Benjamin R. Teitelbaum, War for Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers. New York: Dey Street, 2020. 317 pages.
War for Eternity is a remarkable book. It centres on three figures who were influenced by a spooky, esoteric philosophy called Traditionalism and went on to become Rasputins for world leaders: Steve Bannon (Donald Trump’s Rasputin), Alexander Dugin (Vladimir Putin’s Rasputin) and Olavo de Carvalho (a former astrologer and Jair Bolsonaro’s Rasputin). The author, Benjamin Teitelbaum, has had conversations with all of them, and gives us an eye-opening window into how dangerous the world must now be if “malignant actors” like these (to borrow a phrase from the last episode of season 2 of the television series Succession) are influential string-pullers. (There is actually a fourth Rasputin discussed in the book as well: Tibor Baranyi of Hungary’s Jobbik party.)
All of these Rasputins seem hypnotized by Julius Evola, a thinker who wanted to resurrect a society ruled by priests and warriors, who urged men to rule women with a whip, who defended a vision of human existence centred on race (albeit “spiritual” rather than biological race), and who desired that people be locked into castes as rigid as those legislated by the Law-book of Manu. Traditionalism, as laid out by its founder, René Guénon (whose disciple Evola took himself to be), is a philosophy that deems modernity to be doomed by its materialism and its evisceration of the spirit.
This is a view of modernity that is not per se crazy, but Traditionalists – at least those under the spell of Evola – go on to prescribe remedies such as conceiving war as spiritually purifying, celebrating ruthless hierarchy and conjuring up myths of an Aryan Ur-race. Evola characterized his politics as being to the right of European fascism (because it was supposedly more aristocratic than what Mussolini or Hitler had to offer). Bannon has previously dropped hints about his esteem for Evola, but Teitelbaum’s conversations with him tease out how central these wild ideas are to his worldview.
The book’s big bombshell is that Bannon had an eight-hour conversation with Dugin in Rome in November of 2018. Critics of Bannon (including me1) have always suspected that he’s more of a fascist than he lets on. Teitelbaum supplies us with abundant evidence to back up those suspicions. Bannon goes to Rome with hopes of striking up a secret partnership with Dugin. He says that he’s intrigued by Dugin’s views about Martin Heidegger. Right! Really, the aim of the rendezvous is to convince Dugin that China, not the United States, is the real enemy.
What were the prospects of success for this bizarre mission? Even as a fellow Traditionalist, Carvalho seems to have Dugin rightly pegged as the truly menacing character that he is: “In order to fulfill his plans, counts on Vladimir Putin’s strong arm, the armies of Russia and China and every terrorist organization of the Middle East, not to mention practically every leftist, fascist, and neo-Nazi movement which today place themselves under the banner of his ‘Eurasian’ project.” Consider the following sample of typical Duginite ranting posted on Twitter earlier this year: A Biden win in 2020 will be “the victory of gangrene. Some kind of necro-victory.” U.S. dominance of the world would then be kaput. But a Trump win would promise big rewards: “Hillary, Obama, Zuckerberg, Gates, and above all Soros would be literally beheaded.”
Liberation of the rest of the world requires the end of American democracy, either through “the victory of Sorosite scum” or through the imposition of Trumpite “real (and not imagined) dictatorship.” If it turns out to be the latter, Dugin awaits with glee “inner purge and anti-liberal cleansing.” March the decadent liberals off to concentration camps! Is this the kind of political thinker and actor with whom one would want to do business? In fact, a major riddle running through this book is why Bannon would allow Teitelbaum to reveal to the world the extent of his entanglements with fascists from Evola to Dugin. Even Teitelbaum admits to being quite puzzled by this. Bannon on Dugin: “You know, I’m, I’m such a fan of his writing.” This is not a minor confession coming from someone who held high office in the White House for roughly seven months.
Teitelbaum’s Traditionalists all claim to be committed to the project of defeating materialism and restoring spiritualism; yet they stay in very fancy hotels, eat very lavish meals and seem obsessed with the hard realities of power and geopolitics. Teitelbaum not unfairly calls Bannon “a limousine populist.”2 Very much relevant to this characterization is Bannon’s arrest on August 20 for defrauding precisely the kind of folks who adhere to Bannonite ideology so that Bannon and his friends could spend their time on luxury yachts like the one on which he was arrested.
Teitelbaum notes the common tendency among Bannon commentators to conclude “that in Steve, there was no ‘there’ there – no ideology, in fact, but just the empty ramblings of a blowhard.” Yet Teitelbaum’s concerted efforts to construe Bannonism as a coherent doctrine come up short, as Teitelbaum himself fully recognizes. Bannon thinks that one can craft a relatively egalitarian version of Evola – Evolanism without Evola’s notions of caste, race and sexual hierarchy – which is obvious nonsense. Bannon wants people to accept the image of him as a pious conservative Catholic; but when pushed to choose between the cyclical view of history associated with Evola’s paganism and the linear-progressive view associated with Christian soteriology, Bannon sides with Evola. Again, among Teitelbaum’s three Traditionalist “power brokers,” Carvalho, the more renegade Traditionalist, seems to be more clear-sighted: “Evola was completely insane. He wanted to bring down the church so he could create a new European paganism. Ha!”3 Bannon has somehow convinced himself that America, a liberal republic founded on the thought of the Enlightenment, can be reconceived as a land of “roots, spirit, destiny,” even “blood and soil,” as if he were dealing with Heidegger’s German Volk.
The colourful cast of characters in Teitelbaum’s book goes well beyond the three Rasputins: Bannon, Dugin and Carvalho. Teitelbaum is by profession an ethnomusicologist – that is, an anthropologist focusing on musical aspects of a given culture. He started his career with a study of the White-power music scene in Sweden, and having cultivated a big network to pursue that research, he clearly in some sense got hooked on the intellectual ecosystem of the contemporary radical right. The current book builds on that earlier research, giving us a guided tour of the cranks and weirdos who populate that world. In an extensive symposium devoted to his work in the journal Current Anthropology (June 2019), Teitelbaum argues that his way of doing ethnography requires him to befriend, advocate for, and even “collaborate with” his subjects. (The “collaboration” was modest: he supplied a Swedish skinhead with feedback on the literary qualities of a White-nationalist novel that the skinhead had published.)
This may be a benign principle if the object of study is, say, an imperilled indigenous culture in need of all the sympathy it can get. But who in his or her right mind would want to befriend, advocate for, and collaborate with the racists and fascists who are the subjects of Teitelbaum’s research? Hence the fact that Teitelbaum refers to his protagonists on a first-name basis (which will grate on many readers) is not merely a stylistic matter. For Teitelbaum it is a “methodological” principle defining how he practises his trade. He even gets a hug from Steve – which, for me, doesn’t seem a whole lot more attractive than getting a hug from Julius Evola.
One of Ben’s buddies is a dubious character named John Morgan. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Morgan migrated to India, where he apprenticed as a Hindu monk, then to Budapest, where he helped run Arktos, the far-right press founded by the ex-neo-Nazi Daniel Friberg (another friend of Teitelbaum’s). But Friberg is not an easy guy to work for, and Morgan was until recently employed at Counter-Currents, which Teitelbaum identifies as a White-nationalist outfit. Yes, it’s White-nationalist, but Teitelbaum doesn’t tell us that its chief, Greg Johnson, reveres Savitri Devi, who in turn revered Adolf Hitler (she in fact tried to found a religion with Hitler as its god!). Moreover, Johnson’s website goes so far as to celebrate Hitler’s birthday4: “It wasn’t a perfect fit for John, but nothing was.” Well, the fit may appear a bit less awkward than this suggests after we learn from Teitelbaum that Morgan was set on his spiritual/political journey by the Nazi broadcasts of William Luther Pierce: “That early influence made who they are.”
Teitelbaum becomes equally friendly with Morgan’s successor as editor-in-chief of Friberg’s Arktos, Jason Jorjani. Jorjani subsequently acquired a bigger public profile when he teamed up with America’s top celebrity-Nazi, Richard Spencer, in co-founding the AltRight Corporation. Jorjani apparently entertained grand designs of seizing control of Arktos from Friberg and of the AltRight Corporation from Spencer, and then using them as platforms for the founding of a new Aryan civilization. “Jason was an unusual character,” Teitelbaum comments.
Indeed! Jorjani has published mind-blowing texts in which he displays an approbation of Hitler to rival Greg Johnson’s. The sections of the book devoted to Jorjani take on the style of a fast-paced thriller. Jorjani gets himself mixed up with some very shady characters who promise to help him realize his imperial ambitions. Anyone familiar with the Jorjani saga already knows that it is a story (sad or comic?) of megalomania and delusion, but Teitelbaum’s detective work nicely documents just how delusional Jorjani allowed himself to be. In the words of Jorjani’s ex-partner, Richard Spencer: “Jason has a tendency to LARP ” – a characterization that it is impossible to improve on.
Teitelbaum claims that his work gives him insight into “deeper complexities in places I expected only to find brutal dullness.” In an interview with Rod Dreher related to the book, Dreher asks Teitelbaum what can be salvaged from the ideas ventilated by his interlocutors. This is his reply: “I think people stand the best chance of deriving something good from Traditionalism when they treat it, not as a guide for action, but instead as a narrative to inspire new analyses of society, which thereafter might function as a basis for action.”
This formulation is way too kind or too generous for my tastes. The leading figures of Traditionalism are all deeply problematic. Guénon “died paranoid and embroiled in conflicts with his former followers.” Evola was besotted with the SS, and near the end of his life (he died in 1974), he served as a guru to Italian terrorists of the far right. Frithjof Schuon, the leader of a Traditionalist cult to which Carvalho once belonged, was probably a sex-crazed child molester. Dugin, as we have seen, is a foaming-at-the-mouth ideologue. The suggestion that we should exert ourselves to look for “something good” that can be extracted from Traditionalism strikes me as misguided and perverse. In the Dreher interview Teitelbaum also says, “I think it is common to fear complex portrayals of people who threaten you,” as if moral failure lies on the side of people who are too quick to judge fascists rather than on the side of the fascists themselves.
Teitelbaum opens the book with an epigraph conveying an image made famous by Evola: modernity is a tiger that cannot be defeated by direct combat. So one rides the tiger until it becomes so old and decrepit that one can strangle it: “Liberal modernity … has a limited lifespan and will eventually succumb to time.” In elaborating on this Evolan metaphor, Teitelbaum writes that critics of modernity need to “withdraw and wait … maybe don’t even tell your friends what you really think. Don’t be honest with the outside world. Heck, pretend to hold the opposite values if that’s what it takes.”
I can well imagine that some readers, when they see the Evolan epigraph and then read this commentary on it, will wonder exactly what Teitelbaum is up to. He has, after all, strayed a fair way from musicology. He sent me a lengthy, distressed email after reading an earlier draft of this review essay. In it, he insisted that his own politics are situated on the left wing of the Democratic Party, and that he is anything but the fellow traveller that one might at times suspect him of being when his sympathies as an ethnographer get the better of his critical faculties. I tend to believe him. Yet while Teitelbaum’s trek through the wilder borderlands of the far-right intelligentsia is genuinely illuminating and even gripping, the style and tone of his interactions with these characters are often unsettling.
This brings us back to the problem of his identity as an ethnographer and his preferred methodological approach to that discipline. He generally comes across as altogether too chummy with these dangerous people and too respectful of their ideas. At moments when one starts feeling really repelled by them (quite possibly Teitelbaum does too), he goes out of his way to assure us of how “complicated” they are as human beings and how “complex” their thought is. He thus runs the peril of going too far in making apologies for them by portraying the fundamental (normative) issues as more complicated than they really are. If this is what ethnography requires, I would certainly prefer to deal with the Bannons and Fribergs and Morgans and Jorjanis of the world via some intellectual discipline other than ethnography.
I can think of two books that do something similar to what Teitelbaum is doing. One is Raphael S. Ezekiel’s 1995 book The Racist Mind. The other is much more recent: Antisocial (2019) by Andrew Marantz. Both books feature long conversations with people on the far right, and give faithful reports of the accounts these people give of themselves. But neither Ezekiel nor Marantz adopts Teitelbaum’s become-friends-with-them methodology. They don’t feel it’s incumbent on them to dwell, in an apologetic tone, on how supposedly complicated their subjects are, or how admirably complex their thinking is. In those two books, there isn’t a page where one doubts that the author regards the folks that he’s interviewing as demented and dangerous. Still, it remains the case that Teitelbaum’s book does us all an important service. It peels back the curtain on a weird intellectual subculture that has somehow, seemingly impossibly, seeped into the minds of powerful political actors driven by an ambition to strangle liberalism.
1 See my essay The Rise, and Apparent Fall, of President Bannon, Inroads, Summer/Fall 2017.
2 Cf. Michelle Goldberg, “Trumpism’s a Racket. Steve Bannon Knew It,” New York Times, August 23, 2020, p. SR 9: “Shaggy, pretentious and endlessly cynical, Bannon presented himself as a man with a limbic connection to Trump’s base. But few people had more disdain for the members of the right-wing grass roots – whom Bannon sometimes referred to as ‘hobbits.’ In ‘The Brink,’ a 2019 documentary about Bannon, there’s a scene in which he speaks to supporters in a modest living room stuffed with furniture and bedecked with crosses. As his small audience sits rapt, he lauds the room’s similarity to one in his grandmother’s house and pays homage to the ‘working-class, middle-class’ people who make up nationalist movements everywhere. Then he and a young man traveling with him walk out and step into their chauffeured car. ‘You couldn’t pay me a million dollars a year to live in that house,’ sneers Bannon’s associate. They head to a private airport. Bannon starts to make a crack about the luxurious locale. ‘This is the populist…’ Then he thinks better of it and shoves some popcorn into his mouth.”
3 Relevant to the Bannon-Carvalho relationship, one can find on the internet an intriguing photo posted on Facebook by Carvalho. Bannon is paying a visit to Carvalho (Carvalho calls him “a distinguished visitor”), and both men appear in high spirits. Bannon stands over Carvalho, holding up a copy of a publication with pictures of Carvalho and Dugin on the cover. The book is entitled The USA and The New World Order: A Debate between Olavo de Carvalho and Aleksandr Dugin (published by the Inter-American Institute for Philosophy, Government, and Social Thought, a think-tank run by Carvalho). The New World Order is a far-right conspiracy theory.
4 Check out Johnson’s Remembering Adolf Hitler: April 20, 1889–April 30, 1945. ohnson has a shocking essay on his website (“The Burden of Hitler”) in which he suggests that it is wrong for White nationalists to condemn Hitler, for this would amount to “throwing a loyal white man under the bus.” Johnson’s attitude toward Teitelbaum offers an instructive window into just how deranged the far-right scene surveyed in War for Eternity is. In a comment he posted on his website concerning Mark Sedgwick’s edited volume Key Thinkers of the Radical Right (Oxford University Press, 2019), for which Teitelbaum wrote the Daniel Friberg chapter, Johnson writes the following: “The problem is that Friberg chapter is a transparent puff piece presenting a sociopathic grifter expelled from 109 organizations as a metapolitical mastermind. So it makes Sedgwick come off as an uncritical promoter of Friberg. Not a good look for an academic. Those with a more paranoid bent would connect the dots between Friberg being an antifa and police informant and the fact that Teitelbaum is an American Jew and conclude that he is simply an enemy agent being puffed up as a movement mastermind, i.e., controlled opposition.” In the Sedgwick book Teitelbaum writes: “Friberg can take credit for having replaced with … fluency in a body of radical Right intellectual thought and aspiration toward personas of erudition and professionalism.” In contrast with this positive assessment, I sympathize with Greg Johnson’s less generous judgement: Spencer and Friberg “are shallow, self-promoting, pseudo-intellectual poseurs.”