Stephen K. Bannon is back. He’s making the rounds in the United States and abroad, talking about uniting “the Judeo-Christian West” in a clear call for violence against the Islamic world. Two new documentaries focus on his life and work — Alison Klayman’s “The Brink” and Errol Morris’s not-yet-released “American Dharma” — and Anderson Cooper interviewed him on CNN late last month.
Bannon’s return should raise concerns. It became clear during his time in the Trump campaign and then the administration that the former head of Breitbart was a key player in the mainstreaming of the alt-right in the United States. But Bannon’s reemergence is tied to the global spread of the far right in the United States and Europe. And Bannon is using a racist version of the history of the Middle Ages to justify and legitimize his vision for nationalist imperialism.
To understand Bannon and the threat posed by his reemergence, we need to get to know the dangerous Russian ideologue who has inspired him: Aleksandr Dugin, a man once called “The Most Dangerous Philosopher in the World” for his influence on world politics. A Russian political analyst and modern fascist, Dugin has written dozens of books laying out his political philosophy. His Eurasianist ideology is grounded in a fundamentalist religious nationalism that seeks to create a Christian empire that unites Europe and Asia in a quest to restore a “traditionalism” rooted in conservative Orthodox Christian values and white supremacy.
One key to understanding Dugin’s politics is his fixation on the Middle Ages. His website is plastered with medieval imagery and iconography: Stock images of icons of saints, Byzantine mosaics, manuscripts and church architecture abound. In his writings, too, Dugin idealizes a fictional version of the Middle Ages, one that stands in stark contrast to the modern world and liberalism, which he rejects.
To Dugin, Christian imperialism is an ideal political form that secures racial purity. He looks to Rome as the empire to which Eurasia needs to return, an alternative to the liberal modernity of today. He praises Constantine for founding a Christian Roman Empire and calls for a “Third Rome,” believing that the Roman Empire and its medieval European successor are the best models for combating liberal modernity. His view of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe exalts the triumphs of monolithic white, Christian nationalism.
The problem? This is a historical fabrication. Both the Roman Empire and Middle Ages Europe were, in fact, extremely diverse — racially and otherwise — because both included cultures beyond the limited scope of Western Europe.
A vital component of Dugin’s rejection of modernity is an embrace of conservative Orthodox Christianity and, with it, sharp anti-Semitism. But this too is ahistoric. Dugin, Bannon and other right-wing fundamentalists use the racist dog-whistle term “Judeo-Christian,” which seems to indicate shared religious values, but through supersessionism, it erases differences and eliminates Judaism by appropriating it for Christianity.
In his embrace of a staunch Orthodox desire for conservative piety and devotion, Dugin also turns to the Middle Ages. He looks to Christian empire, led by monks, as way to usher in the apocalypse, or the Last Judgment. As he writes, “An empire needs monasticism as much as a church.” In his view, the Middle Ages are the high point of this type of religiosity, a time when there was a unified Christianity under an all-encompassing church. But that never actually happened, and believing that it did buys into myths constructed from bad history. Christians sharply disagreed with one another over issues big enough to cause schisms. Even just limiting the scope to Europe, Christianity was only one among multiple belief systems, including Judaism and Islam, with their own diverse beliefs and practices.
In sum, Dugin believes that “the alternative to the notion of liberalism is ‘returning to the Middle Ages.’ ”
Yet his notions have little to do with the actual Middle Ages. Rather than a historically accurate portrayal of the complex period, he cobbles together the bits of the Middle Ages that best suit his political philosophy. Ironically, for all of Dugin’s disdain for modernity, his views are modern at their core because they are rooted in 18th- and 19th-century constructions of nationalism.
These same ideas about medieval culture fueled dangerous regimes over the past century. The Nazis idealized medieval Germanic culture for imperialism and anti-Semitic genocide. George W. Bush’s administration idealized “crusader” rhetoric for the exigencies of interventionism. And today, the alt-right idealizes the idea of European racial “purity” to promote white nationalism.
Such idealizations of the Middle Ages use the idea of the past, rather than its reality, to serve their modern political projects.
Dugin’s ideas have infused right-wing circles, an influence apparent from his numerous appearances in “The Complete Glossary of the Trumpist Alt-right.” As others have charted, white supremacists have fallen in love with the Middle Ages. The white supremacists in Charlottesville embraced medieval imagery, and members of the alt-right and political actors like Bannon regularly deify the Middle Ages.
These are not just rhetorical links to American white supremacists. There are clear connections between Dugin and prominent right-wing figures. His works have been translated by Arktos Media, which proudly claims that he “has served as an adviser to Vladimir Putin.” He also shares ties to Richard Spencer and his wife, Nina Kouprianova, who has translated some of Dugin’s works into English. Additionally, there are connections between Dugin and David Duke, Milo Yiannopoulos, Stephen Miller and even President Trump.
It’s no surprise that such figures have used medievalism for their own political ends. In fact, Dugin endorsed Trump’s election as a victory for conservatives seeking a new world order through a return to the Middle Ages.
Bannon acknowledges affinities with the philosophies of Julius Evola and Dugin in relation to his conservative vision for world politics. Like them, Bannon believes in an Eurasian Christian empire led by “the church militant” that will reform religious, economic, political and social foundations around the world. Such views underlie his speech about conservative Christianity as a bulwark against liberalism at the Vatican in 2014, and it’s no coincidence that Bannon has been integral to the establishment of the conservative Catholic Dignitatis Humanae Institute in an 800-year-old monastery.
All of this should give pause. These appropriations of the Middle Ages by figures like Dugin and Bannon pose an odd reversal of the problem of calling things we don’t like “medieval.” Yet these appropriations are equally misleading and even more dangerous. The resulting racist, xenophobic, misogynist, “traditionalist” construction of the Middle Ages is pervasive in conservative spheres. This ideology is now not only Dugin’s construction but also the view that informs many right-wing thinkers like Putin, Bannon and Trump.
The medieval period is alluring for a variety of reasons. It would serve us well to question those narratives about the Middle Ages that uphold modern agendas of hate.