On June 16, 2015, real-estate mogul and television personality Donald J. Trump announced his intent to run for president of the United States. The eccentric figure—one of the many icons of decadent 1980s capitalism known primarily for his television and movie cameos as well as his popular show The Apprentice—initially drew derision from both liberal and conservative pundits. However, his announcement speech, which argued for a workers first, nationalist American economy, broke several standards of political correctness and drew the concern that Trump’s campaign may tap into some of the angst against globalism felt among working-class Americans. Such campaigns had emerged from the Right before led by figures such as Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, but despite the enormous appeal of their messages, the two conservatives could not translate popular fanfare into national electoral success.
However, as the Trump campaign progressed, and his populist rhetoric increased in intensity while his popularity likewise ballooned, it became clear that Trump was a horse of a different color. Trump, however, was not alone; he was supported by a ferocious and intelligent but down to earth and, in his own way, charming political manager, Stephen K. Bannon, who assumed the head of the campaign in August, 2016. A son of working-class Irish Catholics from Richmond, Virginia, Bannon had an almost storybook American Baby Boomer ascendency from naval officer, to Harvard business grad, to Goldman Sachs banker, to successful Hollywood investor, and eventually White House chief of staff.
Steve Bannon has effectively straddled two worlds throughout his career: that of the Ivy League, immensely well read, member of the elite, and the kid from Richmond who learned to fight during the heady days of the Civil Rights movement and desegregation. As one of the most aggressive populist figures in America, he has thus drawn the ire of elites in both the Democrats and Republicans who saw the movement as an enormous derailment of their plans for a more integrated (and hierarchical) global order. However, there is another side to the mann, one that has garnered (relatively) little attention in the media: Bannon the connoisseur of esoteric literature
This Steve Bannon is the subject of University of Colorado, Boulder, professor Benjamin Teitelbaum’s War for Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of Populist Right. In War for Eternity, Teitelbaum depicts a world of intrigue, (literal) magic, and espionage that surrounds the populist movements in the United States and Europe. Teitelbaum, however, does make clear distinctions between mainline figures like Bannon and hardcore white nationalists and extremists. Indeed, his book is surprisingly tame, honest, and fair in his depiction of populist politics. Nonetheless, Teitelbaum suggests that some populist figures have (albeit complicated) connections to a 20th-century occult movement.
Early in the book, Teitelbaum, who interviewed Bannon over the course of several years and allowed him some editorial oversight of War for Eternity, tells a John le Carré-sque story of a 26-year-old Steve Bannon on shore leave in Hong Kong in 1980. He depicts a handsome, fun-loving young man who reveled in being among the elite of the U.S. Navy, tracking Soviet submarines and protecting aircraft carriers in the Pacific while on board the USS Paul F. Foster. The Steve Bannon at the cusp of the Reagan era was an icon of late Cold War American toughness—although, as Teitelbaum notes, just a few years earlier, he had been a long-haired counter-cultural deadhead. Before heading out to party with his Navy buddies, however, Bannon made a pit stop at one of his favorite haunts on shore leave: the metaphysical bookstore.
Bannon, throughout his life, has been a not-too secret admirer of not only Eastern philosophy and religion, but also theosophical or ‘proto-New Age’ teaching. Contemporary journalists have largely ignored this aspect of his life, although some have noted his interest in the Italian metaphysical thinker Julius Evola, whose work he referenced in a 2014 speech at the Vatican. As Teitelbaum notes, while in Hong Kong in 1980, Bannon was introduced to the works of theosophist Helena Blavatsky, as well as the writings of René Guernon, one of the fathers of a movement known as Traditionalism.
These writings are usually found in occult and New Age circles, although they have become tremendously popular among the Alt Right and various right-wing neopagan movements. Traditionalism, similar to but (this must be strongly noted) not identical with traditionalist versions of Christianity, argues for traditional or perennial human values and qualities that have been smothered or hindered by the economics, technology, and social formation of modernity. At the same time, very unlike Christianity, traditionalists see history as moving in cyclical patterns of decline and fall. More importantly, traditionalists long for a return to an ‘ur-religion’ (for white nationalists, as well as some Hindu nationalists, this is a pure Indo-European religion); traditionalists generally see all religions as containing shards or remnants of the true religion.
This tenet of Traditionalism is obviously inimical to orthodox Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, which argue for some form of truly authentic and singular worship of the one true God. Finally, traditionalists tend to view society in a hierarchical order in which a priestly and then warrior class should rule—for racial traditionalists, this is a racial caste; for more mystical traditionalists, this is a spiritual class. Teitelbaum does note that Bannon is attracted more to a mystical form of Traditionalism, but this form of Bannonite Traditionalism is very unconventional.
Teitelbaum does not depict Bannon as a doctrinaire traditionalist. Rather, he is a very American traditionalist who views the working class as the salt of the earth who are uncorrupted by liberal modernity as the new technocratic elite. Moreover, he, on some level, identifies as a Catholic, although it is difficult to see how his Catholicism can be reconciled with his Traditionalism.
Another key figure in War for Eternity is Alexander Dugin—often called, rightly or wrongly, “Putin’s brain.” Like Bannon, Dugin was introduced to Traditionalism during the Cold War. However, unlike Bannon, Dugin immersed himself within a variety of white nationalist and far-right movements throughout Europe, hoping to manipulate them into causing chaos and destabilizing the West and to create regimes that are friendly toward Russia. While Bannon affects the air of a working-class everyman, Dugin cultivates the image of a Russian sage. Both men, however, view traditional forms of Christianity—Russian Orthodoxy, in the case of Dugin, and traditional Catholicism, in the case of Bannon—as means to bring about a restoration of traditional human culture in their respective countries.
Teitelbaum further makes the important point, that, in his view, Bannon was never a servant of Russia or some sort of Russian agent—despite claims of left-wing press members. Rather, Bannon had met with Dugin in order to attempt to forge a friendship between Russia and the United States and to draw Russia away from an alliance with China. Both Dugin and Bannon, in Teitelbaum’s reading, are nationalists who love their respective countries, but, at the same time, “brothers” who share a similar traditionalist worldview.
Also importantly, Teitelbaum distinguishes the views of Steve Bannon from that of various white nationalist and Alt Right movements who have appropriated traditionalism. Bannon is a strong supporter of the state of Israel, proudly referring to himself as a “Christian Zionist.” Moreover, Bannon, who refers to former Alt Right figure Richard Spencer as a “goofball” in the book, largely sees various extreme right-wing movements as being too inept to seize substantive power. Steve Bannon ultimately appears as a blue collar hero who made it and then clung to various political and financial power bases in order to effect his Americanized traditionalist philosophy in the world.Steve Bannon has proudly taken the appellation “the honey badger,” a small wild African animal, known for its willingness to take on bigger animals. There is no question that he is one of the toughest men in American politics who helped to run perhaps the biggest upset in American political history: the election of Donald J. Trump. As a result, Bannon has had the entire weight of the American political elite come down on him, even threatening him with jail time. Benjamin R. Teitelbaum’s War for Eternity provides an analysis of the ideas that motivate him as well as sneak peek into some of the stranger elements of the world-wide populist movement. It is difficult to tell exactly what Steve Bannon (or Alexander Dugin or other key figures in the book) believe. However, this perhaps is fitting, for secret teachings are, ultimately, secret.