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The obscure mysticism of Steve Bannon Multiple far-Right leaders are inspired by an overlooked, quasi-religious political philosophy known as Traditionalism

Imagine daring to refer to Bannon as 'Steve'! Credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

Imagine daring to refer to Bannon as 'Steve'! Credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images


April 7, 2020   6 mins

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”. 

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 RenĂ© GuĂ©non, 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 clichĂ©: you do you. Or, as RĂ©ne GuĂ©non 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. GuĂ©non 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.


Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.

@gavhaynes

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

‘…a hunch that the peasantry’s chief enemy is the bureaucracy that pretends to comfort them.’

This is not a hunch. It’s a fact. And we see it being played out with the Covid lockdown. The bureaucracy will continue to receive their salaries in full while the ‘peasantry’ – the people who actually do real, useful work – are forbidden to leave their house. It is disgusting.

Moreover, I have seen quite a few interviews with Bannon and he always makes perfect sense to me. And if I want to know what’s happening out there I certainly need to include Breitbart in my news sources, because it inform me of certain events and facts that the MSM works very hard to hide.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago

What drivel and navel gazing is this rubbish!

Honestly this is a waste of everyone’s eyeballs.

The attempt to connect Steve Bannon to Nazi’s like Hitler and Goebbels is ludicrous.

Further he attempts to redefine Traditionalism as far right or facism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is the very worst of “Hack” journalism and is a clear attempt by a Corbyn disciple to use the crisis of the Corona virus to make some cheap points.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
4 years ago

You are left with the impression that Gavin Haynes does not much like Bannon or Traditionalism to start with.
Difficult for the review to have traction when Hitler is brought into the argument on the first line !

Wasn’t it Jamie Whyte’s “Bad Thoughts” that listed “You sound like Hitler, so shut up !” ?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  Lee Johnson

Gavin Haynes worked for Vice, which is not noted for its intellectual rigour or fondness for tradition. Although it is maintaining the recent progressive media tradition of laying off most of its staff.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Yes, that has been happening for some years. I have read The Spectator for 40 years but I will not pay for it any more. And that was the last remaining product of the MSM that I was prepared to pay for. (I gave up on the TV 20 years ago and all the newspapers 15 years ago).

The irony is that in the US, Fox News is now by far the leading cable channel. CNN did not have a single news show in the top 20 in Q1. Fox had eight of the top ten shows, and 14 of the top 20. A majority of the population wishes to consume media that is more or less ‘conservative’, hence the ongoing success of the Daily Mail. But the media classes have no intention of giving people want they want.

Alastair Cunningham
Alastair Cunningham
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I’d suggest those complaining about the leftward move within journalism consider the following: that, as you age and either remain ideologically static or drift slightly rightward, the personnel of most journalistic organisations maintains a consistent average age as oldies retire and youngsters are hired, and thus what you perceive as a leftward march in journalism is simply a reflection of society’s ideological trend as a whole relative to your static position. In other words, twas ever thus. One can hold steady or try to move with the times. But wishing that national organs of political opinion don’t gradually move with society doesn’t seem reasonable.

David Lucas
David Lucas
4 years ago

I would have thought Yoram Hazony (Virtues of Nationalism) was a good reference point here – but Hazony’s distinction between imperialism and nationalism undermines Haynes’ central argument. It might not be desirable for nations and cultures to turn inwards, but it’s not in itself evil, or threatening to neighbours. It is imperialism that is a threat.

A ‘mystical’ attitude to place – the sacredness of place and home – is how we best protect the environment – not liberal ‘Anywhere’ utilitarianism. It’s hysterical that Haynes thinks going into an ‘esoteric bookshop’ is somehow suspect. But then I’ve spent a lot of time in esoteric bookshops…

David George
David George
4 years ago

Well that was interesting, I didn’t even know that what I believed had a name – I thought I was a conservative. Steve Bannon is always worth paying attention to.

John M Powers
John M Powers
4 years ago

The author of this piece doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp of Traditionalism, a school of thought comprised of a veritable elite of 20th century metaphysicians and theological scholars coming from a variety of spiritual traditions throughout the world (Guénon, Evola, Titus Burckhardt, Hossein Nasser, Frithjof Schuon, Huston Smith, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Marco Pallis, Martin Lings etc. etc.). It seems more of a mixture of a lazy skim-reading and subsequent shilling of Teitelbaum’s book combined with Haynes own bitchy political prejudices. Its poor research demonstrated by the fact that even an imbedded link within the article itself shows that Dugin’s “Fourth Political Theory”is not a” a book on Traditionalism” but, unsurprisingly, a book on political theory! (As an aside, if this article is anything to go by, Teitelbaum himself also seems to have a very shallow understanding of the Traditionalist school, and its “big reveal” re:Bannon has been an open secret since at least mid-2017(!), being covered by the likes of Joshua Green in Vanity Fair around that time!)

All in all, I would say that the phrase “piss poor” would be a more apt description of this shoddy, unbalanced piece of “journalism” rather than the subjects it purports to engage with. This sensationalist and poorly researched screed is more suited to the likes of Haynes’ previous outlet Vice and seems rather at odds with the mission statement of Unherd.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
4 years ago
Reply to  John M Powers

Loved your “piss poor” remark. This is an excellent example of the waste of university. This guy needs a real 10 years hard work to snap him out of his navel gazing.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
4 years ago

Gavin Haynes writes a fine appreciation of Steve Bannon. Unfortunately he also writes, in neo-con fashion: “it was Dugin’s ‘tanks to Tblisi’ sloganeering that persuaded Putin to seize South Ossetia in 2008.” Haynes should know that the Georgian president at the time of the Russo-Georgian War, the highly unstable Mikheil Saakashvili, came to power after a duly elected president, Eduard Shevardnadze was deposed in an operation that smelled of American-engineered regime change. It was Saakashvili who started shelling Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, violating an agreement monitored by the OSCE between South Ossetia and Georgia agreed on in 1992. This was the conclusion of the EU’s own report on the subject, written by Swiss diplomat, Heidi Tagliavini, who did, nevertheless, criticize Russia for carrying the war much farther into Georgia proper and causing much more suffering than was necessary. South Ossetia has still not been annexed by Russia, although with the ruble as its currency and so forth, in many ways it does operate much like a part of the Russian Federation. It should be remembered that in all the time between 1992, when South Ossetia ceased to be run from the Georgian capital and 2008, Russia never recognized it as an independent state. It only did this for South Ossetia, as well as Abkhazia, after NATO countries recognized Kosovo as an independent state following its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia. Anyone who has watched events over the last three decades in the former Soviet Union should by now have a degree of humility in predicting what will happen next. Although it now seems unlikely that Abkhazia or South Ossetia will again be part of Georgia, this is still the aspiration of many Georgians, and there are a lot of ethnic Georgians living in Georgia proper now who are refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Whatever Western journalists do, they should not propel a possible future into the present just to defame Putin or the Russian Federation. Incorporation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the Russian Federation is a possible outcome, but it hasn’t happened yet and may never do so.

Paul K
Paul K
4 years ago

‘Wodin’? Who is that? Do you mean Odin? Or Woden? Or are you confused?

Certainly this attempt to define traditionalism is confused. Obviously it is a smear-job, for starters – woo woo mysticism! Nazis! Goebbels! etc etc – but it’s also just wrong. Traditionalism as a spiritual philosphy – which is what it is, primarily, though some have tried to link it to politics, mostly unsuccessfully – focuses on the ‘perrennial’ faiths, which ar usually considered to be Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and one or two others. Mosr traditionalists – notably Guenon, who is quoted here – strongly reject the ‘occult’ and the old pagan religions. They’re regarded as falsehoods and distractions.

Mostly, though, as other commentators have noted, this is a poor, lazy and dishonest piece of ‘journalism’, which attempts not to shed light but to frighten people away from the kind of ‘fruitcake’ who might believe that there is more to life than economic growth and Vice-like arguments about ‘privelege.’ A wasted opportunity, I’d say. Next time, I recommend asking Mark Sedgewick, who has written a genuinely enlightening, and non-partisan, book on Traditionalism to do something serious instead.

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
4 years ago

I have tried to understand whether this article is actually saying anything and come to the conclusion it is not.

northernobserver331924
northernobserver331924
4 years ago

Mr Haynes, come over to our quadrant, the water is fine.

jamesjomeara
jamesjomeara
4 years ago

“Gary Lachman recently published a book on the “Alt-Right” and the occult called Dark Star Rising. In it, he takes Trump’s debt to Norman Vincent Peale, some remarks about meme magic, and an off-hand comment of Steve Bannon on Evola — not even enough material for an article — and fluffs it up to book length with a lot of hot air and filler. James O’Meara’s Magick for Housewives shows what a scholar of greater integrity, imagination, and willingness to do the necessary research can do with the same topic.” — Greg Johnson

https://www.amazon.com/Magi

mzeemartin8
mzeemartin8
4 years ago

Why does anything have to come after liberal democracy? How about we point out how well the fruits of the liberal order have equipped us to deal with this pandemic.

tomfras
tomfras
4 years ago

A good, thought-provoking article, thank you. I do feel that the author has too narrow an understanding of traditionalism at times. Only because it is clear that he has strong bias against it. It is certainly the quadrant of political thought given least currency in our epoch, and for obvious reasons, some of which are mentioned here. However, As the author points out, now that the other three quadrants of political thought are either failed or failing, it is important that moderation is brought to calm the tides. As such, a lot more reading and study of traditionalist thought needs to be done!!

Brain Unwashed
Brain Unwashed
4 years ago

What the f**k was that drivel that have just wasted my time reading

Ian McGregor
Ian McGregor
4 years ago

This “intellectual” mish mash is supposed to represent something or create a new alt-right hate figure called Traditionalism with a capital “T” while disappearing up its own sophistry. It ends up being a hopeless stew of half baked thoughts intended to show the writer’s “wide ranging” knowledge. If you try to put down traditionalism with a small “t” by equating it to Nazi occultism, fascism, communism and current liberalism then you deserve to be castigated.

The small “t” traditionalism simply means tried and proven values on which a relationship, family or society can build a secure future. All the other ‘isms” have tried and failed to replace that simple philosophy.

Mark Stein
Mark Stein
4 years ago

I thought I recognised the insane, vacuous, dishonest, self-righteous style of writing. The attempt to group any one not on the loony left with Nazi is not only pathetic but sadly typical in todays media. Read this guy’s articles on Orania.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago

Traditionalism is not a topic of which I’ve done a major study; but I can’t help wondering if it’s actually more modernist a philosophy than it wants to admit. As I see it, the distinguishing feature of really traditional (small “t”) philosophies, and the societies that evolve from them, is a commitment to a specific doctrinal or dogmatic truth. Thus, for example, Christianity separated itself from Judaism on the basis that Christians claimed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, a statement that orthodox Jews would consider blasphemous. Really traditional societies are non-relativistic and often intolerant, though not invariably so; tolerance can exist in such a context through the acknowledgement that one might be honestly mistaken.

Traditionalism (capital “t”) on the other hand is premised on the erasure of real dogmatic differences between the traditional religions; all are supposed to be united to the transcendent. Traditionalists are enjoined to commit themselves to one of the world’s primordial religious traditions (they must not mix and match), but in a fundamental sense it doesn’t really matter which tradition they choose. This is surely a grave heresy from the point of view of any of the Abrahamic religions, though perhaps less so from that of the eastern creeds. For an illiberal philosophy, moreover, Traditionalism is curiously relativistic, preaching that no established tradition can be criticised from the outside. This is surely alien to most pre-modern orthodoxies, many of which routinely declared that the competing creeds were false.

Traditionalism, as I understand it, seems like an attempt to re-create the world as a living museum. The museum has a Christian section and an Islamic wing; one room is dedicated to the Buddha, and another to the idols of antiquity. Like the curator of a museum, Traditionalism does not choose between or judge its exhibits; all are considered of value. A museum might have trouble deciding whether to put a sixteenth-century Japanese Christian icon in the room devoted to Japan, or in the room containing Christian artefacts; in the same spirit, Traditionalism rejects syncretism,

But in the end, what could be more modernist a project than the creation of a museum?

journovox
journovox
3 years ago

So for Americans on the Left, this is scary, but destroying half the Middle East – a goal shared by both liberal and neocon is somehow fine? FYI – wokeism is way closer to fascism than this stuff. If you want to understand wokeism, just open Mien Kampf in front of a mirror….as for this author, who writes: “Traditionalism is a total rejection of racism in that it is a brotherhood of the spirit”, apparently that is now a problem? I guess it would be as nothing is a racist as the theories of the wokerati.