Steve Bannon’s interest in a thinker who inspired fascism exposes the misogyny of the alt-right

The way we were.
The way we were.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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The New York Times is correct to call Julius Evola, the thinker that Steven Bannon quoted in a speech he gave at the Vatican in 2014, taboo.

In the speech, a Q&A part of an event on global poverty, Bannon mentions Evola for his influence on Aleksandr Dugin, Vladimir Putin’s philosopher of choice, known for his fascist tendencies. While criticizing Putin’s kleptocracy, and Dugin’s role in forming the thinking that led to the Russian leader’s policies, Bannon appears to acknowledge merit in adopting the traditionalist mindset promoted by Evola (which, he said, “eventually metastasized in fascism”), with particular reference to his belief that the Judeo-Christian world order is to be defended from the attacks of contemporary society.

In Italy, where he was born Giulio Cesare Andrea Evola in 1898 and died in 1974, he is not spoken of, and today is mostly obscure and unknown. There is one exception: in Italian fascist circles, Evola’s legacy is celebrated. But I learned at age 15 just how circumspect the majority of Italians are when it comes to speaking his name.

One day towards the end of my first year of high school, my exceptionally well-read literature teacher handed out a list of 100 books, handwritten and photocopied, that he thought any student should read before university. Dostoevsky. Tolstoy. Chekhov. Hugo. Joyce. The list was predominantly of European and Russian authors, and included exactly one American novel: For Whom the Bell Tolls. Like many I have encountered, my teacher held dear the old European prejudice that considers American culture an unripe, unsophisticated construct spreading through shallow pop culture and consumer products.

He was a traditionalist, with a distrust for modernity. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that his list included Evola, one of the key figures of the Traditionalist School of thinkers, who generally expressed a deep hatred for many of the progressive social movements that brought Western society into the modern world, believing they were a threat to traditional forms of knowledge, which they idolized.

Evola’s name wasn’t printed on the paper distributed to the class. Instead, my teacher wrote it with chalk on the blackboard—then erased it immediately. He didn’t bother writing out any of the titles of Evola’s books and essays; he just said them, quickly and furtively.

That’s because Evola’s work and ideas were, and are, widely seen as direct precursors to Italian fascism. (Benito Mussolini was a big fan; the writer’s work on race, in particular, profoundly resonated with the founder of the Fascist Party.) Us students didn’t know it at the time, but I recognize now that a high school teacher would not teach Evola, and would not even use his name liberally. Someone who spoke openly about Evola could have been declared a fascist apologist, literally a crime in Italy. It could have caused my teacher anything from harsh judgement by colleagues and parents, to losing his job, to—unlikely, but not impossible—jail time.

We never officially studied Evola or his work, but my teacher would bring up his ideology occasionally, and I can still recall some of the core principles. One in particular that stands out to me. It’s one that our teacher never mentioned outright, and one that the New York Times too doesn’t mention, but it’s also one that strikes me as essential in understanding the ethos of the Trump administration.

Evola hated women.

The Traditionalist School’s philosophy and worldview was characterized by a rejection of 20th century modernity, in which they saw a profound loss of values that, if not stymied, would lead to social dissolution. One of the biggest problem of modern Western society, Evola believed, was that gender roles were becoming conflated—women, he said, should never occupy the same social space of men, and when they did, it was a harbinger of the end of civilization.

In his book Eros and the Mysteries of Love: The Metaphysics of Sex, Evola wrote that women should exist as “pure, feminine nature.” That meant sticking to the roles of mother and lover. Everything else, he wrote, betrayed the very purpose of women, making of her “nothing but a monkey.”

It’s sexism in a belligerent, violent form. Evola idealized the Hindu concept of sati, the ancient practice in which a recently widowed woman would commit suicide—usually by throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, and burning with him—rather than go on with life without a man.

Evola also argued that the Islamic harem is the ideal form of relationship, because in it, several women are able to give all their dedication and love to a man, without limiting him through demands of reciprocation. “There is true greatness in her when she is capable of giving without asking for anything in return,” he writes in Revolt Against The Modern World, “and finally, when the man is not perceived by her as a mere husband or lover, but as her lord.”

Evola went so far as to justify rape as a natural expression of male desire, writing in Eros and the Mysteries of Love that “there is no difference” between “the desire to possess the physically intact woman, or the woman who resists” and “the root of a specific element of sadism, which is linked to the act of defloration and also exists in almost every coitus.” In other words, all sex is rape and that’s why it’s pleasurable. Later in the same paragraph, Evola writes that “as a rule, nothing stirs a man more than feeling the woman utterly exhausted beneath his own hostile rapture.”

What Evola saw in modernity was a society where men were no longer able to meet this vision of masculinity. To put it simply: he thought men were becoming emasculated—he labeled modern man, with contempt, “feminized.”  And that, in turn, was encouraging women to move out of a traditionally submissive role and invade the male sphere . “It should not be expected of women that they return to what they really are,” he writes, “when men themselves retain only the semblance of true virility.” The threat, he believed, was existential. If left unaddressed, he wrote in Revolt Against the Modern World, “the spiritual emasculation of the materialistic modern man” all but “tacitly restored the primacy… of the woman as hetaera”—a courtesan in the ancient Greece, represented in the character of Circe, who in the Odyssey turns men into pigs—”ruling over men enslaved by their senses and at her service.”

For the most part, philosophers, academics, politicians, and others have rejected Evola for his clear misogyny—as well as his racism and willingness to embrace violence if it furthered his dark causes. But in 2017 America, he’s undergoing a bit of renaissance; he has been credited (by, for example, Milo Yiannopoulos writing for Breitbart) as one of the foundational thinkers of the alt-right movement. And while Bannon’s references to Evola don’t prove he sees eye to eye with the philosopher, the openness with which he mentioned the Italian philosopher suggests that Evola’s name is not only circulating in Bannon’s circles, but that Bannon does not consider Evola’s thinking particularly problematic.

In the 2014 speech, Bannon did not refer specifically to Evola’s celebration of a masculine order. But misogyny is so central to Evola’s thinking that it’s hard to imagine embracing Evola without at least tacitly accepting the rejection of gender equality.

And indeed it’s not hard to see this intrinsically sexist worldview reflected in Donald Trump. The president hates it when female comedians play male members of his staff—”he doesn’t like his people to look weak,” a Trump donor told Politico—and once said if you are “a star” you can do anything you want to women, even “grab them by the pussy.” Trump brags about his predatory approach to women while displaying no chivalry, and he consistently speaks more aggressively towards women than he does men.

Traditional masculinity is also one of the fundamental values of the the alt-right cultural movement that—stoked and channelled by Breitbart, run by Bannon—propelled and celebrated Trump’s rise. Sometimes this viewpoint is expressed explicitly. Other times, it’s less obvious, but just as impactful. Consider: political correctness, perceived liberal oversensitivity (the “precious snowflakes”), protection of the disadvantaged—those inherently delicate approaches to society cannot but raise disgust and rejection in the alt-right, if they are interpreted as evidence of a society that has been “emasculated.”

Either way, it seems fair to say misogyny on some level is built into the set of values this administration inspires to, and, in all likelihood, it will also seep into its policies and the cultural climate Trump and Bannon promote. All that is more than enough to justify the many women who see Trump as a threat, and perhaps explains why it was US women who were the first to start a civic opposition movement to the 45th president of their country.