The Mystical Steve Bannon
To most people, Steve Bannon is a raucous political strategist who (if you like him) helped elect Donald Trump and is working to catalyze nationalist movements, or if you don’t, is an alt-right Svengali paving the way for authoritarianism. What most people miss is Bannon’s deep interest in Traditionalism, also called perennialism, a philosophical school teaching that all the world’s religions teach a version of the same universal truths. For some time, Benjamin R. Teitelbaum has been studying Traditionalism, and Bannon’s connections to politically powerful Traditionalist political insiders. In his new book War For Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers, Teitelbaum, a professor at the University of Colorado – Boulder, builds on interviews with Bannon and other key figures to illuminate the ideas held by a surprising network of thinkers and strategists. I recently interviewed Teitelbaum about the book via e-mail.
RD: Before we start, let’s define terms. What is Traditionalism, with a capital T? How should the layman distinguish it from small-t traditionalism?
BT: Yes, I wish that the unusual ideas I have been writing about had an equally unusual, rather than a deceptively familiar sounding name. Alas… Capital-T Traditionalism is an exceptionally arcane, barely-known philosophical and spiritual school, one of many variants of alternative spirituality you might (might!) find on the shelves of a New Age bookstore. It seeks to uncover truths about the universe through study of and occasionally conversion to the esoteric wings of various religions, most often Sufi Islam and Hinduism. Only secondarily, and only to some of its followers, is Traditionalism also a political ideology. And as a political ideology, its agenda is both vague and grandiose: to oppose modernity and modernism.
I’ll highlight three features of Traditionalism shape its relationship to politics. The first is that Traditionalists believe in cyclic rather than linear time; that rather than progressing from a history of depravity toward a future of glory, societies constantly depart from and then return to their eternal glory.
The second is the belief that virtuous societies are formed around an Indo-European caste hierarchy with a small elite of Priests atop a pyramid descending to Warriors, to Merchants, and finally to a mass of Slaves. When times are good, the hierarchy is intact and the spirituality of Priests reigns, but when times are bad, the materialism of Slaves and Merchants reign and hierarchy itself is dissolved as humanity is leveled into a single mass.
The third principle I will mention is one called “inversion,” through which Traditionalists believe that, when times are bad and humanity is leveled to a lowly mass, we will also start to mistake things for their opposite: what we think is good is actually bad, someone officially devoted to spiritual matters is a slave to materialism, professors spread ignorance rather than knowledge, journalists misinform, artists create ugliness, etc. It is a society of false simulations. Traditionalists claim that we are living in the late stage of the time cycle right now—toward the end of a Dark Age defined by homogenizing materialism and only simulations of virtue, and that only more darkness is going to advance us past the cycle’s zero-point to the rebirth of a Golden Age.
So, when you consider what all of that has to do with small-T traditionalism the way we casually use the term—with someone who likes things the way they were in a given pursuit or concern—there might be some incidental overlap, like a general skepticism toward change or celebration of the past for its apparent orderliness. But the differences between that and capital-T Traditionalism stretch beyond the fact that the latter offers an elaborate explanation for its views: the doctrine cyclic time makes Traditionalists’ pessimism of an entirely different type than Dana Carvey’s “Back-in-my-day” character on Saturday Night Live. For as destructive as change is in the eyes of Traditionalists, they could as well welcomed destruction in a spirit of melancholy and masochism, as a sign that collapse and rejuvenating rebirth are neigh. Put differently, what Traditionalists have, and a grumpy grandparent lacks, is a latent apocalyptica.
RD: Who are the most important historical figures in Traditionalism?
BT: To understand what’s happening today, you really need to know about three figures: Traditionalism’s patriarch was a Frenchman named René Guénon (1886-1951) who died a Sufi Muslim answering to the name Abd al-Wāḥid Yaḥyá. Guénon’s were dense philosophical and religious tracts, condemning individualism and homogenization of society, but otherwise avoiding politics.
It would be a follower of his, Julius Evola (1898-1974), attempted to forge politics out of Traditionalism. Evola was a writer and theorist who imbued the school with explicit racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism (the process of social decline, in his mind, entailed the disappearance of pure Aryans and the loss of masculinist values). But he also thought that decline wasn’t fate, that humanity might be able to push itself backward through the time cycle, and this motivated his attempts to collaborate with Mussolini and Hitler: both seemed to embody an older militaristic modality, he thought, and if only they could be imbued with more spiritual vitality, they could forge authentic Aryan theocracies and travel backwards into a golden age.
A third figure whose visions we less obviously sinister, but who nonetheless created a cult shrouded in suspicion and scandal, was a German/Swiss thinker named Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), who followed his mentor Guénon in converting to Sufism. His practice and writing came to advocate more syncretism than other Traditionalists, however, fusing Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and even Native American spiritualities, as well as more idiosyncratic beliefs like sacred nudity and pseudo-erotic propitiation of maternal figures in various religious traditions. But Schuon is as known for the institution he established, a network of Sufi schools—or tariqas—that during the 1970s and 1980s were relatively widespread geographically, with the center being a compound in his adopted home outside Bloomington, Indiana.
RD: What does Christianity have to do with Traditionalism? I mean, there are “Traditionalist Catholics,” which is to say, Catholics who favor the Latin Mass, and who take a dim view of the Second Vatican Council, but that’s not the kind of thing we are talking about with Traditionalism, right?
BT: No, it is generally safe to say that the two are not much closer than small-t traditionalism and Traditionalism, except for one major caveat. Among Traditionalists who are Christians, virtually all are either Eastern Orthodox or Catholic. Part of the justification for treating Catholicism as legitimate are its elements that could be viewed as predating, and transcending, Christ. Its paganism, its hierarchy, its social and theological investment in precedence and continuity, etc.
A similar argument is made in favor of Sufism, that though Sufism is Islamic, it served as a vehicle for preserving archaic, pre-Islamic virtues in Islamized society and therefore could be used to catch a glimpse of what once was.
The problems with Christianity for some Traditionalists, as well as adjacent ideologues in the French New Right, are features that they believe constitute an antithesis of the values they champion: not hierarchy but a leveling and homogenizing universalism communicated in the dogma that Christ’s message is the ultimate and final truth for all people, its teleology and implicit vision of progress bent on transcending a past of sin into a future of salvation, and its embryonic disinclination toward theocracy and endorsement of a secular state contained in edicts to “render unto Caesar.”
I wasn’t surprised when Steve Bannon once told me that, though he is Christian, he doesn’t like evangelism.
RD: Two key contemporary figures in your story are Aleksandr Dugin and Olavo de Carvalho. Most Americans have never heard of either. Who are they, and why are they important?
BT: Both are political operatives who have attempted to shape anti-liberal political leaders in their respective countries, and both have links with Traditionalism.
Aleksandr Dugin is a philosopher/journalist/diplomat and political agitator in Russia. One of the first to translate Evola into Russian, and self-proclaimed devotee of Guénon, he views Traditionalism’s opposition between modernity and Tradition in geopolitical terms, with the West and the United States in particular representing modernity and Eurasia preserving Tradition. Despite never having held a formal position in the Kremlin, he has attempted—in ways at times pathetically ineffective, other times impactful—to advance his vision for containment of Western power and the reassertion of Russian, Chinese, and Iranian influence in global politics. According to U.S. intelligence, he helped facilitate talks between Russia and Turkey after the two came into conflict in Syria.
Olavo de Carvalho only recently gained influence in politics. Born in São Paulo, he was an eccentric astrologer/philosopher who taught university courses and was initiated into none other than Frithjof Schuon’s Sufi Islam tariqa in Bloomington and ran a satellite in São Paulo during the 1980s. He later migrated into becoming a hardline Catholic and renounced Schuon’s organization, even as he continued to write and teach about Guénon.
Following a career as a journalist, a curious move to the United States during the early 2000s, and a burgeoning exposure on social media thanks to his profanity-filled rants against Brazilian politicians, media figures, and academics, he eventually forged a bond with Rio populist Jair Bolsonaro. When in 2018 Bolsonaro won the Brazilian presidency, Olavo and his then-massive social media following were credited as a major contributing factor. He was offered and declined a position as the Minister of Education by Bolsonaro, though he made suggestions as to who could fill some cabinet positions (including Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo whom I consider an apparent Traditionalist, and who Olavo considers a “more of a Traditionalist than himself”). He maintains intangible but potent influence on the Brazilian president today as an unofficial advisor, and together with those ministers he promoted, constitutes a faction of the besieged Bolsonaro government today.
RD: How does Steve Bannon come into the picture?
BT: To the best of my knowledge, Steve Bannon first met Aleksandr Dugin in November 2018, and Olavo de Carvalho in January 2019. Like them he was a sometimes formal, sometimes informal influence on his local anti-liberal leader, and like them he affiliated with Traditionalism. I never figured out exactly how Bannon discovered Traditionalism (curiously, like Dugin and Olavo, his pathway toward the school went through or near people connected with Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff).
He was raised and continues to identify as a Catholic, of course, but he seems to have had an urge to look beyond standard Catholicism and into alternative spiritualities from a young age: as a twentysomething in the Navy, he knew his way by foot to most metaphysical bookstores in the port cities where his destroyer would dock. The religious thought that he presented to me in our interviews struck me as being much more puzzling and eccentric that that of most Christians, and so was the political profile he would develop later based on his reading of Evola and Guénon.
In my book I walk through his version of Traditionalism, one where he claims to have abandoned Evola’s investment in race and masculinism, keeps the hostility to materialism and modernity, and claims that the final goal of his politics is to allow others to complete a process of spiritual advance—as individuals and as a nation. He still follows the time-cycle doctrine, and even noted to me how this belief diverged from Christianity as he understood it. He attempted to align Traditionalism with American narratives of the self-made-man and social mobility, but the product and its sources are still from a world that would likely baffle, maybe repulse or frighten, your average American Republican.
RD: One thing that really stands out in your book is how Bannon really has tried to get a Traditionalist International going, but has failed. He bounced out of the White House, and hasn’t found his footing since. What went wrong?
BT: Traditionalism really isn’t a political doctrine—it doesn’t outline a political agenda with much specificity, and one of the consequences of this is that political actors claiming affiliation with the school will diverge in their understandings of what they ought to champion. Indeed, the major figures today have quite different understandings of what it means to fight for Tradition and against liberal modernity, how that ought to manifest in politics and geopolitics, and particularly how China, Russia, and the United States ought to be understood.
I reveal in the book how Bannon secretly met with Dugin hoping to persuade him—on Traditionalist grounds—to begin agitating in Russia for a new pro-Western, anti-Chinese foreign policy. Dugin was and remains resistant to the idea. And none of this gets at the deeper issue, that Traditionalism doesn’t really believe in activism, popularity, and in winning a modern political contest. To the extent someone like Bannon tries to build mass sympathy for a political program sufficient to win power in a democracy, he is breaking from the doctrine that would link him with someone like Dugin. So prospects seem bad for the start, though you could say that makes the attempt all the more audacious and volatile.
RD: In the Traditionalist framework, at least as interpreted by Bannon and Olavo, virtue resides in the ordinary people, those shut out from elite circles and institutions. They are supposed to be the repository of true spiritual values. How realistic is this, though, even in Traditionalist terms? In the US, the working class is less religiously observant than the middle class. I understand the trad-populist criticism of the spiritual corruption of the elites, and share a lot of it, but I can’t see solid ground for this valorization of the People. It sounds to me more like an ideological abstraction, the way the Bolsheviks instrumentalized the “Masses,” and the Nazis used “das Volk.”
BT: Yes, in those latter cases you see either a descriptive or a prescriptive vision for treating one part of a population as definitive of the whole. These populations have typically been abstractions and imaginations—the accusation against romantic nationalists, to say nothing of the Nazis, was that they had invented the integral “folk” of the countryside that populated their stories and paintings and songs, just as Marxists had marched off to find a proletariat when such a neatly defined population seldom existed. Most original Traditionalists saw instead the priestly elite as being the “culture makers” of society, the ones who ought shape the masses according to their own ideals.
In Bannon’s and Olavo’s upended version we see something that looks more like standard romantic nationalism à la Herder, where a sector of society deemed most insulated from the corruption of modernity (often rural, less formal education, stationary) was viewed as a vessel for timeless values and identity. And the question to those romantics would be the same to Bannon, and it’s the question you pose: on what grounds do you speak of those people as a whole, and how are you sure they possess the qualities you think they do?
I won’t try to answer that question for them, but I will say that Bannon in particular would likely reject the methods we use to assess who is and is not “religiously observant.” Buoyed in part by his readings of Traditionalism (the concept of inversion I mentioned earlier), and exhibited in his confrontations with the Catholic Church, he is poised to view religious institutions as invalid these days, as simulations of what they ought to be. I don’t think it would be a far stretch to anticipate him thinking that true “Priests” are hidden to institutionalized religion, and to pollsters.
RD: What role do borders play in Bannon’s Traditionalist metaphysics?
BT: Bannon, like Dugin, thinks of borders more expansively than most people. He advocate for the strengthening of national borders, yes, but borders of all kinds are besieged in his mind—borders between civilizations and identities as well as borders within societies governing how people act toward each other and organize their lives.
Borderlessness is a hallmark of modernity, reflected, according to the early Traditionalists, in the disintegration of hierarchy and its replacement by mass, borderless society lacking any collective between the individual and the totality. Reviving borders of all kinds is anti-modern behavior. It is to introduce order where chaos previously existed, and to segment and stabilize the world. This is the common thread motivating Bannon’s social conservatism, his cultural (some would allege ethno-)nationalism, his non-interventionism, economic protectionism, and opposition to immigration.
RD: I happened to be reading your book at the same time as Modris Eksteins’ 1986 history of modernism, Rites of Spring. Eksteins says that just prior to World War I, Germany thought of itself as the champion of true spiritual values, and Britain (as well as France) as exponents of a civilization that placed primacy on money-making and materialism. We know too what the Nazis did with the same general concept. There really are solid historical grounds to worry about a recrudescence. That said, the critique Team Bannon makes of the emptiness of commercial society, and modernity’s capacity to dissolve national and cultural particularity, is both solid and appealing. Can you imagine a way in which political actors could advance the best part of Traditionalism — defending local and national cultures from absorption into the globalist mass — without succumbing to the wicked parts?
BT: Here you are asking me to speak for myself rather than for the people I studied, but I’ll try to work with the question: I think people stand the best chance of deriving something good from Traditionalism when they treat it, not as a guide for action, but instead as a narrative to inspire new analyses of society, which thereafter might function as a basis for action.
In particular I wonder whether there isn’t a place for pondering a chain of correspondences the school proposes, namely, that the most meaningful commonality held by the modern political left and right is their peculiar focus on economics; that the relative disinterest in immaterial aspects of social life might be at the root of our tacit aversion to allowing people and communities to be meaningfully different from one another; that the insistence on building community based on visions of a shared future rather than a shared past—which has so many obvious virtues and which is a near necessity in countries like the United States—underestimates the importance that narratives of a common history play in forging social solidarity.
I think the “wickedness” of Traditionalism comes, not only from the content of the hierarchies it sometimes proposes (race, gender, etc.), and not only from the way it could encourage us to ignore or relish contemporary hardship, but also because of what it doesn’t say—the fact that its grand narrative of human history and the battle of good and bad leaves so much unspecified. Those empty spaces can and have been filled with demagoguery. One way to avoid this is to not subscribe to Traditionalism as religion, of course, but to allow its occasional, qualified insights to live in a wider complex of values and agendas—including those it maligns.
RD: I’ve been corresponding with a national journalist who is trying to understand why some American conservatives (like me) are drawn to Hungary’s Viktor Orban. This journalist is a liberal, and can only see Orban as a villain. I’ve tried to explain that people like me certainly don’t endorse everything Orban does, but we see in him a figure of resistance to George Soros and what Soros stands for. That is, Soros is the epitome of a wealthy, influential globalist who believes localist and nationalist institutions and narratives are problems to be solved. I wouldn’t expect a Western liberal to support a politician like Orban, but tell me, why is it so difficult for Western liberals to grasp that politicians like Orban appeal to deep longings in people — for, as you put it, “community, diversity, [and] sovereignty,” that cannot be reduced to “racism”?
BT: I think it is common to fear complex portrayals of people who threaten you, and the liberal left is certainly afraid of Orban (as am I to an extent, I must admit): his transformation of election processes, his treatment of the media, and his self-proclaimed opposition to liberal democracy, etc. I’m not telling you or your readers anything new in noting how that last piece in particular—Orban’s opposition to liberal democracy—is disqualifying to many Western commentators.
But the added feature here is that he personifies a cause that can appear ascendant in global politics. That prompts some commentators to move from mere criticism to war, and thereby to the realm of us-versus-them thinking, of black and white, of telling people that they are either part of the solution or part of the problem. Muddy those waters with talk of qualifications, contingencies, and parallel interpretations, and—the reasoning seems to go—you can as well be an apologist for the enemy. And when confronted with an unexpected or strange account of someone like Orban—one, say, framing him as a right-wing force for localism and community rather than libertarian individualism—and you’d be lucky to be called “politically incoherent” as Thomas Chatterton Williams recently put it. More likely the instinct will be to accuse you of fashioning a façade to obscure what, allegedly, matters most.
Part of me gets this as a political strategy. I understand theoretically why someone would say that the political stakes are so high these days that a line-in-the-sand tactic might be needed to mobilize. What I want at a minimum, however, is for people to be honest with themselves if they choose this path. I want them to recognize that dividing the world in all-or-nothing terms, adopting and strenuously maintaining uniform definitions of each other and cultivating fear and contempt for inconsistency and the unorthodox constitutes self-imposed ignorance; a subordination of inquiry and knowledge for the sake of political expediency.
RD: Does Traditionalism have a political future? Trump has been useless in actually advancing its goals. In my view, it has been nothing but performative kitsch for him. What will happen to the Trads if Trump wins a second term? If he loses?
BT: I think Traditionalist narratives of Trump could take a number of shapes depending on what happens. Trump’s potential value to these actors rests in his ability to upend the status quo; if he wins and comes to represent a new status quo, then he could soon appear as an avatar of the modernist decadence they loath. Traditionalists’ conundrum resembles that of the standard anti-establishment populist in this sense. But if he loses in November, Traditionalists might retrospectively view his rise as nothing other than a momentary (and prophesied) pause in the cycle of decline, just as Mussolini appeared to Julius Evola after WWII.
But as you can tell, this is mostly about narratives rather than policy. One of the challenges I’ve faced in writing the book is to distinguish when Traditionalism functions as a program for action and when it functions as a lens for interpretation.
Its fatalism—its belief that history is following a schedule and that we find ourselves living toward the end of a dark age and near the dawn of a collapse and rebirth—need not spur much action beyond adopting a celebratory or indifferent attitude in the face of destruction and apparent chaos. That’s not to say that these thinkers can’t identify particular policies that embody their values more than others: the fortification of borders and the shrinking of political spheres is an example of such a cause, and its prospects in a battle against all the forces of globalization seem poor.
But Traditionalists also find encouragement in places we wouldn’t expect. Bannon was quite excited by the short candidacy of Marianne Williamson—a spiritualist Democratic candidate for president who spoke of the need to confront “dark psychic forces.” She seemed to represent a politics of the immaterial, and were she to have faced off against Trump, I’m not sure Bannon would have cared about the outcome, for he might see a larger victory in the entire political spectrum having moved away from materialism.
But your question was not just about Traditionalists, but also Traditionalism.The real impetus to my writing the book was my bewilderment at the fact that a way of thinking so radical and so obscure surfaced suddenly in different positions of power throughout the world. And I still wonder what that says about our present and future. I’m not entertaining the notion that cosmic time cycles and such are actually at play, but rather that the rise of Bannon, Dugin, and Olavo testifies to a broader societal drive to depart from the sociopolitical status quo. For entirely worldly reasons, communities seem to be seeking to dramatic change, and that may keep Traditionalism alive as one of multiple alternatives.
[Benjamin Teitelbaum’s book is War For Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers(Dey Street Books)]