Theorizing Modernities article

The Political Theology of Traditionalism: Steve Bannon, the Far Right, and the End of Days

End of the World, Blue hour in Dirranbandi, Queensland, 2021. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In January 2017, newly elected president Donald Trump instituted Executive Order 13769, ostensibly to “protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals entering the United States.” The order, in effect, limited immigrants, refugees, and visa-holding foreign nationals from several majority-Muslim countries from entering the US. It marked Trump’s delivery on his campaign promise during the 2016 presidential election to ban Muslims from entering the US. Behind the scenes, numerous reports indicated that it was Trump’s former campaign manager and presidential advisor, Steve Bannon, who orchestrated the planning and execution of this ban.

What was Bannon’s motivation for crafting such a ban? While Bannon’s nationalism and “America First” political ideology are no doubt linked to modern American White Christian nationalism, in this post I’ll suggest that another important influence on him is an esoteric intellectual movement called Traditionalism, which has its roots in the anti-modern perennial philosophy of René Guénon (d. 1951). More specifically I’ll suggest that Bannon’s political theology—a concept I ascribe to Traditionalism because of its assumption that spiritual and political realms are one and the same—is rooted in the cyclical notion of time laid out in Guénon’s work. This notion of time, I argue, helps us better comprehend the chaos of the early Trump days, the speed and alacrity with which the Muslim ban was implemented, and an alternative political theology of the Far Right. With different points of emphasis than mine, authors such as Benjamin Teitelbaum and Joshua Green have also documented the influence of Traditionalism on Bannon, even in the implementation of policies like the Muslim ban. I aim to deepen this account by showing its presence not only in his work on the Trump campaign but in the longer arch of Bannon’s career, specifically in his documentary films. Bannon, I contend, is not a fully-fledged Traditionalist in the vein of Italian theorist Julius Evola, or more recently the Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin. However, Bannon does often make use of Traditionalism in his work, and it is thus important to grapple with this form of thinking if we are to better understand its influence on contemporary far-right politics.

There is always a risk in devoting increased attention to a figure like Bannon, who has been a driver of an increasingly authoritarian and oppressive turn in US politics. My aim here, however, is to take him seriously so as to better understand his place within a tradition of right-wing thinking that is not new, despite its treatment as such oftentimes in the media. When we do so we are reminded of the consequences of implementing this philosophy in the past and developing strategies for countering it in the present.

Guénonian Traditionalism

Guénonian-inspired antimodern Traditionalism has been on the rise around the world, in such places as the US, Brazil (via the late Olavo de Carvalho), Russia (via Alexander Dugin), and Great Britain (via King Charles III). As his failed attempt to build right-wing nationalist movements in Europe following his firing from the White House shows, Bannon himself perceived the US as but one manifestation of a wider global struggle to be fought against the forces of modernity.

Guénon argued that there is a primordial tradition from which all the various other traditions branch. This tradition no longer exists in its pure form, but its vestiges are present in the various traditions we commonly call “world religions.” To be a Traditionalist, as Mark Sedgwick has shown, is to believe that one must be initiated into one of the world’s living religious traditions to partake in the primordial tradition. One has to commit to a particular religion in order to take part in the universal. This is what it means to participate in the primordial tradition in the present. For Guénon and others, it was in the traditions of the “East” that the primordial tradition was closest to being preserved. And it was in an elite vanguard that tradition could be carried forward. In the west, Traditionalists saw the onslaught of the characteristic modern values of materialism and individualism as adversaries.

From his earliest years in the Navy to the present, Bannon has engaged with Traditionalist thought. What is counterintuitive about Bannon’s use of this political theology is not only the fact that several of its most significant thinkers practiced Islam (to varying degrees of seriousness), but also that this vision of tradition assumes that communal exclusivism is an expression of a more foundational inclusive vision of the global political community. What is less counterintuitive is that several of the thinkers associated with Traditionalism were more than happy to test their ideas via the fascist politics of Europe during the early twentieth century. While Traditionalism itself was not by any stretch of the imagination the only (or most significant) source for fascist political philosophy, the fact that several of its leading proponents saw in fascism a potential political home for their more esoteric spiritual beliefs draws our attention to its potential to act as a violent and racist ideology.

Cyclical Time and the End of Days

For Guénon, time is cyclical rather than teleological. As he lays out in The Crisis of the Modern World (1946), it is a cyclical notion of time that the primordial tradition teaches, and this is most clearly preserved in Hinduism. Drawing on his interpretation of the Hindu doctrine of Manvantara, he contends that time moves from a Golden, to a Silver, then Bronze, and finally Iron age.[1] The final age is a “dark age,” or Kali-Yuga. We have been in this age for 6,000 years, according to Guénon, and are reaching a point at which the world as we know it is ending. Modernity, with its rampant materialism, is for him the culmination of this descent into darkness. Our descent into the Kali-Yuga has meant that we have moved further and further away from this original tradition. We can only see glimmers of it in the “west,” mostly in the Catholic Church. Given time’s cyclical nature, however, Guenon admonishes us not to despair, “for . . . the end of the old world will also be the beginning of a new one” (18).

While Traditionalism itself was not by any stretch of the imagination the only (or most significant) source for fascist political philosophy, the fact that several of its leading proponents saw in fascism a potential political home for their more esoteric spiritual beliefs draws our attention to its potential to act as a violent and racist ideology.

Among the more specific signs that Guénon argues are indicative of a decline into the Dark Age include the rise of individualism and the falling away of caste distinctions. For Guénon and other Traditionalists, a caste system that placed a spiritual elite at the top and manual workers at the bottom was the natural order of human society. The increase in an individualist ethos, especially one that treats all humans as equal because of their status as consumers, erodes the caste system in the “west.” In tandem with the falling away of caste and the rise of individualism is the ascendance of the value of equality and its attendant institutionalized political form in democracy. Over and against such a vision of society Guénon promoted a hierarchical social order rooted in a primordial tradition, where people know their place, and because they know their place (whether as a cook, blacksmith, mother, or father) had a clear meaning and purpose in their lives. This political theology sought to preserve hierarchy, suppress the individual, and enforce conformity to an ideal only known by a select few.

Bannon’s Traditionalist Political Theology

Bannon expresses his arguments in “documentary” films and in interviews. His films evince the drama that one would expect from a person who believes that we are in the midst of a dark age. This is especially clear in his documentary Generation Zero (Citizens United, 2010). The film adopts a cyclical view of American history, citing William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning—An American Prophecy, which itself dabbles in Traditionalist approaches to temporality. Importantly, like Guénon, they see the 4th cycle in American history much like the Kali-Yuga. The cosmic nature of Bannon’s own view—and his adoption of a Traditionalist account of temporality—is clear in the way he depicts the cycles of time in the documentary. The first image in a section in the film on cyclical conceptions of time is an image of a sundial, which is then followed by the movement of gears inside of a gold-plated clock, a depiction of the Big Bang, the formation of the planet Earth, life itself in its cellular form, a butterfly appearing from a cocoon, and so forth. What all this is meant to imply is that the decline we are experiencing in the US is not simply a story of one nation’s decline, but the story of decline on cosmic proportions. Further, this story of decline is one that calls for urgent action because we, along with the rest of the world, are at risk of falling into an abyss if we do not “do something” soon. In this case, doing something means preserving the hierarchical order of tradition over and against the forces of modernity. Given this doom-laden view which characterizes our current dark age, it is unsurprising that one would rush to implement policies like the Muslim Ban that lack pragmatism and strip individuals of rights in the name of so-called unity. Whether or not implementing these policies stave off a descent into chaos, or merely preserve a hierarchy that will take over after the current age passes, is not fully explained by Bannon. For Guénon, however, it is clear that in preserving the hierarchical order as best we can now, we hold out the chance of shaping a new order in this form when it has to be reconstituted in the future.

There are recurring images in Bannon’s work that also mark a decline in particularly Traditionalist ways. In both his movie on Ronald Reagan, In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed (Bannon Films, 2004) and Generation Zero, the decline is almost always represented by the disintegration of gender roles and the rise of sexual liberation, both of which require the proliferation of individualism that Traditionalists abhor. Images of minorities are rare in his films, but when they are pictured, it is typically of African Americans with afros, wearing sunglasses, and giving speeches about revolutionary action. Here, the image is meant to evoke fear in the minds of his mostly White conservative audience. These films convey a “cautionary” representation of heedlessness and rejection of authority that is deeply resonant with Traditionalism. Only by preserving the “proper roles” of men and women and a racialized caste system could a proper social order be maintained. Bannon did not adopt all of Guénon’s or other Traditionalists’ arguments—he differs from them in his evaluation of Islam and his belief in the “working class” as the people who will save us from modernity’s corruptions—but he does seem to have accepted a notion of cyclical time and the urgency to act that our descent into the dark age calls for.

Running Out of Time

Since his departure from the White House and his failure to launch a European-wide populist movement, Bannon has fallen from the mainstream media spotlight. This is in no small part due to his indictment on charges of defrauding donors through his We Build the Wall organization. While continuing to deal with these legal troubles, Bannon also hosts a podcast called Steve Bannon’s War Room where he takes on the persona of a right-wing radio host, commenting on the daily headlines, promoting anti-vaccine theories, and putting forward political conspiracies about the 2020 US presidential election.[2] Despite this, attention to Bannon’s political theology of Traditionalism remains necessary as the forces that gave rise to Trump and made a space for someone like Bannon to gain proximity to power have not gone away. Trump’s decisive win in the 2024 Iowa caucuses is just one indicator that these forces remain potent. It is perhaps an overstatement to claim that Bannon himself is a full-fledged Traditionalist. Yet, in his political decisions, his documentaries, and his speeches, there is clear evidence that he finds aspects of the movement appealing and is even willing to implement them within the halls of power. For that reason, it is important that we continue to pay attention to this political theology and those who draw on it.

[1] A close engagement with Guénon’s use of Hindu texts and sources remains beyond the scope of this post. It should be noted, however, that like other Orientalists, he saw the “East” writ large as harboring spiritual resources lost to the west. For a recent, more sympathetic, reappraisal of Guénon’s Orientalist legacy, see Wael Hallaq, Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge.

[2] For a compelling analysis of the War Room podcast and the wider media ecosystem in which it operates, see Naomi Klein, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World (2023), esp. chap. 6.

Joshua S. Lupo
Joshua S. Lupo is the Assistant Director of the Contending Modernities research initiative. In this role, he serves as the editor and writer for the Contending Modernities Blog and the classroom coordinator for the Madrasa Discourses program. He has published articles and reviews in Sophia, Soundings, Critical Muslim, Reading Religion, and Religious Studies Review. With CM Co-Director Atalia Omer, he is the co-editor of Broken Solidarities: Feminism, Race, and Transnationalism (Notre Dame Press, 2022) and Religion, Populism, and Modernity: Confronting White Christian Nationalism and Racism  (Notre Dame Press, 2023). His current book project is titled After Essentialism: A Critical Phenomenology for the Study of Religion.

Leave a Reply

Fully aware of the ways in which personhood has been denied based on the hierarchies of modernity/coloniality, we do not publish comments that include dehumanizing language and ad hominem attacks. We welcome debate and disagreement that educate and illuminate. Comments are not representative of CM perspectives.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.