whether or not the organization has any supernatural elements — either as religion or as magic — members have a space to simply counter a sense of powerlessness.
For practitioners, desperate times demand magical measures
Casting spells as a form of political protest might sound strange. But that, said Michel M. Hughes, one of the originators of the spell, is precisely the point.
"My thought from the beginning,” he told Vox, "was that Trump's presidency was surreal and abnormal, therefore there was a need to counter him and resist his administration beyond the normal channels like public protests, petitions, emails, and calls to representatives.” Hughes, likewise saw the spell’s efficacy as, in part, granting a kind of power to its participants: "One very powerful element of the spell is its ability to allow participants to take back their power from the out-of-control administration.”
Hughes is the only originator of the spell — he says it was co-created by a small community of like-minded occultists — to speak publicly about its genesis. It later went viral after being republished on Medium by Defiant’s Matthew Gault.
The spell itself requires certain symbolic elements: a black candle, a white candle, a shorter orange candle to represent Trump. Participants can replace this with baby carrots, photos, or even Cheetos. They are encouraged to modify the spell in ways that feel meaningful to them. Doucette, who grew up near the woods, adds a chant of protection for the “wild places” she worries might be affected by Trump’s environmental policies. Gojira said she likes to shower and put on makeup before rituals: "It makes me feel confident. I have something to say to the universe, and the universe is going to listen."
For some participants, the ritualistic aspect of spellcraft allows them to revisit what they valued in childhood religious traditions, often without the dogmatic elements that drove them away. Both Hughes and Gojira told Vox they were raised Catholic, and incorporate elements of that tradition into their practice. Gojira wears her St. Catherine of Alexandria medal every day. Hughes, who “always loved ritualistic aspects of religion” — from music to incense — incorporates Catholic imagery into his practice.
This willingness to mix and match elements of different faith traditions and pantheons, according to Gault — himself a longtime practitioner — is indicative of the wider tradition of “chaos magic” (sometimes spelled chaos magick), a tradition that arose out of the ’60s and ’70s counterculture (one sometime practitioner was experimental writer William S. Burroughs) that emphasized a pragmatic, personal approach to the occult, rather than working within rigid structures or pantheons. "You’re not married to old, dusty books from the last century,” Gault said.
That chaos magic should reach its zenith on the internet, Gault told Vox, is hardly surprising — it is, after all, the “spirit of the internet,” which rewards “decentralized information spreading.”
He pointed out the prevalence of various quasi-occult images and memes among the alt-right: the performance of Kek worship, for example (in which popular alt-right symbol Pepe the Frog is venerated by some in that community, albeit with no small degree of irony, as a chaos god), or professions of belief in meme magic, the notion that internet memes (such as the “Sick Hillary” meme prevalent during the 2016 election cycle) might affect real life. (When Clinton really did get ill at a 9/11 memorial, internet denizens joked that “meme magic” was behind it all.) There too, Gault noted, a kind of grounds-up, anarchic approach to ritual and religious imagery served a political aim: countering what he called the “top-down neoliberalism” that many on the political right objected to.
But with the (alt-)right seemingly in power, Gault said, the time was right for the left to reclaim the power of the internet, whether magical or otherwise. “Anger brings people together in ways hope sometimes can’t,” he said.
But that still leaves one question — does the ritual work? For Gault, as for many practitioners, it almost doesn’t matter. He doesn’t “rule it out.” But he also pointed out that in his wider magic practice, the efficacy of spellwork could be as easily subscribed to its psychological impact — the way rituals informed his state of mind and gave him motivation to act — as to the supernatural.
As Doucette put it: “I’m cynical. Much as I don’t think my vote has an effect, I don’t think my spell is binding anyone. But for me, the practice of a community getting together for a common goal … it kind of filled something in me.”