Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency
By Joshua Green
Publication Date: July 18, 2017
Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
p. 204 – 208
By now, 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) confusing 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 tended to view current events against the broad sweep of history. 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 said in 2015. While he was still in the Navy, 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 Benedictine, 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 Tridentine Catholicism). Bannon’s reading eventually led him to the work of René Guénon, an early-twentieth-century French occultist and metaphysician who was raised a Roman Catholic, practiced Freemasonry, and later became a Sufi Muslim.
There are many forms of traditionalism in religion and philosophy. Guénon developed a philosophy often referred to as “Traditionalism” (capital “T”), a form of antimodernism with precise connotations. Guénon was a “primordial” Traditionalist, a believer in the idea that certain ancient religions, including the Hindu Vedanta, Sufism, and medieval Catholicism, were repositories of common spiritual truths, revealed 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 Order of the Knights Templar in 1314 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 six-thousand-year “dark age” when tradition is wholly forgotten.
The antimodernist tenor of Guénon’s philosophy drew several notable followers who made attempts during the twentieth century to re-enchant the world by bringing about this restoration. The most notorious of these was Julius Evola, an Italian intellectual and the black sheep of the Traditionalist family. A monarchist and racial theorist who traced the descent of the Kali Yuga to interwar European politics, Evola, unlike Guénon (a pious Muslim chiefly interested in spiritual transformation), 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.
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 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 pungently termed “civilizational jihad personified by this migrant crisis.” Expounding on this view at a 2014 conference at the Vatican, Bannon knit together Guénon, Evola, and his own racial-religious panic to cast his beliefs in historical context. Citing the tens of millions of people killed in twentieth-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 UKIP, 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 would also leverage U.S. trade policy to strengthen opponents of the EU.) This had a meaningful effect, even before Trump. “Bannon’s a political entrepreneur and a remarkable bloke,” Farage said. “Without the supportive voice of Breitbart London, I’m not sure we would have had a Brexit.”
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.” The clearest example of Traditionalist political influence today is in Russia. Vladimir Putin’s chief ideologist, Alexander Dugin— whom Bannon has cited— translated Evola’s work into Russian and later developed a Russian-nationalist variant of Traditionalism known as Eurasianism. Bannon initially 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. In the summer of 2016, Bannon described Trump 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 twenty 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 in August, Bannon did indeed run a nationalist, divisive campaign in which issues of race, immigration, culture, and identity were put front and center. This wasn’t by accident or lacking in purpose, even if the candidate himself didn’t care to understand its broader historical context. 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.
End of excerpt
Keeping in mind Bannon synthesized ideas from the two authors cited above rather than being an adherent, more information with many links can be found within their Wikipedia entries.