Late in the evening on Oct. 31, 2020, just days before the U.S. presidential election, Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Donald Trump, sat with a group of associates in his posh Washington, D.C. townhouse. Violence beckoned for the nation, he told them. Bannon claimed that, regardless of the tally, Trump was planning to declare victory shortly after polls closed on Nov. 4. They all knew that the first votes counted would be those cast in-person as opposed to mail-in ballots, and these votes would favor Trump.
So, Bannon explained, “Trump’s going to take advantage of it. That’s our strategy. He’s gonna declare himself a winner.” Were Biden to overtake Trump’s lead later in the vote count, competing claims between Trump and the media would cause uncertainty and discord. “You’re going to have antifa, crazy. The media, crazy. The courts are crazy. And Trump’s gonna be sitting there mocking, tweeting shit out: ‘You lose. I’m the winner. I’m the king.’” Moreover, Bannon claimed, the sitting president would then gut judicial oversight of himself by firing FBI Director Christopher Wray. “After then, Trump never has to go to a voter again. … He’s gonna say ‘Fuck you. How about that?’ Because … he’s done his last election. Oh, he’s going to be off the chain — he’s gonna be crazy.”
The comments were captured on a recently released recording taken at the townhouse that evening, and in retrospect they appear prescient in their anticipation of Trump’s public statements on election night (the president eventually claimed, “Frankly, we did win this election”) and of the dramatic attempts to challenge the election results that followed. Bannon’s words served to push him once again — today a private citizen perennially declared “irrelevant” by political observers — to the center of public conversations about the Trump presidency, the 2020 election, and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that followed.
And they force questions about Bannon’s involvement and intentions. Was Bannon only prophesying when he spoke about Trump’s possible actions on election night, or was he presenting his vision for the future? Was the undoing of the U.S. democratic system something Bannon feared or craved? And — as Jennifer Senior of The Atlantic and Sean Illing of Vox recently considered — does he recognize his own claims as being false, or are they uttered with sincerity?
Paradoxically, the answer to each of these questions is probably, yes. I have sat with Bannon many times in his townhouse, talking specifically about the destiny of the United States and the role he sees for chaos and destruction — for “craziness” — in it. The worldview he laid out to me was one where things he might otherwise consider harmful, like the dissolution of our electoral process or the erosion of shared understandings of truth, were to be embraced as fated stages in a process of national rebirth. It is a way of looking at society and people that makes Bannon’s actions since the 2020 election intelligible and harrowing.
To understand his thinking and actions, we can begin by looking into his past. Though he identifies as a “nationalist” or a “populist” today, he has spent far more of his adult life studying and participating in alternative spirituality, most notably a little-known movement with the plain-sounding moniker: Traditionalism. Traditionalism and its teaching encompass both Bannon’s noted Catholicism and his cultural conservatism, but it gnarls each, inspiring extreme opposition to modern institutions.
Always written with a capital “T,” Traditionalism condemns ideas that most people celebrate, ideas like faith in progress and the hope that human reason can meaningfully advance society materially and morally; modern politics’ focus on economics and questions of property rights or wealth distribution; the value of individual freedom; and the prospect that certain facts and values are equally valid for all the world’s peoples. These are the ideas forming the often-unspoken political consensus that unites the left and right in liberal democracies, and Traditionalists want nothing to do with them. Returning to the past, rather than creating a new future, is their goal. They reject individualism and the possibility of universal secular truths. Instead, they believe that the only good to be found in modern “progress” is that it will eventually self-implode and return society to eternal values that we never improve upon, but merely regain. It is that faith, that the destruction of the modern world will necessarily lead to something good, where we find Traditionalism’s signature in politics, the core of its threat to liberal democracy, and the apparent playbook for Bannon’s recent actions.
If Traditionalism’s ideas sound too vague for practical policy matters, that’s no accident. It was a spiritual and religious school long before it entered politics. It was founded by French occultist and philosopher Rene Guenon (1886-1951) who converted to Islam later in his life after having lived as a Catholic and studied Hinduism — moves justified based on a belief that while multiple religions preserve ancient truths, one must eventually commit to a single pathway to gain deeper insights.
While much of Traditionalism explores the esoteric dimensions of world religions, two of Guenon’s ideas inspired right-wing political actors like Bannon. One was the idea of cyclic time. Whereas modern society tends to look at history as moving in linear fashion, from a past of oppression and ignorance to a future of enlightenment and justice, Traditionalists instead follow Hinduism in seeing time as trapped in a cycle that constantly pushes us away from and back to eternal virtues. More specifically, they believe that we proceed through a cycle of four ages, from a golden age, to silver, bronze and dark, before a vicious moment of destruction and rebirth returns society to its previous golden age, and the cycle repeats, on and on. Embedded in this idea is a claim that time itself is almost always equivalent to decline: With nearly every passing second, society degrades. The only solace comes from the fact that decline also means that the time cycle is advancing, and with it, the promise of a return to gold.
You are and shall become what you originally were. The deepest truths can only be recovered, not discovered. Social depravity is both your curse and your salvation.
There is a latent apocalyptic yearning in this way of thinking. And its reactionary elements sharpen as we look at the second influential idea coming from Guenon and other Traditionalists, that of social ordering and hierarchy, which indicates what is good and bad, golden and dark. Following Hinduism again, Traditionalists claim that an ideal society is structured around a caste hierarchy. During a golden age, a priestly caste reigns, with castes below them descending from those of warriors to merchants, and finally to slaves. As time passes, the upper castes disappear and assimilate downward. A silver age sees the disappearance of priests, theocracy and spiritual aesthetics amid the rise of warriors, military states and honor-based ideals; the bronze age of merchants brings kleptocracy and the worship of money and goods; and values, governments and aesthetics achieve ultimate materiality during a dark age of the slaves where human bodies replace spirituality, honor and money as our chief concern — where we assign political power based on quantification of bodies (think democracy and communism) and expand mass communities through calls for equality as borders and boundaries of all kinds disappear. Any potential sign of inequality or distinction in society — any official institution or office with expertise like a politician, a priest, a professor, a doctor or a journalist — is bound to be phony and probably perform a role opposite of that they claim to. Society at large will be blinded to its emptiness during a dark age, however, for having abandoned authentic golden age spirituality and eternal truths, it will instead place its trust in linearity and a belief that its creations, its institutions, can provide truth and virtue.
Traditionalism’s account of a dark age thus resembles right-wing populist criticisms of our own era: that sovereignty is stripped as our economies and states massify and spread and that our institutions for establishing truth and order — schools, the media, government — make up a thoroughly corrupt establishment from which little good can come.
Where Traditionalism spreads beyond populism, in part, is its focus on spirituality and its elaborated celebration of borders: Populists may fetishize national borders and rigid gender identities as tokens of order, but Traditionalism can inspire a deeper love of boundaries, going from celebration of social hierarchies within a society to condemnation of global economic systems, Evangelism and universal systems for establishing facts. In a better society, according to them, men are distinct from women, national borders are meaningful and different groups, nations or castes have their own methods for establishing truth. It would be a world of differences; in all ways you can imagine.
When Traditionalism has entered politics, it has almost always done so within the radical right. Prior to Bannon and his contemporaries, the most notorious case of this was Italian occultist philosopher and fascist collaborator Julius Evola (1898-1974). Evola added explicitly gendered and racial dimensions to Traditionalism. Authentic hierarchy, in his mind, opposes not only spirituality and materialism, theocracy and communism but also Aryan and non-Aryan races, masculinity and femininity. The arrival of the dark age, Evola contended, would be seen as calls for equality and the erasure of borders between nations, sexes and races led to a gradual “Blackening” and feminizing of the global population. After initially seeing fascism as a promising start toward boldly reversing time and restoring the golden age (promising, only because for Evola’s tastes fascism was too secular and egalitarian in its nationalism and too scientific in its conceptions of race), he came to regard the Allied victory in World War II as hastening the inevitable: He devoted much of his later life toward exploring ways for Traditional men to weather life during the dark age while preparing for the collapse of liberal modernity and the reemergence of their ideals.
Over 20 hours of on-the-record interviews with Bannon (and at least twice as many hours off-the-record), I never could establish when he encountered Traditionalism. He began practicing transcendental meditation in college, reading alternative spirituality and Traditionalist literature while serving in the military during his early 20s, and associated with like-minded communities as an adult during the 1990s. Regardless, by the time I began speaking with him, he was fluent, if a bit sloppy, in Traditionalism’s core texts — including rare and forebodingly complex works by Guenon. He seems to have encountered Evola later in life, perhaps as late as 2014. And while he was always eager to distance himself from Evola’s theorized racism and sexism, Traditionalism’s deep message about returning society to past virtue and identity through a radical anti-modernism seemed revolutionary for him.
It would be the basis on which Bannon would connect with other Traditionalist-affiliated thinkers throughout the world, most notably Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin and the late Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, an informal guru to President Jair Bolsonaro. And it would inspire his actions. Bannon is convinced that the large-scale federal and international entities that globalize our world are due for dismemberment. The United Nations, the EU, amorphous trade networks, and bureaucracies of sprawling administrative states like the U.S. government will lose their legitimacy and shatter: Their dissolution and replacement with smaller communities would mark a transition from borderlessness back into a divided, orderly world. A world of difference. And whereas Traditionalists like Evola resolved to be mere observers of a time cycle that propelled itself, Bannon opted to act, to advance time from darkness back into gold; often, it seems, by attempting to weaken the forces he most opposed, even from the inside.
When Bannon has had access to political power, he has focused on undermining the functioning of governmental and nongovernmental institutions. Consider the few executive actions we know he participated in, all of which came early during the transition and Trump presidency. The nominations of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, Mick Mulvaney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — all were figures who had either expressed outright hostility to their agency’s existence or who aspired to dramatically reduce the agency’s operation and mandate. And recall the flurry of executive orders Trump issued during his first week in office — those bolstering private schools, weakening the Affordable Care Act and environmental protections, and prohibiting travel to the United States from a handful of Muslim-majority nations. Bannon also contributed to their content and strategy. As he told me during an interview, those orders were announced to attack as many sacred causes of Trump’s opponents as possible, and as quickly as possible. Distracted, not knowing where to direct their rage and despair, the media and the left would be rendered politically impotent. He casually refers to this tactic as “flooding the zone,” and it would only appeal to someone who found mainstream journalistic oversight to be essentially meaningless, and who trusted that a broken government and media universe would be replaced with something better.
But if the opening weeks of the Trump presidency were a flashpoint in Bannon’s effort to advance a Traditionalist-inspired politics, so too was the period surrounding the end of Trump’s tenure, now the focus of intense media coverage and legal proceedings. After leaving the White House in 2017, Bannon burned through several unsuccessful political initiatives in Europe, all while his relationship with Trump soured. He maintained a lucrative partnership with exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, and he participated in a scheme to privately fund construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall (in connection with which Bannon and other leaders would later face criminal charges for money laundering). But his fortunes changed when he returned to a format that had served him well prior to his time with Trump: media. In 2020 he started a podcast, “War Room,” that would gradually become a hub in the pro-Trump media landscape. Perhaps thanks to the podcast’s success, Bannon gradually returned to favor with Trump while providing a steady voice of hawkishness leading up to and beyond Trump’s defeat in his bid for reelection.
Come Nov. 4, 2020, Bannon was back in the inner circle. And during the days leading up to the riot ahead of the vote certification on Jan. 6, 2021, Bannon had been meeting regularly at the Willard Hotel in Washington with a team of Trump’s lawyers and supporters, all of whom were working to conceive a pathway to overturn the certification of the election result. Though Bannon held no official post in the Trump White House, he was communicating directly with the president at this time, too.
Multiple figures from those meetings also spoke publicly through Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. Lawyers Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, for example, used Bannon’s platform to suggest that Vice President Mike Pence and state legislatures could intervene in the certification of Biden’s win. On Jan. 5, 2021, the day before the riot, Bannon stated ominously on his podcast that “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.” Then, too, his words seemed part prophecy, part rallying cry.
Any hope that the events of Jan. 6 would lead to an actual power shift were short-lived however, and soon Bannon found himself facing increased scrutiny for his role in what appeared to be an attempted insurrection. Citing both his private networking with Trump associates and his public messaging on his podcast, the congressional committee investigating the riot issued Bannon a subpoena to testify on Sept. 23, 2021.
Bannon refused to testify, in defiance of the subpoena, marshaling the dubious claim that he was compelled to silence by Trump’s legally questionable claim of executive privilege. Were Congress to tolerate Bannon’s lack of cooperation, it would render their subpoenas irrelevant. And so, on Nov. 12, 2021, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Bannon for criminal prosecution on two misdemeanor counts, each of which could carry a year of jail time and a $100,000 fine. When appearing at a court shortly thereafter, Bannon took the opportunity to push a narrative that the court and the congressional investigation were corrupt. He spoke to a crowd outside the courthouse:
“Not just Trump people and not just conservatives — every progressive, every liberal in this country that likes freedom of speech and liberty should be fighting for this case. That’s why I’m here today. For everybody! I’m never going to back down. … If the administrative state wants to take me on, bring it! Because we’re here to fight this, and we’re gonna go on offense.”
Bannon had a stern look on his face, but I guarantee he was having fun.
On July 9, Bannon returned to the congressional committee and reversed his earlier decision not to testify. His about-face came as Trump released a statement waiving his claimed executive privilege. The move, perhaps, was an effort to amplify his advocates in the public conversation. Allowing Bannon to testify would provide an additional supportive voice to message for Trump in public. That this motivated Bannon, rather than a genuine interest in helping establish the facts of Jan. 6, seemed clear from the negotiations that followed Bannon’s new offer to testify. While the committee responded by asking for a private, written interview with him, he insisted on a public hearing. It isn’t unreasonable to assume his main interest in speaking to the congressional committee in such a setting is to undermine it and its credibility.
Indeed, as during the first days of the Trump presidency, undermining the U.S. governmental system has been the leitmotif throughout Bannon’s actions in relation to the 2020 election and its aftermath. We see it in the constitutional strain brought by the partially realized strategy of presenting competing claims of victory, the affront to parliamentary process and democratic praxis exhibited in the riot itself, all in addition to the attempts to muddy congressional investigations and legal functions thereafter.
Does Bannon actually believe the 2020 election was stolen? I can’t imagine that he does. The recording taken days before the election notwithstanding, I recall conversations we had in late 2019 during which Bannon expressed clear skepticism that Trump would be reelected. He’s plenty adept at reading polling data and knew then what a weak incumbent Trump was.
And yet he has been one of the most forceful voices in American conservative media condemning the election as fraudulent. He’s probably motivated by self-interest and ideology. Remaining a steadfast supporter of Trump’s, including feeding Trump’s own delusions about himself and his political success, may seem to Bannon a necessity to remain in good standing with the former president — which Bannon has needed for favors from Trump, such as a last-minute presidential pardon from prosecution for his role in the privately funded border wall fiasco.
Concurrently, however, Bannon may also see himself as doing the work of Traditionalism when he refuses to accept the claims of our governmental institutions and the media as incontestable truth. When he says that the election was stolen, that Trump in fact received more votes than President Joe Biden did, he is challenging a particular regime of knowledge, challenging our system of experts and professionals and their authority to establish facts and fiction. If he has to tell a lie in order to weaken their position in the country and in the world, I bet he’d take that trade. What he would’ve done is to take another form of globalism, in this case epistemological globalism or a universal claim to truth, and started to constrain it. He would be forcing “the expert class,” as he puts it, to make more political accommodation for others: The bean counters, the bureaucrats, the expert journalists would have to at least temper their hope to assert truth to others. They would have to accept their place as one community among many in a world of epistemological difference.