Magical Thinking

Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason”

My thoughts about this were prompted by Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters” – one of his 80 etchings published in 1799 highlighting the political abuses and social horrors of his time – similar in impact and power to his “Disasters of War” – depicting the consequences of war and repression in Spain in the first two decades of the 19th Century.

The etching shows the monsters which imagination may release into the world – and made me think of how conspiracy theories and ill-informed rumours are central to the far right – of dark cabals and happenings that are utterly without foundation – the stuff of magical thinking affecting politics, I would argue, sometimes profoundly, and now always present.

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories include Bill Clinton being complicit in flying weapons out to Nicaragua and flying back cocaine to a small airport in Arkansas – similar fantasies current in the recent past include Obama being both a Moslem and a Socialist, wanting “to turn over the sovereignty of the US to a one world government” – believed, in 2010, according to a Harris Poll, by a majority of Republicans – another poll in 2010, showed more that more than half of Republicans were unsure if Obama was born in the US. (1)


More recently still, and reaching beyond America, has been the Q-Anon Conspiracy – that an international cabal of Satan worshipping, cannibalistic paedophiles is running a global sex trafficking ring, plotting against Trump, who is fighting the cabal.

In October 2020, BBC News covered the growth of Q-Anon Conspiracy Theories in the UK, with Save our Children Rallies taking place in July and August, repeating these baseless accusations. (2)

The Guardian reported in the same month that one in four Britons believed in Q-Anon linked theories, with significant numbers believing in a secret governing elite and Covid 19 was deliberately released.

The research was carried out by the group “Hate not Hope”. (3)

Majorie Taylor Green

Majorie Taylor Green was elected to Congress, espousing the Q-Anon conspiracy. She was lauded at a rally by Trump in an Election eve rally and refused to wear a mask at her signing in ceremony, saying wearing a mask was an “oppressive violation” of her rights. Her campaign photographs showed her posing with a rifle next to images of progressive law-makers. (4)

She said it was time for Republicans to “go on the offensive against these socialists who want to rip our country apart” – her Twitter account has been suspended for 12 hours – she also gave credence to the 2016 Pizzagate Conspiracy – that high-ranking Democrats were involved with human trafficking and a child sex ring – with restaurants being centres for these nefarious secret activities – including the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington DC.

Protocols of Zion

The Protocols of Zion – originating in Russia as black propaganda in the 1880’s and 1890’s – are still circulating – on the Internet, and in print, in Japan, the Middle East, Asia and South America.

Reptilians and others

There are theories, too, about the malign secret influence, of the Illuminati, the Freemasons – even of reptilian extra-terrestrials, according to David Icke. (5)

The new irrational world

I would argue that the existence of the Internet has enabled these theories – these expressions of magical thinking – to gain greater influence than Goya could have dreamed of. Further, I would suggest that we now live in an age when truth is relative: truth is what you choose or want, or what a politician or demagogue might want.

Kellyanne Conway, indeed, used the phrase, “alternative facts” during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017 – defending comments made by Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, that the crowds attending President Trump’s inauguration were “the largest audience ever”. (6)

Magical thinking rife in America

I would argue, too, that in America we have seen magical thinking both monetised and turned to political purpose. I would suggest that conspiracy theories have challenged rational thinking in America – not just with Q-Anon, but with the widely held beliefs that the election was stolen, that there was mass fraud, that dead people were voting, and that election machines were somehow remotely influenced from Venezuela.

We saw the end result in the assault on the Capitol, and the fact that Washington during the Inauguration looked like a war zone.

Magical thinking in the UK

In the UK, we’ve seen Brexit put forward as the answer to deep seated inequalities and social anxieties. We’ve rational objections to the real – as opposed to the imaginary – consequences of Brexit being declared as Project Fear. Nigel Farage spoke of an “elite” spurning the wishes of the people, belittling them, ignoring their interests.

The Mail had a front page on November 4 2016 attacking High Court judges as being “enemies of the people”.

The journalist behind the headline, James Slack, was awarded a CBE “for public service” by Theresa May. (7)

Malign consequences

We’ve seen the growth of magical thinking provoking anti-lockdown protests in the UK. Desmond Swayne, Conservative MP for the New Forest, despite the intervention of Michael Gove, was reported in The Guardian on Thursday 28 January 2021 as refusing to apologise for suggesting official Covid 19 data had been manipulated to exaggerate the danger posed by the virus, and for encouraging lock down sceptics and “anti-vaxxers”.

Swayne, along with Richard Drax, has consistently voted against the imposition of Covid Lockdowns.

We’ve seen, too, how magical thinking has supported the Britain First Movement, leading, tragically, to the murder of Jo Cox.

I would suggest that magical thinking is an ugly undercurrent of Johnson’s Government. We see massed Union Jacks behind the Prime Minister when he speaks. Simplistic ideas and ill-thought policies are promoted which prove to be nothing more than three-word slogans.

Culture wars

I believe that we will see increasingly the promotion of a culture war: magical thinking that a “woke” generation wants to deny a proud island history, that the UK is in danger from armadas of “illegals”, that public servants are selfish and holding back growth, that free speech is endangered by lefty academies and that lefty lawyers are subverting what the people want.

The unwelcome zeitgeist

I would argue Johnson came to power riding a wave of magical thinking: that his entire career is built upon slogans and lies disguised as truth.

It seems to me that magical thinking, conspiracy thinking, is the spirit of the age, the unwelcome “zeitgeist”.

We need to combat it. There is such a thing as truth.

Chris Bradey


(1) New Statesman, 15-21 January 2021, “American Pathologies”, Gary Younge

(2) What’s behind the rise of Q-Anon in the UK? – BBC News, 12 October 2020

(3) The Guardian, 22 October 2020, “One in four Britons believe in Q-Anon linked theories – survey”

(4) Washington Post, September 4 2020, “GOP candidate pose with rifle, says she’s targeting ‘socialist’ congresswomen”

(5) Time, “The Reptilian Elite”,28804,1860871_1860876_1861029,00.html