Dey Street Books, 2020, 332 pp., $28.99
The Trump Hotel is an unusual venue for a film screening. But to the hosts, it seemed much the best place to put on a showing of the documentary The Garden of Afflictions on the evening of March 16, 2019, the day before Jair Bolsonaro was set to land in Washington for his first state visit.
The film was billed as a portrayal of the life and thought of Olavo de Carvalho, a former astrologer who had become a cult figure among Bolsonaro’s most devoted supporters, and had personally selected two ministers in Bolsonaro’s cabinet. Carvalho’s past was checkered and obscure—he had been affiliated with a pseudo-Sufi sex cult in Indiana, and had conducted “interviews” with dead people and aliens for a French occultist magazine. No one knew exactly what to expect from his allies in the government.
This was no normal film screening: It was part of the coordinated attempt by Steve Bannon to build ties between populist right-wing nationalists around the globe. Bolsonaro himself wasn’t there, and neither was Trump, who had ousted Bannon almost two years earlier after the “Unite the Right” rally at Charlottesville.
It was a gathering of the most extreme right-wing elements that were or had been associated with both administrations. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, an acknowledged disciple of Carvalho’s and an influential figure in his father’s government, stood in the center of the lobby, jovially shaking hands with the guests, wearing a bright green “Make Brazil Great Again” hat to cover his balding pate. Various former Trump Administration creatures prowled around the room. Sebastian Gorka was there, and so was Bannon, wearing his customary two shirts. There too was the guest of honor, Olavo de Carvalho, short and gnomelike, dressed in cheap tweed from head to foot, badgering the bartender in bad English to give him a drink. The mood in the room was gleeful.
This is the world that Benjamin Teitelbaum describes in his new book War for Eternity: one defined by, as he puts it, “an exchange between ascendant political elites and intellectual lepers” around the globe. In Moscow and Budapest, in Brasília and Washington, fringe far-right intellectuals rub shoulders with powerful politicians—and Teitelbaum has been keeping track, meeting with these figures, picking their brains, attending events like that documentary screening and silently keeping notes.
The connective tissue of Teitelbaum’s analysis of right-wing intellectual and political movements in Russia, Brazil, Hungary, and the United States is a far-right strand of thought known as traditionalism—often spelled with a capital T by the initiated. Until recently it was an irrelevant subculture within the far-right subculture. Traditionalists are a less vocal kind of racist, more likely to be found looking at star charts than going to skinhead rallies. The movement is said to have originated with a French occultist who converted to Islam, René Guénon, and an Italian admirer of the Nazis, Julius Evola. As a philosophy it is entirely worthless, a confection of middle-school-level readings of Hegel, Marx, and Spengler attached to a wild caricature of ancient Persian or Indian civilization. Traditionalists mourn the death of ancient societies characterized by spiritualism and hierarchies of caste and gender, and hope for their restoration after the collapse of modern materialist, egalitarian civilization. It is a strain of thought characterized by virulent anti-Semitism, crankishness and magical thinking, and a more or less complete lack of rigor or erudition. It is difficult to identify a tradition of thought which relies less upon the human capacity for reason and insight. Rather than vague lamentations about the loss of spirituality, a much better measure of civilizational decline would be the prevalence of cultist effluvium like traditionalism or the Manson family.
Traditionalism is, however, worth considering if for no other reason than that some of its obvious and glaring flaws are also present in some form in other, more mainstream strains of thought on the right. Its promise to unveil hidden truths about ancient spiritualism to followers, allowing them to recover true knowledge within a fallen society, is easily and justly dismissed as charlatanism, but it bears a certain and rather uncomfortable resemblance to the teachings of Leo Strauss, who similarly promised esoteric illumination to his students. How can one determine which guru is offering perennial wisdom, and which snake oil? How can one tell the difference between a “philosopher” and a “non-philosopher”?
Then, there are the other traditionalists to consider, the “trad caths” of Twitter—conservative Catholics who pine for the days when Mass was said in Latin and women weren’t allowed to leave the home. Which days were those, exactly? You’ll never get a good answer. Their traditional society exists nowhere in particular in history. That’s true for Evola, too, despite the fact that he was so anti-Semitic he was also anti-Christian, believing Christianity already to be afflicted by the disease of modernity. By the same token, one can detect an echo of Julius Evola’s command to “ride the tiger” of doomed modernity into a putative rebirth of tradition in the writing of Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule, who would like to harness the administrative state to replace liberal democracy with a Catholic confessional state. Both appear optimistic that, should liberal democracy be succeeded by a new hierarchy, they would be at the top of the pyramid and not near the bottom along with most of their fellow citizens.
It’s impressive, really, that Teitelbaum has managed to endure these sorts of gatherings with such high frequency over the course of his years of research into this international network of far-right intellectuals. He is an ethnographer by training, he reminds us in his introduction, and his primary interest is not in politics but in the ways his subjects “see the world.” Ethnography, he warns us, “isn’t the best tool for producing impassioned criticism of its subjects.” Studying traditionalism has long been a kind of hobby of Teitelbaum’s, since before it became politically significant in the West. He has a very extensive set of contacts across the world and, since Bannon made the movement a talking point in America, has parlayed his expertise into bylines in the New York Times and the Atlantic, and of course a book deal.
All of this might help to explain the many jarring euphemisms in his book. Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is “eccentric”; alt-right figure Jason Reza Jorjani’s anticipation of a rehabilitation of Hitler was “characteristically articulate”; the Charlottesville rally was a “public relations hurdle” for the Trump Administration. It is difficult not to note that these sound worryingly similar to the words of one who has, as it were, gone native.
Another awkwardness is the extent to which Teitelbaum seems positively taken with Bannon. “Brilliant,” he writes of the former chief of staff. “He’s handsome too.” Yet despite Teitelbaum’s best efforts, it quickly becomes clear Bannon has a very weak grasp of the traditionalist texts by which he is supposed to be influenced—a fact which ought to surprise few. Teitelbaum constantly voices his shock (and, it seems clear, his pride) at Bannon’s decision to grant him interview after interview, and wonders why he is allowed to have the ear of such a busy man for so long. The reason seems clear to the reader: Bannon sees in Teitelbaum a pleasant distraction from his affairs, a chance to indulge a long-abandoned hobby for old times’ sake.
The book is largely composed of a roughly chronological and somewhat breathless first-person account of Teitelbaum’s interviews with various traditionalist figures, but the most interesting elements of it are neither ethnographic nor captured in these conversations. A political and intellectual history of traditionalism in world politics emerges almost in spite of the presentation of the material, which depicts the last several years not as the triumph of the extreme right but rather its defeat.
The first significant traditionalist-influenced extreme-right intellectual was Russia’s Aleksandr Dugin, who began advocating a combination of Nazism and communism after the fall of the Soviet Union and gained favor in Kremlin circles towardsthe late 1990s by writing a tract that combined Evola-style traditionalism with Russian grand strategy. Europe and especially America represented rootless, materialist modernity; while Russia and the Middle East represented spiritual tradition. Dugin apparently gained such favor with Putin that he was sent on a clandestine diplomatic mission to Turkey in 2004 to try to steer the Turks away from NATO, and intervened again to shore up relations between Russia and Turkey in 2015 at the height of the Syria crisis.
Olavo de Carvalho was still a totally irrelevant figure in Brazilian politics in 2011—his bestselling book came out in 2013—when he debated Dugin via a series of back-and-forth essays considered highly significant by Carvalho’s fans. Though he was deeply influenced by Guénon, Carvalho remained a Catholic, an anticommunist, and a defender of America and of the West, which brought him into conflict with Dugin’s Russian-style traditionalism.
In an innovative reformulation which left Dugin flat-footed, Carvalho discarded the “traditional East versus modern West” narrative, arguing the world was being contested between three forces, none of which he liked particularly: an alliance of the Russian and Chinese militaries, Western finance, and Islamic fundamentalism. As a theory of geopolitics this formulation is, it goes without saying, utterly bunk—a Russo-Chinese alliance?—but in a debate with a traditionalist it was dynamite. The three forces represented three of the four “castes” in Evola’s crackpot theory: warriors, merchants, and priests. Carvalho went on to argue that communism had utterly destroyed the traditional soul of Russian culture and that true tradition was to be found in the conservative hinterland of America, where he made his home. Tradition survived at the local level where universalizing authority could not reach, he concluded in almost Burkean language. Carvalho is not in any sense a political moderate, but in intellectual terms he had managed to pull the rug out from under Dugin’s extreme formulation of despotic, hierarchical traditionalism by employing its own logic against it, and had ended up in territory which did not look essentially different from standard right-wing populism: localist, Christian, pro-Western, anticommunist, hostile to Islam.
Teitelbaum describes Bannon’s project—to the limited extent that he can piece it together convincingly—in similar terms. Admitting that he is taking great liberties with what seems to be extreme incoherence on Bannon’s part, Teitelbaum argues that Bannon attempts to synthesize the traditionalist vision of hierarchy with a populist, American Dream, social-mobility view. The people at the lowest level of society are, in the original traditionalist view, despised as slaves; but for Bannon they are instead imbued with special dignity, vessels of the true American tradition who ought to be uplifted. Teitelbaum, rather obsequiously, compares Bannon to von Herder and dubs his view “the metaphysics of the peasantry.” This seems an elaborate way of calling him what he obviously is: a populist with an occultist streak rather than vice versa. And even Teitelbaum is forced to admit the obvious: that hierarchy—specifically, racial hierarchy—filters into Bannon’s outlook. The fate of America, in his view, is the fate of the white working class; their problems are America’s problems, while problems in the black community, or the Hispanic community, are the problems of those communities alone.
The story Teitelbaum tells about Hungary is similar, too: a case of a battle, he says, “between the far right and the extreme right.” The openly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party Jobbik—whose leader, Gábor Vona, had an avowedly traditionalist advisor—surged in the polls in 2014, challenging Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz, which Teitelbaum politely describes as “merely nationalist and populist.” But the migrant crisis handed Orbán a chance to dominate the right-wing vote with a fiercely anti-immigrant stance. Jobbik plummeted; Orbán rose. Vona soon discarded his traditionalist advisor, and then handed over the party presidency.
So what direct influence on global politics does traditionalism actually have today? Luckily, not very much. Even the marginal traditionalists have been marginalized. In America, Bannon has been out of the White House since 2017, his plot to start a school in Italy foiled, reduced to appearing on left-wing podcasts like Red Scare. Olavo de Carvalho remains in self-imposed exile in Virginia, often spouting off on social media against the generals in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, whom he suspects of being communists.
Teitelbaum calls Ernesto Araújo, the man Carvalho picked to head Bolsonaro’s foreign ministry, a full-blooded traditionalist—but the evidence for this is amounts to a single citation to Evola in an essay by Araújo from 2017. In fact Araújo’s politics are little different from mainstream American “fusionist” conservatism: He would not be all that out of place as a columnist at, say, National Review. As for the other Carvalho-approved minister, Abraham Weintraub of Education, it is difficult to discern what ideology he subscribes to, as his posts on Twitter are so cryptic and marred by grammatical errors so as to be practically incomprehensible. The anti-China posture Carvalho and Araújo encourage, meanwhile, has everything to do with anticommunism and nothing to do with traditionalism, and in any case it has made little headway, as the generals in the cabinet resist them and China remains Brazil’s largest trading partner.
The global populist revolt of the late 2010s turns out in the final analysis to have been exactly that, a populist revolt. In its wake has come the development not just of one “nationalist international” but in fact of several. There is the one that Teitelbaum describes here, the traditionalist-adjacent Bannon-Carvalho-Dugin axis, but there is also a much more successful and likely more enduring one, the “National Conservative” grouping led by Israeli-American academic Yoram Hazony. This ad hoc alliance knits together “social conservative, economically liberal” forces in America, like prospective future presidential candidates Josh Hawley and Tucker Carlson, with euroskeptic and national-conservative parties in Europe like Italy’s League and France’s National Rally—as well as, more controversially, Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Hungary’s Fidesz, both accused of eroding democratic norms in their respective countries. Hazony works hard, with broad though incomplete success, to purge his coalition of obvious cranks and racists.
It is with these more terrestrial national-conservative parties that the further reaches of the right will be most powerful at the polls over the next decade, their anti-China stances potentially rendered more popular by the effects of the coronavirus. The role of shadowy, esoteric, occultist ideologies has turned out to be, if initially broader than anyone would have guessed, still in the end more or less as self-limiting as could be expected. Now, imaginably, these fanatics can get back to reading their tarot cards and going to black metal shows, or whatever it is they do.