Image via Steve Bannon, Wikimedia Commons
If (the American media) knew I had a meeting with Dugin, literally it would be front page of the Washington Post. It’s “Bannon’s a traitor,” and they’d go nuts.
— Steve Bannon
Steve Bannon spoke these words to author Benjamin Teitelbaum in reference to the stunning revelation he had offered Teitelbaum that he had met with Russian neofascist ideologue and general maniac Aleksandr Dugin for eight hours in a fancy hotel room in Rome in November 2018. This extraordinary scoop was first reported in Teitelbaum’s 2020 book War for Eternity and formed the dramatic centrepiece of the book.¹ Teitelbaum also reported Bannon saying to Dugin when they first met, “Can you imagine what Washington would think?”
But there was no reaction to this bombshell piece of news. Only in the Teitelbaum book was the significance of this meeting properly appreciated. The real mystery is why Bannon, knowing the sizable uproar that it could have provoked, was nonetheless willing to spill the beans to Teitelbaum about his secret rendezvous with Dugin.
Dugin was recently in the media spotlight when someone – we will never know who – tried to assassinate him and instead dispatched his equally nefarious daughter, Darya Dugina. The Russian FSB lost no time in trying to pin the sensational murder on a couple of Ukrainians, but as journalist Masha Gessen helpfully explained in the New Yorker, the FSB was in all probability seeking to divert attention from its own involvement:
Anyone who has crossed Russian land borders knows that getting in and out in a car is usually a long, involved process. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that a Ukrainian citizen slipped in or out with fake license plates. Also, the FSB has never been known to solve a political murder in a couple of days – or, really, at all.²
Dugin’s fascism is beyond dispute, although he tries to obscure it by claiming that his ideology is a so-called “fourth political theory” supposedly transcending the dominant 20th-century ideologies of liberalism, communism and fascism. As leading Dugin scholars such as Marlene Laruelle, Andreas Umland and Anton Shekhovtsov have thoroughly documented, this supposed “fourth” political theory is simply a smokescreen for empire-lusting Russian fascism, such as we are seeing played out in Vladimir Putin’s genocidal aggression against Ukraine.³
In an article in Inroads in 2015, I sketched some of the more alarming aspects of Dugin’s ideological lunacy.⁴ Relevant here is that Dugin makes no secret of the fact that one of his intellectual heroes is Julius Evola (1898–1974), who is one of Bannon’s heroes as well, as the Teitelbaum book makes clear. One of the first works of the young Dugin was a Russian translation of a book by Evola, who helped inspire far-right terrorism in Italy during the so-called Years of Lead (1968–88).
Evola was critical of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, but only because he found it too plebeian. More to his taste was the SS, which came closer to his vision of an “aristocratic” version of fascism. This vision included the idea that to avoid sinking into the quicksand of modern decadence, it would be necessary to breed a caste of warrior-priests and recreate the rigid hierarchies that modernity sought to transcend.
Another major influence on Dugin is Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist who reduced the whole of politics to sovereign decision-making in a world rigorously divided into friends and enemies.
Dugin has forged alliances with figures on the alt-right such as Richard Spencer, who published one of his books (translated by Spencer’s now ex-wife), and he has warmly endorsed outright neo-Nazi groups such as the Traditionalist Worker Party.⁵ Dugin traffics in esoteric mythologies, of the kind that were popular in Germany in the generation leading up to the Third Reich. He himself drew attention to this when he named the press he founded “Arktogaia,” harking back to demented theories of a primeval Aryan superior race supposedly migrating from an Arctic land called Hyperborea.⁶
Dugin didn’t hesitate to describe himself as fascist in the 1990s when he cofounded the National Bolshevik Party with another erratic extremist, Eduard Limonov. In fact, in an uninhibited text entitled “Fascism – Borderless and Red,” Dugin, like Evola, demanded a purer, more stringent fascism. In The Future is History,⁷ Masha Gessen notes that Dugin acquired fame in Russia when he produced and narrated a three-part documentary miniseries that was an exercise in mystical Hitler-worship, broadcast on Russian TV in 1993. But Dugin subsequently became more cagey – hence the appeal to the supposed “fourth political theory.”
The positive content of this new theory or ideology is rather vague, overshadowed by his hatred of the West, disdain for liberal rights and freedoms and yearning for a cleansing apocalypse that will annihilate modernity. Dugin craves a restoration of the Russian Empire at its most expansive, led by a czar, and he has agitated for decades for Russia to begin this process of reestablishing the empire by seizing Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, Putin finally showed himself wholly on board with the project Dugin yearned for all along. Cathy Young, in an essay in The Bulwark, offered the perfect encapsulation of Dugin: he’s a “neofascist crank … either a kooky, occultism-obsessed prophet of Russian imperialism or a mega-troll whose public persona is a kind of performance art. (Of course, in truly postmodern fashion, it is possible that he is some combination of both.)”
There has always been controversy about the extent to which Dugin has or has not influenced Vladimir Putin. But in a decisively important speech on September 30, announcing Russia’s annexation of the four territories in which it held sham referendums, Putin seemingly went out of his way to allude to Dugin, saying the West collectively “is afraid of our philosophy and that’s why they try to assassinate our philosophers.”⁸ Putin, in this crucial speech, is thus in effect declaring Dugin to be one of his regime’s official philosophers. Dugin, in turn, responded to the speech by saying, “This is a fundamental declaration of war against the modern West and the modern world in general. This is a manifesto of Tradition. I can’t imagine how profound the consequences are. It was an eschatological, religious speech.”
It would be nice to view the ideological raving of Alexander Dugin as a purely intra-Russian affair. But it isn’t. The far right today is a global movement, which is why Bannon and Dugin had that meeting in Rome in the first place.⁹ In 2017, after he soured on Trump, Dugin apparently told an interviewer that he regarded Bannon as “Washington’s last hope.” And Bannon said to Teitelbaum regarding Dugin, “You know, I’m such a fan of his writing.” Bannon has described Dugin as “one of the greatest, most influential geopolitical thinkers and strategists of modern times.”
So what did these two influential firebrands of the contemporary far right actually have to discuss for eight hours? On the basis of his frequent and lengthy conversations with Bannon, Teitelbaum was able to reconstruct much of the content, relayed in chapter 12 of his book (from which all of the quotations below are drawn). The rendezvous took place in the Hotel de Russie, “blocks away from Julius Evola’s old apartment in Rome.” Early on, Bannon solicits Dugin’s views about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Yet it’s extremely unlikely that a faux intellectual like Bannon cared in the slightest what Martin Heidegger thought or didn’t think. The real game here is to appropriate Heideggerian jargon on behalf of a resurgent fascism.
When they resume after lunch, Bannon draws Dugin closer to what really concerns him. Bannon is sympathetic to Dugin’s argument that the West has no right to legislate a universal morality. And Bannon and Dugin agree on the proposition that modernity equals “pure nothingness.” But then they come to the question of America, which is where these two “Traditionalists” part company. Dugin points out that America was “the only state that was created in modernity,” accounting for its status as the very epitome of modernity as the pure nothingness that it is. Hence “America’s role in globalization, this hegemony, this pressure for human rights, democracy, and so on. All the worst things in the world.” For Dugin, the United States represents what Heidegger called the Seinsnacht, the “night of Being” – that is, the absolute hollowing-out of any possibility of cultural meaning.
Bannon defends America by counterarguing that what Dugin is attacking is not America as such but the liberal corruption of America: liberal modernity. The real America is defined by “a people, with roots, spirit, destiny.” Thus all we have to do to redeem a nonliberal America is to reinterpret it in Heideggerian – that is, fascistic – categories: The true America is being destroyed by liberalism and globalism and elites (liberal “overlords”) who care nothing for borders or traditions. Trump is doing for America what Dugin is trying to do for Russia: rescue it from the utter deracination that liberalism inflicts on human beings. The real America, Bannon says, is “not your enemy. It’s your ally.”
But then Bannon and Dugin hit another major sticking point: China! On Bannon’s (farfetched) account, the true Russia and the true America share the same “essence.” This is clearly not Dugin’s view. Bannon suggests that globalism is a kind of conspiracy intended to serve the interests of China above all; the Chinese are the true beneficiaries of the world system set up by the liberal overlords. If Russia and America are to find their shared essence, they must unite against China: “Mr. Dugin, it is imperative that you join us (the United States) against them (the Chinese).”
Dugin, whose demonization of the United States is and has always been at the core of his political thought, is obviously unmoved by this fantasy of a Russian-American axis, and doesn’t even waste breath responding to it. Bannon ends the conversation by appealing to their shared “Traditionalist” (i.e., Evolan) lineage. In effect he’s saying: we’re both fascists; hence we should be on the same side!
Let’s be clear: Bannon’s disclosure of his rendezvous with Dugin, to say nothing of his repeated expressions of esteem for Evola and his remark that Arktos offered “sophisticated” access to Evola and Dugin, represents a closet fascist exiting the closet. Why Bannon would make these incriminating avowals to someone writing a book about him and the far-right scene more generally remains a puzzle.
Why should we be concerned with any of this in 2022? After all, it’s five years since General John Kelly tossed Bannon out of the White House after Bannon egged on Trump to insinuate solidarity with the Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. Though he engages in relentlessly nasty and destructive rabble-rousing with his podcast, with luck he’ll be in prison before long, this time without a President Trump to pardon him.¹⁰
It would be nice to think that Bannon is no longer a menace, but this is far from certain. We know that Bannon was very active behind the scenes in inciting the awful things that blighted American democracy on January 6, 2021. We know that he once again had Trump’s ear in the runup to the assault on the Capitol, given the revelation by the January 6 committee that Trump had more than one conversation with Bannon on January 5. Jennifer Senior has reported in the Atlantic that Bannon spent the whole afternoon working the phones while the insurrection was in progress, despite claiming otherwise in an interview with her. (As Senior relates, Bannon’s cover story was punctured by his own daughter.)¹¹ It doesn’t require a whole lot of imagination to picture Bannon having had the same kind of malignant influence on Trump on January 5 and 6, 2021, as he did during his time in the White House.
If Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee in 2024, wins the next presidential election, he could very well reinstall Bannon as the standard-bearer of a more radical Trump second term. And given that possibility, we surely have a duty to acquire an even sharper awareness of Bannon as the cryptofascist that he clearly is (except that after publication of the Teitelbaum book, there’s nothing “crypto” about it).
In fact, Bannon is likely to remain what he has been since 2016: one of the most audacious and reckless ringleaders of the Trumpite movement, with or without Trump. President Biden has described the dominant MAGA wing of the Republican Party as “semi-fascist.” But if a Dugin-admiring Bannon once again comes to orchestrate the direction of Trumpism, as he may well do or maybe already does, then it may be wise to drop the qualifier “semi.”
¹ Benjamin R. Teitelbaum, War for Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers (New York: Dey Street, 2020). See also my review of the book, Life Among the Far-Right Rasputins, Inroads, Winter/Spring 2021.
² On October 5, 2022, the New York Times reported that according to unnamed “American officials,” U.S. intelligence agencies believed that the Ukrainians were responsible for the bombing, and that officials within the U.S. government admonished the Ukrainian government accordingly (Julian E. Barnes, Adam Goldman, Adam Entous and Michael Schwirtz, U.S. Believes Ukrainians Were Behind an Assassination in Russia. If it was in fact a Ukrainian operation (which seems doubtful to me), it’s hard to fathom what reasonable purpose officials of the American government thought would be served by leaking this information to the New York Times.
³ Cathy Young, in an extremely helpful profile in The Bulwark of Dugin’s weird, serpentine and often just plain crazy intellectual and ideological career, quotes a 2007 Dugin interview in which Dugin states, “Putin is becoming more and more like Dugin, or at least implementing the program I have been building my entire life … The closer (Putin) comes to us, the more he becomes himself. When he becomes 100 percent Dugin, he will become 100 percent Putin.” As we’ve all witnessed since February 24, 2022, it appears that Dugin has recently been getting his wish of Putin becoming 100 percent Dugin.
⁴ Russia’s Ecumenical Jihadist: Who is Aleksandr Dugin and Why is He Saying All These Terrible Things about the West? Inroads, Summer/Fall 2015.
⁵ The Traditionalist Worker Party was a White nationalist, antisemitic and misogynistic organization founded in 2013. It was one of the organizations behind the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The following year it disbanded after one of its founders was convicted of assault.
⁶ Arktos, the far-right press that has published virtually all of the English-language editions of Dugin’s books, plays on similar themes.
⁷ Masha Gessen, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (New York: Riverhead, 2018).
⁸ This is the translation by Christo Grozev, lead Russia investigator with Bellingcat. The official Kremlin translation is much weaker: “They encroach on our philosophers.” My colleague Ed Schatz informs me that Putin was able to retain a certain measure of ambiguity by using a generic verb meaning “to attack.” Still, it seems pretty clear that it was a not-so-subtle reference to Dugin as a feared intellectual threat supposedly targeted by the West.
⁹ As hard as it is to believe, Dugin has begun to penetrate American politics. Tucker Carlson devoted a segment of his Fox News show to a denunciation of Amazon for yanking Dugin’s books from its website. And even more shockingly, in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, one of Republican candidate Doug Mastriano’s rallies prominently featured branding that was clearly drawn from the title of one of Dugin’s books.
¹⁰ Bannon has been sentenced to four months in prison on two charges of contempt of Congress. He currently remains free pending an appeal
¹¹ Jennifer Senior, American Rasputin: Steve Bannon is Still Scheming. And He’s Still a Threat to Democracy, The Atlantic, July/August 2022.