Steve Bannon

The Nationalism-ists

The members of Steve Bannon's international circle share an outlandish spiritual-historic vision, but their threat to liberty is more mundane.


War for Eternity: Inside Bannon's Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers, by Benjamin R. Teitelbaum, Dey St., 317 pages, $28.99

In War for Eternity, Benjamin R. Teitelbaum situates Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump's former campaign CEO and White House chief strategist, in a context likely unknown to 99.9 percent of the voters Bannon helped steer toward Trump: Traditionalism, with a capital T.

This Traditionalism is distinct from its common colloquial meaning of "advocating older ways of life." It draws inspiration from such obscure figures as René Guénon, a French esotericist who moved from Catholicism through theosophy to Sufi Islam while calling for an elite aristocratic order and denouncing the materialism of industrial civilization, and Julius Evola, an Italian occultist and fascist fellow traveler who thought that "bourgeois civilization and society" are anathema to a noble and heroic man.

What inspires a true Traditionalist? As Bannon tells Teitelbaum, it's "the rejection of modernity, the rejection of the Enlightenment, the rejection of materialism." Traditionalists believe in a prehistoric ur-religion, hints of whose deep cosmic truths can be glimpsed occluded in modern faiths from Catholicism to Hinduism. History to a Traditionalist runs through repeating cycles, with similar ages rising and tumbling down in unavoidable succession.

Traditionalists think human culture is now staggering through a dark cycle, the "Kali Yuga." They believe human beings should be shoved into rigid castes, and they see each age dominated by a distinct type, from priest to warrior to merchant to slave (sliding down what they see as the ladder of spiritual merit).

Few voters have pondered any of that, but Teitelbaum thinks the Traditionalists, by allying themselves with far-right authoritarian nationalism, might be developing the muscle to bring the Kali Yuga to a swift end.

Teitelbaum, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, considers Traditionalism the "most transformative political movement of the early 21st century." Acolytes associated with this way of thinking have their claws deep in the leadership of at least three powerful nations, he argues: Russia via Aleksandr Dugin; Brazil via Olavo de Carvalho; and the United States via Bannon.

Dugin is a fervent, violent Russian nationalist who in 1993 launched the National Bolshevik Party. The name, Teitelbaum writes, "was a tribute to Nazism and communism," since each "once served as counterweights to American expansion." Dugin's book Foundations of Geopolitics, which pushed the idea that the U.S. must be counteracted on the global stage, became "standard assigned reading into the twenty-first century at the General Staff Academy" for Russian military leaders. He went on to become a Putin adviser without portfolio, with Putin said to echo "sometimes in a matter of hours…expressions Dugin was using in media broadcasts."

Olavo, as he's known, spent years as an initiate in Traditionalist communal cult groups; he ended up in rural Virginia as a buddy to Bannon and one of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's top advisers.

The three men share a deep contempt for modern institutions, such as universities and the media, that they accuse of promoting decadent modern liberalism. And it certainly is interesting to contemplate their eccentric beliefs and lives in this well-reported book.

But is Teitelbaum right about their influence? Bannon has been on the outs with Trump for years now—indeed, he currently faces fraud charges stemming from his efforts to raise funds, purportedly for a border wall, and he may soon be heading to jail. And it's not at all clear that either Putin or Bolsonaro would rule differently if they had never known their kooky Traditionalist guides.

Teitelbaum himself isn't quite sure exactly what he's got his hands on with this topic and these characters. He states early on that "Bannon wasn't just aware of Traditionalism…it shaped his fundamental understanding of the world and of himself." But even an author with a scary thesis to establish soon notices that Bannon doesn't seem to have either a scholar's or a fanatic's grasp of these ideas. When talking about Traditionalism, Teitelbaum reports, Bannon "misattributed works and concepts, gave me contradictory stories of his encounters with different authors, and would occasionally glide between" big-T Traditionalism and little-t traditionalism.

Bannon does use the peculiar phrase "man in time" to refer to the former political horse he rode, Donald Trump. That phrase arises from the writing of Savitri Devi, a literal Hitler worshipper, who meant by it a figure who rushed along inexorable cyclical time by being a force of destruction (as Bannon saw Trump's role vis-a-vis the American administrative state). But Bannon doesn't seem to be aware where the phrase comes from. He admits to having heard the name Savitri Devi but professes to not know much about her and acts like a student to Teitelbaum's teacher regarding her ideas.

Is Bannon strategically obscuring a sinister master plan? The book doesn't make it clear exactly what Bannon hoped to get out of the extensive access he granted Teitelbaum—around 20 hours of interviews over a little more than a year. (Teitelbaum himself took a circuitous route to his fascination with Traditionalism, first having encountered it while studying European dark metal musicians with fascist and occultist leanings.)

Regardless of exactly how deeply and intelligently Bannon's politics are shaped by Traditionalism, his populist anti-cosmopolitanism didn't need Traditionalism to take root. The partisans of the Trump-era "new conservative nationalism" for the most part don't know or care about Guénon or Evola, and neither do the Breitbart-reading conservative masses. Indeed, Bannon had to twist the elitist Traditionalist viewpoint to use it in service to Trump.

When Bannon imagines us moving out of the Kali Yuga, the heroes he posits are not an elite spiritual or warrior caste but Middle American workers. It is their interests that Bannon sees being promoted by trade protectionism, closed borders, and fewer foreign wars; they are in his eyes the paladins of the ineffable Spirit of America. And Bannonism largely avoided, as Teitelbaum notes, Traditionalism's "most politically damning dogmas—notably its theorized subordination of women, nonwhites, and the poor."

Teitelbaum also sees a rift at the heart of the modern Traditionalists. That rift runs through China.

Dugin, who now works at a Chinese university, thinks Traditionalists must embrace the Middle Kingdom as a tool—the wrench in the gears of imperialistic American liberalism. He wants a variety of economic and cultural power centers to flourish in order to block U.S. cosmopolitan globalist capitalism from dominating everywhere; that, to him, is the most important issue. For Bannon, himself on retainer for an anti–Chinese Communist Party plutocrat, China's leaders are the mercantile technocrats who represent the worst of the Kali Yuga.

An irony of this Traditionalist-linked nationalism is that it isn't about promoting the greatness or prerogatives of your nation per se; especially for Dugin, it's a paradoxically universal belief in every nation's nationalism. Those who are sure they're living in a Kali Yuga won't find much to love in their or any nation. They are less nationalists than nationalism-ists, believers in the importance of a distinct worldwide group of powers pursuing distinct ways of life, with room for a variety of illiberalisms.

From that element of Traditionalist thought arises the Bannon crowd's one saving grace: their belief that it's not America's right or responsibility to invade and manage the world to universalize Western liberal ways. One can—indeed, you might even say one ought to—believe that and still embrace the value of Western liberalism. Eschewing military imperialism is a key part of liberalism at its best. But Bannon and his pals don't see it that way.

Bannon is obsessed with gaseous talk of an ill-defined "immanence and transcendence" he believes must shape politics. But politics does not and cannot deal with such essences, no matter what you mean by them. The concrete essence of politics, and certainly of Bannonist/Trumpist politics, is harming the harmless with government force.

Bannon has an unhealthy interest in some unhealthy spiritual ideas, as Teitelbaum explores entertainingly and a little frighteningly. But with or without Traditionalism—and with or without Bannon—culturally resentful anti-trade, anti-immigration policies will be a threat to the future of a healthy, wealthy, peaceful liberalism.