Here’s where the whole populism and nationalism thing came from,” Steve Bannon told me. It was February, and he was sitting in his White House office in a chair pushed against the wall, with a dry-erase board opposite him listing all the promises that just-inaugurated President Trump was going to carry out (“drain the swamp,” etc.). But first, Bannon wanted to explain the ideas that drove Trump’s shocking upset, to put that victory into a broader context. With Bannon, everything is always about something much bigger.
Trump’s rise was, he said, transformative for America. But it was only one manifestation of a powerful global undercurrent. “That’s why,” he said, “you see a nationalist movement in Egypt, India, the Philippines, in South Korea, and now Abe in Japan. I’d say Putin and Xi in China are nationalists. Look at Le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary, and the nationalists in Poland.” Trump was, of course, the most consequential: “Look, I’ve been studying this for a while, and it’s amazing that Trump has been talking about these ideas for 25 years.”
By this point, Bannon’s term for his politics, and Trump’s—“nationalism”— was already in wide circulation in the political press. But the term’s meaning was (and remains) opaque and has never been fully explicated. While Trump’s embrace of “America first” nationalism was chiefly due to its resonance as a campaign slogan, Bannon’s attraction to it had a far deeper and more complicated lineage.
From an early age, Bannon was influenced by his family’s distinctly traditionalist Catholicism and he tended to view current events against the broad sweep of history. In 1984, after Pope John Paul II permitted limited use of the Latin-only Tridentine Mass, which was banned by the Second Vatican Council, Bannon’s parents became Tridentine Catholics, and he eventually followed. Though hardly a moralizing social conservative, he objected bitterly to the secular liberalism encroaching upon the culture. “We shouldn’t be running a victory lap every time some sort of traditional value gets undercut,” he once told me. When he was a naval officer in the late 1970s, Bannon, a voracious autodidact, embarked upon what he described as “a systematic study of the world’s religions” that he carried on for more than a decade. Taking up the Roman Catholic history first instilled in him at his Catholic military high school, he moved on to Christian mysticism and from there to Eastern metaphysics. (In the Navy, he briefly practiced Zen Buddhism before wending his way back to Catholicism.)
Bannon’s reading eventually led him to the work of René Guénon, an early-20th-century French occultist and metaphysician who was raised a Roman Catholic, practiced Freemasonry, and later became a Sufi Muslim who observed the Sharia. There are many forms of traditionalism in religion and philosophy. Guénon developed a philosophy often called “Traditionalism” (capital “T”), a form of anti-modernism with precise connotations. Guénon was a “primordial” Traditionalist, who believed that certain ancient religions, including the Hindu Vedanta, Sufism, and medieval Catholicism, were repositories of common spiritual truths, revealed to mankind in the earliest age of the world, that were being wiped out by the rise of secular modernity in the West. What Guénon hoped for, he wrote in 1924, was to “restore to the West an appropriate traditional civilization.”
Guénon, like Bannon, was drawn to a sweeping, apocalyptic view of history that identified two events as marking the beginning of the spiritual decline of the West: the destruction of the Knights Templar in 1312 and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Also like Bannon, Guénon was fascinated by the Hindu concept of cyclical time and believed that the West was passing through the fourth and final era, known as the Kali Yuga, a 6,000-year “dark age” when tradition is wholly forgotten.
Guénon thought that the way to bring about spiritual enlightenment was to convert small groups of elites who would go forth and spread his philosophy. Bannon, in fact, emulated this model at Breitbart News by establishing bureaus in Texas, London, and (to influence the Catholic Church) Rome. Bannon’s Traditionalism “explains so much,” says Mark Sedgwick, a scholar at Aarhus University in Denmark and the author of Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. “He is not just some weird guy who likes playing politics, but someone who comes out of a very serious intellectual tradition. Not a tradition that most people would agree with, or even understand, but still an important one.”
The anti-modernist tenor of Guénon’s philosophy drew several notable followers who made attempts during the 20th century to re-enchant the world by bringing about a restoration. The most notorious of these was Julius Evola, an Italian intellectual and the black sheep of the Traditionalist family (Bannon cited Evola in a widely circulated video of a 2014 conference at the Vatican). A monarchist and racial theorist who traced the descent of the Kali Yuga to interwar European politics, Evola, unlike Guénon (a pious Muslim who lived in seclusion in Egypt), took concrete steps to incite societal transformation. By 1938, he had struck an alliance with Benito Mussolini, and his ideas became the basis of Fascist racial theory; later, after he soured on Mussolini, Evola’s ideas gained currency in Nazi Germany.
“Guénon thought that once there was a spiritual change, political and social changes would follow,” says Sedgwick. “Which is why he thought Evola was wrong to go for political change directly. Bannon is here siding with Evola—he is going for political change as directly as possible.” The last time a Traditionalist got as close to power as Bannon, says Sedgwick, “it was Evola with Mussolini—and that did not last long, as Mussolini seems to have decided that Evola lacked practical sense, and Evola decided that Mussolini lacked principle.”
His citation of Evola has caused Bannon no end of grief. While Evola, in the end, had little effect on Mussolini or Hitler, he became an avatar of right-wing Italian terrorists in the ’70s and ’80s, and enjoys broad popularity among white supremacists such as Richard B. Spencer. It’s important to note that only a subset of Traditionalists share Evola’s views on race. Bannon explicitly rejects them, and also rejects any association with Spencer, whom he calls a self-promoting “freak” and a “goober.” Instead, the common themes of the collapse of Western civilization and the loss of the transcendent in books such as Guénon’s The Crisis of the Modern World (1927) and Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World (1934) are what drew Bannon’s interest to Traditionalism (although he was also very much taken with its spiritual aspects, citing Guénon’s 1925 book, Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta, as “a life-changing discovery”).
Bannon, more synthesist than strict adherent, brought to Guénon’s Traditionalism a strong dose of Catholic social thought, in particular the concept of “subsidiarity”: the principle expressed in Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo anno, that political matters should devolve to the lowest, least centralized authority that can responsibly handle them—a concept that, in a U.S. political context, mirrors small-government conservatism. Everywhere Bannon looked in the modern world, he saw signs of collapse and an encroaching globalist order stamping out the last vestiges of the traditional. He saw it in governmental organizations such as the European Union and political leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who insisted that countries forfeit their sovereignty, and thus their ability to maintain their national character, to distant secular bureaucrats bent on erasing national borders. He saw it in the Roman Catholic Church, whose elevation of Pope Francis —“a liberal-theology Jesuit” and “pro-immigration globalist”—to replace Pope Benedict XVI so alarmed him that, in 2013, he established Breitbart Rome and took a Vatican meeting with Cardinal Raymond Burke in an effort to prop up Catholic traditionalists marginalized by the new Pope.
More than anywhere else, Bannon saw evidence of Western collapse in the influx of Muslim refugees and migrants across Europe and the United States—what he has pungently termed “civilizational jihad personified by this migrant crisis.” Expounding on this view at the 2014 conference at the Vatican, Bannon knit together Guénon, Evola, and his own racial-religious anxieties to cast his beliefs in historical context. Citing the tens of millions of people killed in 20th-century wars, he called mankind “children of that barbarity” whose present condition would one day be judged “a new Dark Age.” He added, “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.”
Bannon’s response to the rise of modernity was to set populist, right-wing nationalism against it. Wherever he could, he aligned himself with politicians and causes committed to tearing down its globalist edifice: archconservative Catholics such as Burke, Nigel Farage, and U.K.I.P., Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom, and Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. (When he got to the White House, he also leveraged U.S. trade policy to strengthen opponents of the E.U.) This had a meaningful effect, even before Trump. “Bannon’s a political entrepreneur and a remarkable bloke,” Farage told me. “Without the supportive voice of Breitbart London, I’m not sure we would have had a Brexit.”
Initially, Bannon thought restoration lay in a rising political generation still some years off: figures such as Frauke Petry, of Germany’s right-wing Alternative für Deutschland, and Marion Maréchal‑Le Pen, niece of Marine, whose politics he approvingly described as “practically French medieval,” adding: “She’s the future of France.” It took some time for him to realize that in Trump (whose familiarity with French metaphysics, we can be certain, is no more than glancing) he had found a leader who could rapidly advance the nationalist cause, — one who fit into the “unbroken chain” of populists in U.S. history that stretched from Hamilton to Clay to Polk to Teddy Roosevelt and now to Trump..
In the summer of 2016, Bannon described Trump in this publication as a “blunt instrument for us.” But by the following April, Trump was in the White House and Bannon had raised his estimation of him to pathbreaking leader. “He’s taken this nationalist movement and moved it up 20 years,” Bannon said. “If France, Germany, England, or any of these places had the equivalent of a Donald Trump, they would be in power. They don’t.”
When he took over Trump’s campaign last August, Bannon ran a nationalist, divisive operation in which issues of race, immigration, culture, and identity were put front and center. This wasn’t by accident or lacking in purpose. By exhuming the nationalist thinkers of an earlier age, Bannon was trying to build an intellectual basis for Trumpism, or what might more accurately be described as an American nationalist-Traditionalism. Whatever the label, Trump proved to be an able messenger.
For all his paranoid alarm, Bannon believes that the rise of nationalist movements across the world, from Europe to Japan to the United States, heralds a return to tradition. “You have to control three things,” he explained, “borders, currency, and military and national identity. People are finally coming to realize that, and politicians will have to follow.” Trump, for one, certainly looks to be pursuing that agenda.
He isn’t alone. Before Trump came along, the clearest example of Traditionalist political influence was in Russia. Vladimir Putin’s chief ideologist, Alexander Dugin— whom Bannon has also read and cited—translated Evola’s work into Russian and later developed a Russian-nationalist variant of Traditionalism known as Eurasianism. Trump’s affinity for Putin has been well documented, Dugin’s affinity for Trump less so. But Dugin has produced a series of propaganda videos extolling Trump and seeking to enlist “American friends” in what he calls our “common struggle”.
Although Dugin’s Eurasianism and Bannon’s Traditionalism differ in many regards, Sedgwick is struck by their backward-looking commonalities. “In the end, Bannon and Dugin agree about some very fundamental things that most other people would disagree with them about,” he says. “Most people think that things are getting better, or at least should get better, while they think that things are inevitably getting worse. Most people think that new ideas are worth listening to and may hold the solution, while they know that new ideas are by definition old ideas. Most people think that conflict is to be avoided. Bannon and Dugin think it has already started.”
The global surge of nationalism has breathed new life into Guenon’s and Evola’s ideas, while the rise of political strategists such as Dugin and Bannon has given Traditionalism a proximity to power not seen since the 1930s and ’40s. To someone whose life’s work is studying this obscure and secretive intellectual tradition, it’s all very heady, though also a bit disconcerting. “I find intellectuals like that fascinating, and I respect them,” Sedgwick says. “But they still terrify me.”
Adapted from Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green (July 18; Penguin Press). Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Green.