Steve Bannon: mystical populist
Benjamin Teitelbaum talks to spiked about Traditionalism – the strange philosophy Bannon brought to the White House.
Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former campaign chief turned chief strategist, has been assigned many unflattering labels since he burst on to the scene in 2016.
He’s been called far right, a fascist, a white supremacist. But according to a gripping new book by academic Benjamin R Teitelbaum, Bannon’s philosophy is actually a lot weirder, if perhaps no less alarming, than all that.
War for Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right is both an exploration of the strange philosophy of Traditionalism, and the story of how three of its followers have managed to assume positions of remarkable political influence in recent years.
The book is drawn from a number of interviews and encounters Teitelbaum had with leading Traditionalists – particularly Bannon, who spoke to him in depth about how Traditionalist ideas have shaped his politics.
Speaking to me from his Colorado home, Teitelbaum lays out some of the core tenets of this peculiar school of thought.
‘Traditionalism is an exceptionally obscure philosophy’, he says. ‘I wish it had a different name, something to let us know, right off the bat, just how strange it is.’
While traditionalism might bring to mind a stuffy conservative, capital-T Traditionalism is something quite different: it is a philosophy steeped in ancient spirituality that rejects modernity and materialism.
Traditionalists, drawing on Hinduism, believe time is cyclical. ‘Whereas we typically think of society as progressing and building upon what was there in the past and progressively getting better’, Teitelbaum says, ‘they believe instead that we are moving through a period of four eras that progressively get worse – a golden, a silver, a bronze and a dark age.’
Traditionalists also believe in a social hierarchy, corresponding to that time cycle. ‘At the very top of an ideal social hierarchy in society you would have priests’, he says, ‘followed by warriors, then merchants and eventually slaves; a hierarchy that goes from spirit to material’.
‘They believe that, as that time cycle goes by, not only is the world up-ended, what should be virtuous is treated as bad and vice versa, but also hierarchy disintegrates’, he goes on. ‘We become more materialistic, and we start to homogenise into larger and larger communities.’
For Traditionalists, we are in the middle of a dark age. And for Steve Bannon, this is embodied in ‘globalisation, the growth of world government, world economy, but also the swelling of states, that states are so large that they just start eating up everything in their path’.
Traditionalists’ aim, Teitelbaum says, is to ‘break apart that mass homogenous entity into a world, into a society, of smaller pieces, where borders matter’. Order is restored through chaos.
It all sounds pretty nuts. Certainly, it feels a million miles away from the comparatively pedestrian right-populism of someone like Donald Trump.
But while Trump is certainly not a Traditionalist, Bannon saw in him someone who could bring about the reckoning with modernity that he desired:
‘Steve Bannon looked at Trump as someone who could come in and break apart globalisation, break apart the projects of a single government, the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, and the United States government.’
That Trump was unaware of the role that destiny had apparently ascribed to him didn’t matter. ‘[M]en of action’, Bannon tells Teitelbaum in War for Eternity, ‘don’t have to read books and think about time cycles. You just do it.’
By contrast, Bannon has spent an awful lot of his time reading books and thinking about time cycles. And as Teitelbaum lays out, the image most of us have of this gruff populist, this Tea Party propagandist turned architect of Trumpism, obscures a long and kooky intellectual backstory.
Growing up Catholic in a working-class neighbourhood in Richmond, Virginia, a young Steve Bannon became disillusioned with the church and began to look to New Age spirituality.
‘He starts branching out when he gets into college, he takes meditation classes’, Teitelbaum says. ‘It sounds very typical for a lot of Americans at that time. But he keeps going deeper. Even when he got into the Navy, he was still sneaking off to metaphysical bookstores when he got a chance.’
It was along this road that Bannon discovered the key Traditionalist thinkers. Chief among them is a turn-of-the-century French spiritualist called René Guénon. (‘He died answering to the name Sheikh Abd al-Wāḥid Yaḥyá’, Teitelbaum says. ‘He more or less rejected the West and became a Sufi.’)
But the man who brought this philosophical movement into politics was Julius Evola – a 20th-century Italian theorist, occultist and activist, who would go on to be a collaborator with Mussolini and Hitler during the Second World War.
‘Early in his life, Evola thought that societies could counteract the Traditional time cycle’, writes Teitelbaum in War for Eternity. ‘Through reckless ambition and industry, they could push themselves backward through time to access a greater righteousness. It was on these grounds, in part, that he supported fascism.’
Evola was undoubtedly a racist, but also an incredibly odd kind of racist. He had a spiritualist theory of race, which brought him into conflict with the leading fascists of his day. Steeped as they were in a (no less poisonous) concept of ‘biological’ racism, leading Nazis dismissed him as a ‘pseudoscientist’.
‘Nonetheless’, Teitelbaum has argued, ‘his references to Aryanism, contempt for Africans and Jews, and fetishising of segregation drew him the adoration of future generations of fascist sympathisers’. Among them we can count members of contemporary European far-right movements and the American alt-right.
Commentators began cottoning on to Bannon’s murky intellectual interests in 2016, when a speech that he gave two years prior, to a conference of right-wing Christians at the Vatican, resurfaced. In it, he namechecked Evola.
Bannon’s fondness for the writings of this wartime racial theorist was, naturally, held up as proof that a man who had already been labelled a fascist for his association with Trump’s more extreme and xenophobic policies was definitely the real deal – only in two black shirts, rather than one.
Teitelbaum rejects this. Bannon’s worldview, he says, isn’t about ‘theorised racism or anti-Semitism’. Rather, he is an economic nationalist at home, intent on forging an alliance among the ‘Judeo-Christian West’ – set against the threat of radical, theocratic Islam and a rising state-capitalist China.
Even in that much dissected Vatican speech, Teitelbaum has noted, Bannon suggested European nationalists should drop their ‘racialised agendas in favour of a culturally and religiously based nationalism’.
There is much that is ugly and anti-immigrant in Bannon’s politics. But Teitelbaum argues that to reduce it to fascism or white supremacy is, if nothing else, to cloud our understanding of the more complicated ways in which Traditionalist and far-right thinking overlap, and the ways in which figures like Bannon interact with the genuinely racist movements around today.
‘While it is true that even avid followers of Julius Evola have found ways to excise the Italian thinker’s views on race’, he writes in War for Eternity, ‘it is also no accident that when Traditionalism has made inroads into politics, it has almost always done so in or near the company of race ideologues and anti-Semites’.
This is certainly true in Bannon’s case. He was at one point willing to ‘share space’, as Teitelbaum puts it, with the white-supremacist alt-right – the racist identitarian movement that, for a while, tried to ride on the coattails of the Trump moment.
‘Steve recognised them as being part of Trump’s coalition, and not an entirely dispensable part of it’, he tells me. ‘Even though he can speak in quite colourful terms about how he thinks that they’re fools and “goobers”, as he says, or nutcases. He still would not want to see them entirely pushed to the side.’
That shady dynamic came to the fore in the wake of the appalling scenes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. An assortment of neo-Nazis, Klansmen and alt-rightists came together for the ‘Unite the Right’ rally, nominally to oppose the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee from a local park.
They clashed violently with counter-protesters. Later, a white supremacist rammed his car into a group of anti-racist protesters, injuring 28 people and killing one, 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Bannon is reported to have encouraged Donald Trump’s more equivocal response to the carnage – in which he made a point of saying that those rallying around the statue were not exclusively racists, and that there were ‘very fine people on both sides’.
According to a report in the New York Times, Bannon had ‘cautioned the president not to criticise far-right activists too severely for fear of antagonising a small but energetic part of his base’.
In 2016, Bannon had famously referred to Breitbart, the hard-right news website he then ran, as ‘the platform for the alt-right’.
But that was at a time, Teitelbaum points out, when the term was applied to a much wider spectrum of right-wing movements than it is today.
‘Today, in the US, it has just become a shorthand for white nationalism’, he says. ‘Steve is much less warm to it than he used to be. I would not expect him to ever again say that he is, or anything he works with, is a platform for the alt-right. He’s willing to draw that line.’
Nevertheless, ‘he shares strategic, common interests with them in some cases, and a lot of them happen to share an interest in Julius Evola’.
Bannon left the White House days after Charlottesville. Reports claim he was forced to resign; Bannon insists he had already handed in his notice. Regardless, Trump has since disavowed him, having long grown to resent the depiction of Bannon as ‘Trump’s brain’.
In the end, he was in the White House for less than a year.
Still, the fact that, for a time, a Traditionalist had held sway in the most powerful office in the world is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that Bannon was one of a trio of Traditionalists who had staked out a similar level of influence at around the same time.
The other two big players in this story are Russian Aleksandr Dugin and Brazillian Olavo de Carvalho – two philosophers and ideologues who continue to exert influence on the Putin and Bolsonaro governments respectively, often from a distance and via informal means.
They have also argued furiously with one another about Traditionalism and how to apply it to the world today.
Dugin was a pioneer, Teitelbaum says, ‘in seeing the fight between Tradition and modernity in geopolitical terms’. ‘He thought, conveniently one might say, that his home nation of Russia, and Eurasia more broadly, could be a geopolitical force for Tradition fighting against a geopolitical force for modernity.’ That is, the US.
Dugin sees Eurasia as a distinct, ancient civilisation that should defend itself and its ways of life against exported ‘Atlanticist’ ideas of liberalism, modernity and human rights. His views have been echoed in speeches by Vladimir Putin.
Bannon sees things differently. ‘Following in some of the footsteps of Olavo de Carvalho’, Teitelbaum tells me, ‘he believes that the United States is not simply liberal modernity, but captures the spiritual essence of the Judeo-Christian West, and that it needs to fight against the real centre of liberalism, globalism and modernity – China’.
Bannon even held a day-long summit with Dugin in Rome in 2018 with the aim of bringing him around and getting him to agitate for Russia to break with China and forge an alliance with the West. Olavo, as he is known, shares Bannon’s conviction that China is the real threat – a materialistic, technocratic state that ‘think[s] people are things’.
That these three men have found themselves in positions of remarkable political influence, more or less at the same time, is striking. But while the outlook of a handful of Traditionalists may have, for a time, aligned with the aims of a handful of populist and authoritarian leaders that doesn’t mean that Traditionalism is in the ascendancy – among politicians or voters.
Indeed, the story of War for Eternity is ‘one of failure’, says Teitelbaum. ‘It’s about the inability of these actors to work together, in part because they have such divergent understandings.’
But then, to see Traditionalism in purely political terms, he goes on, is to misunderstand it:
‘This is not so much an explicit agenda vying for popularity among a populace as it is a lens to interpret events… They could lose and still win in their minds.’
Naturally, they see the coronavirus crisis as one packed with Traditionalist possibility, as Teitelbaum found out when he interviewed Dugin and Bannon again recently for a piece in the Nation.
‘I won’t say that they’re happy about it. That would be quite an accusation to make’, he says. ‘But especially Dugin and Bannon see a lot to be gained in this, and also see a sort of fulfilment of prophecy.’
Dugin, he says, sees Covid-19 as a ‘divine reprimand’, forcing globalist, open societies like America to ‘choose between liberalism and life’.
Bannon has been doing daily online broadcasts on Covid-19 since January. ‘He isn’t saying things like we have to choose between liberalism and life’, says Teitelbaum, ‘but he sees, nonetheless, potential for a strengthening of borders, an obvious rebuke against globalism, and a new sort of organic community building throughout the world’.
Traditionalism itself may not offer us any insight into this remarkably turbulent age that we live in. The fantastical meaning these men ascribe to events makes them seem far more detached from reality than the liberal elites they rage against.
But War for Eternity nevertheless offers a fascinating insight into a philosophy whose time, thankfully, hasn’t come.
Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
War for Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right, by Benjamin R Teitelbaum, is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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