Lloyd George famously pronounced Hitler a reasonable man with reasonable aims. But had he spoken to him recently about how the Fuhrer used a dowser to scour the Reich Chancellery for “cancerous death rays”, or for that matter to Goebbels about Nostradamus?
The French soothsayer was Goebbels’ favourite nightstand reading. For his part, Himmler employed his own private sage, a tufty geriatric called Wiligut, who would provide him with stories of a time when “giants, dwarves and mythical beasts moved about beneath a sky filled with three sun”’. Hitler and Himmler would often lapse into heated conversation about “the World Empire of Atlantis, which fell victim to the catastrophe of the moons falling to Earth”.
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The Reich’s fascination with the occult motivated many of their deeds. What Lloyd George and others missed was that redrawing Czechoslovakia — or even winning the war — was never the Nazis’ deepest aim. That was building a ladder to heaven.
It’s the same often-obscured relationship between the far-Right and mysticism that forms the spine of Benjamin Teitelbaum’s entertaining tale of his time haring around the planet after Steve Bannon, and others, in search of the political philosophy of Traditionalism.
War For Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right (published on 21 April) reads a bit like Dan Brown’s pol sci doctoral thesis — standby flights to Washington, 3am Skype calls with Kremlin advisors, mittel European intrigue in Budapest, racists in ashrams, a Black Hand of high-end political operators, all united by their faith in a shadowy paleo-religion.
Traditionalism is a capital letter creed. It is not to be confused with traditionalism, the Tory bolt-on, in which squires from shires reminisce about clips round the ear received from friendly neighbourhood bobbies.
The simplest way into Traditionalism is to think of it as the fourth quadrant on a political compass where the other three are fascism, liberalism and communism. Traditionalism rejects all three rivals on the same grounds — that they are modernist, they’re competing for the chance to modernise the world; and they’re materialist: communism and liberalism are both obsessed with money, fascism with bodies.
Traditionalism is neither modernist nor materialist. Which is why it can be very hard to pin down. Its intellectual godheads are Julius Evola, the original ‘fascist philosopher’ who inspired Mussolini; and René Guénon, the French religious thinker and symbolist, who ended up in a lifelong clinch with Sufi Islam.
As obscure as it is, its sympathisers have happened upon considerable power across the last decade. Teitelbaum’s big reveal is that Steve Bannon considers himself a Traditionalist. As does Jair Bolsonaro’s most trusted adviser, the ex-astrologer Olavo de Carvalho. As do the former leader of Hungary’s massive anti-Semitic party Jobbik, and the founders of the biggest far-Right publishing house in the world, Arktos.
Most influential of all is Aleksandr Dugin, a long-time foreign policy adviser to Vladimir Putin. Though his relationship to the Kremlin has often been informal, it was Dugin’s ‘tanks to Tblisi’ sloganeering that persuaded Putin to seize South Ossetia in 2008, and his dreams of a greater Russia that undergirded both the taking of Crimea in 2014 and the continuing attempts to hack bits off eastern Ukraine. Dugin even wrote a book on Traditionalism: The Fourth Political Theory.
He believes, at a mystical level, in geopolitical multi-polarity, making the argument that Russia has a birthright to its own sphere of influence — and that the world is in harmony when these various international spheres do not overlap.
Dugin’s central logic is a variant of the Millennial self-care cliché: you do you. Or, as Réne Guénon put it: “So long as western people imagine that there only exists a single type of humanity, that there is only one ‘civilization’, at different stages of development, no mutual understanding will be possible.”
For his part, Bannon, whom Teitelbaum interviewed several times, comes out both darker and lighter than his media persona. In future, when you think of him, you shouldn’t think of the guy who ran Breitbart. Don’t even think of his prior incarnation, chopping TV rights into financial instruments for Goldman Sachs. Think of the US Navy lieutenant who’d have to hide his transcendental meditation sessions from his bunkmates. The Lieutenant Bannon who, when he was on shore leave in Hong Kong, would ditch his buddies on their way to the red light district, and instead make a B-line for the town’s esoteric bookshops.
Even when he was a producer in Hollywood, Bannon would sometimes tell his secretary to hold his calls, then spend days devouring new titles from Melrose Avenue’s Bhodi Tree esoteric bookstore. Bannon was a secret fruitcake, a New Age dreamer, who just happened to be from a patriotic, working-class family. Both of these elements shaped him equally.
The question of whether Traditionalism is a religious ideal with political dimensions or a political one with religious ones is never quite resolved. At its heart, it takes a sort of gnostic, Unitarian ideal of faith. It hardly matters which faith — but older, more ancestral creeds are prefered, which is why so many Scandinavian neo-Nazis embrace Wodin and Thor, and why Hinduism is considered an acceptable choice for the modish skinhead intellectual. It’s ancient, it’s pantheistic, it’s bafflingly non-linear. Which is why in 2009, two of America’s alt right founding fathers, John B Morgan and Daniel Friberg, ended up living at a Hare Krishna temple near Chennai.
You’d recognise the vibe if you’d ever watched the vlogs of the depressive chain-smoking soft-lad Millennial Woes: a cerebral thirty-something Scot who, perhaps more than any other Briton, embodies the term ‘alt Right’. The thing that Woes bangs on about — his proselytising trick — is not mass migration or Halal slaughter, it’s meaning. Yeah, you have all of this stuff. Sure, you like to chase girls, you get wasted at Spoons with your buddies every Friday night. But… what does any of that actually mean? Join us. Find your tribe.
They are not wrong in diagnosing the problem. Modern liberalism is increasingly a party in search of an event — what Douglas Murray calls “the feeling that the story has run out”, of Icarus had he survived the fall.
They seek to bring order, hierarchy and grounding back to the soul of man. Though their chosen solution — of imposing a thick top-coat of mumbo-jumbo — is piss-poor.
Perhaps the best that can be said is that they critique everything that sits in liberalism’s blind spots. They point to how — forget militarily — the West isn’t philosophically capable of intervening in most foreign countries.
That dawning Western realisation found its champion in Trump, with Bannon as his spirit guide. (Trump is not a Traditionalist. He’s just Trump.) It’s revealing that whenever Jared Kushner and Ivanka, by temperament GOP centrists, were whispering in Donald’s right ear that he should show his might by blitzing this or that square on the Middle-Eastern chessboard, it turned out to be the villain of so many New York Times editorials, Bannon, who was in his left ear, telling him to cool it.
Bannon believes in non-interventionism about as strongly as Jeremy Corbyn does. For similar but opposite reasons. In fact there’s an unholy glimmer of horseshoe theory between the cultural relativism of the Left and the you do you international multi-culturalism embedded in Traditionalist thought.
But Bannon is also far more pragmatic than either Dugin or de Carvalho. He seems to draw upon his intellectual tools like a bag of golfing irons. He tells Teitelbaum that “Traditionalism is a total rejection of racism in that it is a brotherhood of the spirit”. What he seems to be, at base, is anti-liberal. Be it in trade, migration, or even education.
After all, it was Bannon’s personal decision to put Betsy DeVos into the US Department for Education, a call he seems to have made precisely because she was a strong advocate of home schooling. While the liberal seeks to make a common man, the Traditionalist seeks to embed his children ever-deeper within his own native social structures.
So would it be wrong to give Bannon the title that is itself enough to see him banned from polite society: populist? Well, they’re opposites. But they do attract. They share a contempt for professionalisation, a love of the nation, and a hunch that the peasantry’s chief enemy is the bureaucracy that pretends to comfort them.
They also share a belief in an authentic ur-citizen that plays brilliantly in a Somewheres vs. Anywheres world. For the Traditionalist, the Sunderland steel worker is to be romanticised, because these are the people still licked by the flames of their national traditions — while the sanitised, university-homogenised urbanite is alienated from them.
But go up a level and the differences are glaring: the populist is still trapped in the game set up by his enemies. When Bannon announces that “Culture, true culture is based on immanence and transcendence”, it’s hardly Sarah Palin getting truthy on the gun range. In fact, a Tea Party slogan like Don’t Tread On Me plays right into a liberal desire for atomisation. Guénon would have hated that.
It would be impossible to say that this were “an idea whose time has come”, as much because Traditionalist don’t much believe in times coming, and they don’t really believe in ideas much.
But as Covid razes decades of economic progress in weeks, we are as well placed as we ever have been to ask what comes after liberal democracy. In the fine grain of that debate, Traditionalism would be about as useful as throwing your shoes in the sky to dislodge the clouds. But in its sheer vaulting intellectual ambition, in its desire to knock down everything sacred to humanists from Descartes onwards, it can knock us back towards our senses.
Something spiritual has been beaming into the culture in recent weeks — and it’s not just the 5G death rays. I sense that our collective feeling of turning-inwards might survive our immediate difficulties — that the values of introspection, family, community, and even faith, will increasingly hold us in their sway.
It reminds us, just as Covid does, that we are much more than the sum of our economy and our empowerments. If we ignore these other elements for too long, they will always burst out unexpectedly. Perhaps unpleasantly.