The Alt-Right Is A Doomsday Cult
As the full extent of his power in the Executive branch has become clear, there have been several attempts to dissect the political philosophy of Stephen Bannon. Much of this has centered on a 2014 talk he gave about the dangers of secularism and Islamic terrorism, in which he name drops the Italian fascist and spiritualist Julius Evola.
In an attempt to explain the connection between social conservatives and Vladimir Putin (something Franklin Foer did better at The Atlantic), Bannon gives this endorsement of modern traditionalist beliefs:
When Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he’s got an adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism. A lot of people that are traditionalists are attracted to that.
Evola, who closely aligned himself with Benito Mussolini before siding with Nazi Germany, is a genuinely perplexing figure. The New York Times approaches Evola — who is on many alt-right reading lists and is an inspiration for Richard “Heil Trump” Spencer — as a political thinker:
Evola, who died in 1974, wrote on everything from Eastern religions to the metaphysics of sex to alchemy. But he is best known as a leading proponent of Traditionalism, a worldview popular in far-right and alternative religious circles that believes progress and equality are poisonous illusions.
Evola became a darling of Italian Fascists, and Italy’s post-Fascist terrorists of the 1960s and 1970s looked to him as a spiritual and intellectual godfather.
In short, Julius Evola believed humanity could reach specific ideals through a combination of racial eugenics and national purity. Inspired by Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, Evola wanted the spiritual awakening of mankind to result in a new super-race, one that would reject the excesses of consumerism and modern life.
This will sound familiar to any History Channel viewer — Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party held as a central tenet the belief humanity was poisoned by multiculturalism and materialism and needed not just racial cleansing but cultural cleansing. Indeed, you might even be familiar with the Nazi belief that Germans were the most pure strain of the ancient Aryan race, a term for a broad range of ancient Indo-European persons the Nazis assigned to a mythical genetic strain with its roots in Atlantis.
Evola gave the most clear connections of this belief system to an apocalyptic vision of humanity. While his political and racial philosophies might seem the most politically prurient, we should not gloss over the ways Evola has inspired a worldwide apocalyptic cult disguising itself as populist nationalism.
Evola’s most seminal and widely read work is The Revolt Against The Modern World, a dense tract that lives up to its title — “”No idea is as absurd as the idea of progress,” writes Evola. Reaching into a myriad of spiritualist and anti-modernist traditions, Evola argues the 20th century is an apex of sin and consumerism that will result in civilizational collapse unless big-T Traditionalists revolt against the coming tide.
Most specifically, Evola believed humanity had entered the kali, the last stage of a four-part cycle borrowed from Hindu writings. In Hinduism, the society begins as utopian and pure — krita — before being overcome by debauchery, illness, and arrogance. In the final stage — kali —a cataclysm drains the Earth of its moral failings and the cycle starts over.
Quoting the Vishnu Purana, Evola sees connections between that ancient text’s descriptions of life shortly before the kali and the modern world:
Men will fix their desires upon riches, even though dishonestly acquired…The people will be almost always in dread of dearth and apprehensive of scarcity…The women will pay no attention to the commands of their husbands or parents…. They will be selfish, abject and slatternly; they will be scolds and liars; they will be indecent and immoral in their conduct and will ever attach themselves to dissolute men….
One can see how this prophesy might be intoxicating to the the alt-right and cultural conservatives in general, who wage war against multiculturalism and feminism. It can be alluring to envision onesself as living in a cosmic battle — just ask ISIS. Millennialist thinkers like Evola give credence to this comforting notion.
Let’s float back above the occultism for a second and revisit that 2014 speech by presidential adviser Stephen Bannon.
And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.
Bannon, like Evola, believes humanity exists on a cycle that is approaching a cataclysmic end wrought by poisoned versions of capitalism and “an immense secularization of the West.” What’s more, Bannon believes that larger cycle is made up of smaller, generational cycles.
In his film Generation Zero, Bannon cites the work of historians WIlliam Strauss and Neil Howe who argued American history could effectively be seen as a repeating four-part cycle of four distinct generations — a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling, and a Crisis.
Strauss and Howe’s theories are very specific and worth getting into on their own, but the portion that concerns Bannon is his own belief that we are in that final stage of Crisis — a period in which, like Evola’s kali, distrust of institutions and the moral breakdown of society culminate in a worldwide crisis. Strauss and Howe cite the period between the Great Depression and the end of World War II as the last Crisis period, and Bannon believes the 2008 financial collapse has wrought another one.
Strauss and Howe are certainly less mystical than Evola, and their Crisis is certainly less far-reaching than the kali. What should be noted, however, is the ways apocalyptic, Millennialist beliefs have pushed Bannon, Richard Spencer, and other thinkers and policymakers of the international alt-right into a stance of preparedness for the apocalypse — a genuinely catastrophic battle for the fate of the world. The belief that they are a culminating generation fighting existential threats is central to the popularity of the alt-right which, like the Islamic extremist, feels they are fighters in a final war.
Apocalyptic cults are curious beasts of history. When most people hear that term, they likely think of Heaven’s Gate or Jim Jones and The People’s Temple. But doomsday thinking tends to enter most major religious views — Judaism awaits the coming Messiah, Islam the dawn of the caliphate. Christianity has inherently been an apocalyptic cult since its foundation, and Jesus Christ a harbinger of the End Times:
Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Apocalyptic thinkers can be oddball flukes of history — consider the Shakers — or massively influential figures shaping the minds of kings and rulers — consider Nostradamus. The warnings can be from the pulpit of a megachurch or a sandwich placard on Hollywood Boulevard. They can get their inspiration from ancient texts, astrological events, or heavenly visions seared into a piece of toast.
Wherever they come from, apocalyptic cults are extremely alluring and intoxicating. In their tragically underrated book A History of the End of the World, Yuri Rubinsky and Ian Wiseman believe the apocalypse “is not simply a part of religious faith; it is the End that gives reason and purpose to all that has gone before.” They continue:
Conversely, it is also true that everyone who preaches or prophesies the End, or any philosophical or religious system that formulates an orderly view of the End, is simultaneously attempting to make sense of life, discovering where life is most vulnerable and in what ways most fragile
Humanity’s obsession with the End is a reflection of our innate fear of death. It is not acceptable to us that we dwindle away into obscurity, shaped by the faulty memories of those who come after us. A far better fate, thinks the apocalyptic, is to be remembered as a valiant warrior in the last battle — against modernity, against secularism, or whatever bogeyman someone has suggested will bring on their doom.
It is one reason this current wave of populist nationalism has found such fertile ground. The world is undeniably at a central fluctuation point. People the world over are seeing their livelihood threatened by technology and their culture altered by the increasingly egalitarian forces of globalization. To folks like Bannon or the far-right leaders of Europe, these are existential threats on the verge of shoving their Traditionalism aside as backwards and bigoted. It was exactly this fear that drove anti-Modernists like Evola.
When a threat is painted as apocalyptic — when a battle is painted as The Last Battle of the End or kali or Crisis — it justifies any action to stop it. It is a common tactic in politics to paint your opponent not merely as flawed or disagreeable but as genuinely threatening to the constituents’ way of life. This can range from “my enemy will bring financial ruin” to “my enemy will literally bring on the End times” — Consider the famed “Daisy” ad from Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater.
The example most attuned to our interests is a lengthy and formative essay by Michael Anton, a crucial figure to the alt-right who is now a foreign policy adviser to President Donald Trump. Anton believed the 2016 election was the “Flight 93 election…charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.”
Ranting against the supposed cowardice of establishment conservatives, Anton feels the election of Hillary Clinton would have solidified what he sees as the continuous downward trend of society.
If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order…if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe — mustn’t they? — that we are headed off a cliff.
It’s exactly this sort of delusional grandiosity that bridges the gap between political debate and doomsday thinking. It transforms “I disagree with Hillary Clinton” into “Hillary Clinton is a fraudulent monster who defends pedophiles.” It is how, in the minds of the alt-right, an all-female Ghostbusters or positive representations of women in video games become oppressive forces of the liberal onslaught against traditional values. When one’s existence and traditions are (apparently) at stake, any slight against it is worthy of extreme reprisal.
This is why the occultist connections are valuable in understanding the alt-right. They are not merely echoing the catastrophizing done by most political movements. They are echoing an anxiety felt by Traditionalists for more than a century. They are finding comfort in the cyclical ideals of Evola or Strauss and Howe because, after all, the kali or Crisis is followed by a krita, High, or some other Utopian vision of a resurgent society that will echo the greatness of a time long forgotten — you can not make American great, you can only make it great again.
That fiction is easier to digest. It is likely easier for this particular apocalyptic cult to believe they are fighting against evil forces in the name of a coming paradise than it is to accept the truth — that they will be overridden in our cultural and personal memories by the slow but sure climb of society towards equality and progressivism.
To be sure, this is likely not the thinking of the typical Trump voter or even the typical reader of Breitbart. They probably don’t see their anger at liberals and “political correctness” as born from sycophantic connections to the ancient warnings about man’s eternal struggle, and they almost certainly don’t know the name Julius Evola. But the people speaking to Trump do, and so do the people writing Breitbart.
So let us not be surprised at the “cruelty” of the Trump administration or that of the Twitter eggs who feel abuse and harassment are justified tools of rhetoric. To them, The End is nigh, and they will do anything to see themselves past it.