"If you were looking for a tone or pivot, [Steve] Bannon will pivot you in a dark, racist, and divisive direction," said the GOP consultant Rick Wilson. "It'll be a nationalist, hateful campaign. Republicans should run away."
Joshua Green, Devil's Bargain
THE DEVIL'S BARGAIN
Joshua Green in Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Storming Of The Presidency (2017) maps out the plan for taking the United States back to the 19th century Traditionalism. Green posits that Steve 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 linage.
BANNON & THE CHURCH & THE POPES & 21ST CENTURY KALI YUGO
While Bannon 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's reading eventually Catholicism).
Bannon's reading eventually led him to the work of Rene Guenon, 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. Guenon developed a philosophy often referred to as "Traditionalism" (capital "T"), a form of anti-modernism with precise connotations. Guenon 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 Guenon hoped for, he wrote in 1924, was to "restore to the West an appropriate traditional civilization."
Guenon, 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, Guenon 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 anti-modernist tenor of Guenon'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 decent of the Kali Yuga to interwar European politics, Evola, unlike Guenon (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.
Bannon, more synthesist (Syncretism: the combination of elements from different religions, whether of doctrine or practice, whether intentionally or accidentally), than adherent, brought to Guenon's Traditionalism a strong dose of Catholic social though, 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.
BANNON'S WAR ON ENLIGHTENMENT THOUGHT
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 traditionalist marginalized by the new Pope.
MAKING CONNECTIONS BY TRIANGULATING
Catholicism, racism (Anti-Semitism: Jews were not White until post-WWII) and Fascism unite Bannon and Pope Pius IX, as well as the narrative of Green's Devil's Bargain and David Kerser's The Pope Who Would Be King. Moreover Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now: The Case For reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (2018) posits that education and wealth have a correlation.
Pinker writes that education really does make a country richer at least it does if the education is secular and rationalistic. Until the 20th century, Spain was an economic laggard among Western countries, even though Spaniards were highly schooled, because Spanish education was controlled by the Catholic Church, and "the children of the masses received only oral instruction in the Creed, the Catechism, and a few simple manual skills.... Science, mathematics, political economy, and secular history were considered too controversial for anyone but trained theologians." Clerical meddling has similarly been blamed for economic lag of parts of the Arab world today. [And if De Voss has her way, for American public school students as well.]
Pinker points out that many historians have pointed out that religious wars are long and bloody, and bloody wars are often prolonged by religious conviction. And the common assertion that the two world wars were set off by the decline of religious morality (as former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon's recent claim that World War II pitted "the Judeo-Christian West versus atheist") is dunce-cap history. The belligerents on both sides of World War I were devoutly Christians, except for the Ottoman Empire, a Muslim theocracy. The only avowedly atheist power that fought in World War II was the Soviet Union, and for most of the war it fought on our side against the Nazi regime--which (contrary to another myth) was sympathetic to German Christianity and vice versa, the two factions united in their loathing of secular modernity. (Hitler himself was a deist who said, "I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord's work.") Defenders of theism retort that irreligious wars and atrocities, motivated by the secular ideology of communism and by ordinary conquest, have killed even more people. Talk about relativism! It is peculiar to grade religion on the curve: if religion were a source of morality, the number of religious wars and atrocities ought to be zero. And obviously atheism is not a moral system in the first place. It's just the absence of supernatural belief, like an unwillingness to believe in Zeus or Vishnu. The moral alternative to theism is humanism.
Green notes that 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: arch-conservative 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, [now the GOP Congress]. (When Bannon got to the White House, he would 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, [instead of a recreation of pre-WWI and WWII political world order].
"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.
When Bannon took over Trump's campaign in August 2016, he 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 any earlier age, Bannon was trying to build an intellectual basis for Trumpism, [as Pope Pius IX did for his kingship], or what might more accurately be described as an American nationalist-Traditionalism. Whatever the label, Trump proved to be an able messenger.