The Man Behind the Curtain?

The Trump-era has been a boon to people inclined to bizarre or conspiratorial thinking. The QAnon online subculture—a group insisting that, any day now, Donald Trump’s secret plan to expose and imprison the “establishment” villains running satanic pedophile rings will come to fruition—continues to attract a shocking number of adherents. Trump’s 2016 victory also led to some silly conspiracy theories from his opponents. Some critics still claim that Putin is controlling Trump and his allies like marionettes. The Trump era has also created a generation of numerology enthusiasts on the left, people looking for Trump tweets including the numbers 14 or 88, convinced the president is sending secret codes to hidden legions of neo-Nazis. Most of the recent conspiracy theories across the political spectrum can be dismissed as obvious nonsense. That does not mean, however, that world politics lacks strange characters pursuing secret agendas.

In his new book, War for Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers, Benjamin Teitelbaum makes the case that (now-indicted) former White House strategist Steve Bannon, along with other right-wing figures of varying importance, embrace a peculiar view of the world, a view that may have political consequences. Rather than a generic conservative traditionalist, Bannon, to at least some degree, is a Traditionalist (always capitalized). Traditionalism in this form is a radical philosophical perspective that completely rejects modernity. It also rejects the notion of historical progress, thinking instead in terms of historical cycles. Traditionalists further argue that we are currently living through a dark age—the Kali Yuga—which must eventually give way to a new golden age. Until that point, however, human beings will continue to live in a depraved and degraded state, focused solely on the material world, cut off from true spirituality.

Bannon and Traditionalism

René Guénon (1886-1951) and Julius Evola (1898-1974) are the most well-known figures associated with Traditionalism in the 20th century. Because of his rejection of democracy, we could reasonably describe Guénon as a right-wing thinker. However, given his focus on spiritual matters (Guénon eventually converted to Sufi Islam and moved to Egypt), describing him in contemporary political terms may not be appropriate. Evola, on the other hand, did think and write a great deal about politics, and learning that an Evola devotee has political influence may be cause for concern. It may not be hyperbole to describe Julius Evola as the 20th century’s most radically right-wing thinker.

For Evola, a just hierarchy was the key to a proper social order. Democracy, or any other system that posits human equality in any meaningful sense, is therefore loathsome. During the interwar period, Evola was generally sympathetic toward rising right-wing movements, such as Fascism in his native Italy and National Socialism in Germany. He was, however, sharply critical of both, and his critiques were always from the right. For Evola, the problem with the Fascists and the Nazis was that they were never sufficiently right-wing. They were always too materialist, too populist, and too democratic. Evola did appreciate some elements of the Nazi regime, though. For example, he admired Heinrich Himmler’s SS, in part because of its focus on esoteric rituals and rites of initiation.

Teitelbaum provides a succinct and accurate description of Traditionalism, and does so in refreshingly clear and dispassionate language. In fact, Teitelbaum even understates the degree to which Evola was a bizarre figure, as the book skirts over some of the more unusual aspects of his biography, such as his early career as a Dadaist painter. This was unfortunate, but perhaps necessary, as Bannon and his associates are the book’s main focus. According to Teitelbaum, Bannon, former chairman of Breitbart News, chief executive of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, and, for seven months, the White House Chief Strategist, possesses a worldview shaped by Traditionalism—though Bannon has “his own unique version.” Teitelbaum’s book is a useful companion to Joshua Green’s Bannon biography, Devil’s Bargain, which tells readers much about Bannon’s professional career, but comparatively little about his religious and philosophical commitments. Green mentioned Bannon’s interest in Traditionalism, but his book did not investigate this issue in any detail.

When it comes to actual policies, Bannon’s preferences are no different than those of an ordinary Tea Party conservative. That being the case, does it really matter how he arrived at his views?

According to Teitelbaum, Bannon has always had idiosyncratic spiritual interests. Although always a Roman Catholic, Bannon became curious about eastern religions at an early age, perusing book shops on the other side of the globe during his time in the U.S. Navy. This led to his subsequent discovery of Guénon and, at some point after that, Evola. It is not obvious how these readings directly influenced Bannon’s later work. One would never have assumed such an influence at all until Bannon made a passing (and strange) reference to Evola during a 2014 speech at a Vatican conference.

Over the last several years, Bannon has had contacts with other peculiar figures with an interest in Traditionalism. Perhaps most significantly, Bannon has met with Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian academic said to have influenced Vladimir Putin. Although at odds on many key points, Bannon and Dugin share certain principles which are derived from a Traditionalist worldview. Both oppose “globalism,” for example. Olavo de Carvalho, an advisor to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, is another figure both friendly with Bannon and interested in Traditionalism, though, despite his bizarre spiritual history, I would describe Carvalho today as a mostly conventional Catholic conservative. Teitelbaum also describes additional contemporary purveyors of Traditionalism, such as the white nationalist publishing company Arktos, as well as the relationship between Traditionalism and the so-called Alt-Right, which included many Evola fans in its ranks.

Power Brokers?

Teitelbaum describes this book as a mix of ethnography and investigative journalism. It succeeds on both counts. War for Eternity demonstrates the author’s vast knowledge of the radical right and provides an accurate account of the various ideological currents he examines. Unlike most academic ethnographic studies, however, this book is exceptionally readable. Teitelbaum unquestionably benefited from the degree to which most of his subjects were apparently eager to speak with him and share their ideas and biographical details. Why Bannon and the other figures in the book enthusiastically offered their thoughts on these matters was never clear—Teitelbaum himself expressed confusion on this point.

I do have some misgivings with Teitelbaum’s analysis. Throughout the text, I questioned whether Teitelbaum’s characters should really be described as “global power brokers.” This description certainly does not fit the many marginal eccentrics he discussed as length—people like John Morgan and Jason Jorjani. I am not even sure the moniker is appropriate for the book’s main figures, including Bannon and Dugin, at least not at present.

Although Steve Bannon certainly played a role in the resurgence of right-wing populism in the U.S. and, perhaps, abroad, his influence has been likely overstated. For a time, Bannon was portrayed in the media as the political mastermind behind Trumpism, yet he did not join the Trump campaign until after Trump earned the GOP nomination. Furthermore, it was hard to see any discernible change in the campaign after Bannon joined the team. At most, he was important because he encouraged Trump to maintain his combative, anti-establishment style through the final months of the campaign. Bannon can also claim credit for few significant policy innovations during his short time in the White House. After losing further political credibility by backing Roy Moore in the 2017 Alabama election for U.S. Senate, inadvertently helping a Democrat win that seat, Bannon has been largely absent from the American political scene. He has since attempted to insert himself into European right-wing politics, but again it is not obvious that he is currently having any discernible effect on politics or policy on the other side of the Atlantic.

Teitelbaum also probably oversells Dugin’s influence in Russia—he is not the only person to do so. Teitelbaum credits Dugin with promoting the idea that a multipolar global system should replace the current global order presently led by the United States. Dugin’s ideas about “Eurasianism” as a counter-weight to America’s domination of the globe are certainly aligned with Putin’s vision. Yet, if Aleksandr Dugin never existed, would Putin’s view of Russia’s foreign policy goals have been any different? I doubt it.

Bannon’s fascination with Traditionalism is one of his more interesting attributes, and Teitelbaum provides a useful explanation of Bannon’s intellectual influences. Yet I still have questions. Teitelbaum repeatedly notes that Bannon’s views differ from those of the leading Traditionalists, and admits that Bannon’s “commentary on Traditionalism was consistently inconsistent.” To say that Bannon put his own spin on Traditionalism would be more than an understatement. In contrast to Teitelbaum, I argue that the chasm between Bannon’s variety of right-wing populism and the Traditionalism of Evola or Guénon is probably not bridgeable.

Evola despised capitalism, the middle classes, and the United States. Yet we are to believe that there is a connection between Evola’s writings and Bannon’s dream of bringing manufacturing jobs back to America. Evola also hated Christianity, viewing it as weak, feminine, and chthonic. Guénon, as I mentioned, converted to Islam. Yet Bannon has always presented himself as a defender of “Judeo-Christian civilization.” Especially after 1945, Evola suggested Traditionalists should withdraw from mainstream political activity. He called this stance apoliteia, a term he borrowed from the Stoics. According to Evola, Traditionalists must recognize that political actions are pointless at this stage of the historical cycle and instead develop an inner detachment from contemporary politics—though Evola allowed exceptions if someone was engaged in politics for purely personal reasons. This does not seem congruent with Bannon’s decades of brawling in the political arena.

Teitelbaum looks for ways to connect Bannon’s policy goals with Traditionalist principles. For example, Bannon’s support for weakening America’s federal bureaucracies may indicate that Bannon believes the tiger of modernity (to paraphrase Evola) may be tiring, and the rider on its back is now positioned to strangle it; perhaps the time is now right to give the rickety modern world one last push, allowing the return to a golden age. Maybe that is the explanation for Bannon’s positions—I don’t know. Yet, when it comes to the actual policy, Bannon’s preferences are no different than those of an ordinary Tea Party conservative. That being the case, does it really matter how he arrived at his views?

I expect many readers, especially on the left, will be greatly alarmed by what Teitelbaum reveals in War for Eternity. Nonetheless, upon finishing the book, I still see a great disconnect between Bannon the (supposed) Traditionalist and Bannon the political operative. For all of his apparent interest in time cycles, esoteric spirituality, perennialism, and obscure right-wing mystics, Bannon’s political agenda has been consistently banal. Perhaps the strangest thing about Bannon is that he took such a long, circuitous route to develop a program that could have been lifted from a Sarah Palin stump speech. Bannon remains one of the more interesting figures of this peculiar political age, and Teitelbaum does his best to depict Bannon’s career in politics as a coherent story, with a clear foundation in Traditionalist philosophy. Ultimately, however, I am inclined to believe Bannon himself, who expressly told Teitelbaum, “I’m just some fuckin’ guy, making it up as I go.”