Benjamin, you are an ethnomusicologist by training. How did you move from ethnomusicology to studying the far right and the role of music in far-right culture? Do you think we often miss the points of understanding the far right by understudying it as a culture and overstudying it as politics?
As regards my biography, these are in a sense two different interests. I’m very interested in music and I’m also interested in politics. Having said that, I often tell people that I think all scholars of the contemporary far right, especially in Europe, need to be music scholars, at least a little bit in some portion of their work. This is because, especially from the 1980s into the 2000s, in a lot of different parts of Europe the far right was a music movement, at least as much as it was a political movement. Most of the fundraising came from music. The biggest social gatherings were music-based. A lot of the media was actually music media and then it doubled as political media. Some of the biggest household names were not politicians, they were musicians like Ian Stuart Donaldson of the band Skrewdriver, or Swedish singer Saga.
And then some other figures in like Canadian George Burdi and so on. I think that that’s certainly key to understanding the recent history of the far right. You have to be a music scholar, and following the decline of music culture tells a story in itself as well. In Scandinavia, which is really my home territory as a scholar, when you see the music-based subculture of the far right decline, that coincides with increased democratic opportunity. As a party like the Sweden Democrats started to gain actual formal political representation, their investment in subculture started to drop off.
To your second question, as to whether or not we ought to be paying more attention to culture, I actually think some of those right-wing ideologues who look to Antonio Gramsci to understand the nucleus of political change are right when they think that culture is where it happens. It does not happen in the voting booth, it doesn’t happen in a political speech. It might not even happen in speech. If we want to get a little more philosophical here, it’s a sort of pre-linguistic area, I think. When we were talking about music or other types of expressive culture, it’s not those spaces, but rather in culture where I think political sentiment, political affinity, and dis-affinity is created. So for that reason, you do have very conscious, deliberate, far-right ideologues and strategists looking to culture to make their work. And they should be studied for that reason.
But I even think as we ourselves are thinking about where we want to find the roots and the origins of this cause, that we also should be looking in those areas. In other words, it’s not just an ethnographic artifact—that they think that culture matters, therefore culture should matter to scholars as a social fact. I think that it actually does matter too. And we ought to look in those areas to see how people form their sense of what is beautiful and what is ugly. How do they form their sense of who their comrades are and are not? How do they build their understandings of history and the future and where they belong in society? I don’t think political questionnaires are the actual ground zero of those sorts of determinations.
Some of the political parties in the ’80s and ’90s, throughout Europe and even the United States today, have been or are contesting elections and things like that, but not really. I think the actual impact on the people who participate then is more social, spiritual, community-based, culture-based, rather than political. So even with things that are officially political, I think a closer lens shows that they’re far more complex.
It’s like the survivalist movement. Your everyday life, the way you will be cooking, the way you will be, your entire everyday life is embedded into something.
Absolutely. There are far-right activists who also say that, if you want to reject modernity, you need to do it in the way that you hold your coffee mug in the morning. Every little piece of your movement needs to be involved in your everyday life, as you say.
A second question was about your book War for Eternity. Where do you see former Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon’s role headed now, both in its transnational connections and what he was trying to do in Europe, as well as what is happening here in the US with the midterm elections? Trump may not make it on the long run, but Trumpism is probably becoming a fixed feature of American political life.
I think if we look at Bannon’s legacy since the “ethnographic present” of my book (that is, the period from 2018–2020), you get a chaotic swirl of successes and catastrophic failures. The guy is headed to jail. He’s going to have his megaphone silenced in a significant way. We’ve seen his campaign to build a wall fall apart. We’ve seen his ally in Brazil, Olavo de Carvalho, completely implode his faction of the Bolsonaro government. In other words, notwithstanding the fortunes of Bolsonaro himself, the Bannonist wing of the Bolsonaro government has disintegrated. Bannon has had, as best I know, no further communications with Russia, aside from the ones that I documented in the book, and has not been received by a very large audience in Hungary. These are all things that would point to failure.
With regard to successes, I think we can include Meloni in Italy, whom Bannon had identified earlier on. She was an absolute nobody and Bannon was absolutely on the bandwagon and saw her. If you listen to her speeches, she is a more ideologically deliberate, populist right-wing anti-liberal thinker than I think we’re accustomed to seeing in other parts of Europe. That’s a major movement. I don’t know that he played any significant role in, say, January 6th, but that certainly was something that he amplified. On the subject of amplification, his “War Room” podcast has been tremendously successful. I don’t think that anyone could deny that it is one of the central media hubs for the MAGA movement, such as it exists today. Early on, it seemed like it was a sort of clearinghouse when there were political fights in the House of Representatives over the Republican leadership.
In early 2021, going on Bannon’s podcast was sort of obligatory for conservatives. He made himself, again, a center for that movement and for that world and has kept a sort of hardline standard, always made himself a pull for the devoted, for those who are really committed, for the idealists opposite the compromisers, the wishy-washy alliance builders. I think that that will live on beyond him. You have some figures, like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who I think has a political future, who could be grouped into Bannon’s camp as well. You have these nationalist/populist candidate being funded by Peter Thiel candidates.
You also have the leaders of a lot of young Republicans and college Republicans—especially young Republicans in New York, in Arizona and California—who are properly Bannonist and have this sort of nationalistic, populist ideal of wanting to combine conservative cultural politics with more protectionist nativistic economic politics. They believe that if they successfully get to the left of the Democratic Party on certain economic policies and to the right of them on culture, that they will, as one of them said to me in a quote, “rule for a generation. They [the left] don’t have an answer for it.” And they could be right in some localized settings. I think that those ideals are going to live on, and we’ll have to see what jail time does though, to Bannon himself, the person.
That brings me to the more conceptual question that you had in your book about this notion of Traditionalism; the Rene Guenon and Julius Evola tradition that you see in Bannon, in Russian ideologist Aleksandr Dugin, the outgoing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and many others. How do we define an ideology? What makes Traditionalism different from other conservative visions? And what creates the unity, even if you have different versions each time in different contexts?
It is a challenge. There are a number of ways I think you can get closer to a definition if you limit your scope. If we think about political Traditionalism for example, which is a considerable narrowing down of what otherwise could be considered Traditionalism, you see a sort of conservatism, a sort of pessimism in overdrive. That basic conservative impulse that says, “You know what? I don’t think progress as it is being conceived and embraced by other actors in society is actual progress. I think that we’re actually regressing in some way and long nostalgically for the past.” Traditionalism has that, plus something else: it believes that the past can be regained, that it’s not just some hopeful sort of romantic flight of fantasy that you could return to the past, and crucially that some form of destruction is going to be necessary to get you back to that past at a very generic level.
That’s not to say much. This doesn’t tell us whether or not universal healthcare is a good thing or not, but at a very generic level, that’s what I see as Traditionalism’s signature in politics. It sets it apart for that reason. We should not be surprised that when Traditionalism has figured into politics, it has not been at the hands of, let’s say, a progressive left or a progressive anything. It has typically not been in the hands of gradualists either, or those who believe in the parliamentary process. It has instead been in the hands of right-wing reactionary revolutionaries.
I can go deeper, but I that’s the basics of it.
I wanted to follow up on that revolutionary aspect. If we think we can get that past back and that to get that back, we need some level of destruction, does that mean that, by definition, there is this revolutionary aspect, probably linked to fascism on one way or another? There’s this idea that by the use of violence or some level of destruction, you get something back, though indeed some conservative ideologies wouldn’t be pushing for that. Do you see that as a core element of Traditionalism or not?
This is where you start to see the influence of Traditionalism’s links to esotericism, religion, and its potential connections to fascism. We have to consider content: What does Traditionalism suggest is the content of a past golden age? What is wrong specifically with our age today? How will we get back to it? Secularism, capitalism, Communism, globalization—these are the forces that are all essentially equivalent in the minds of a Traditionalist. One reason I love teaching this to students is that it just gives them an opportunity to consider whether capitalism and Communism are the same thing. Same for Evangelical Christianity, globalization, and human rights. What if they’re all mixed together in this stew? And the opposite all of that in the mind of a Traditionalist is a segmented, pluralistic, spiritual society, one that is not expansionist.
And this is where analogies with fascism are not that helpful to us. Traditionalism needn’t be expansionist; it’s not developmental in their minds either. There’s an aesthetic value and a theoretical, political value placed on stasis. Stasis is understood as being in connection with what is old, and a belief that what is old is sacred. So these connections between antiquity, religion and spirituality, pluralism, plurality, and stasis and stillness all belong to that traditional world. And those are the sorts of things that with destruction, some sort of cataclysmic reckoning with our current age—which is full of change, turnover, secularism, materialism, mass politics and globalization, expansionism, universalism—they’re hoping to achieve. I still think that all of that is secondary to the earlier signature of Traditionalism, which is this nostalgia that is not—it is a nostalgia that refuses to be seen as nostalgia, a past that refuses to treat itself as being irrevocably lost, but rather one that you get back to through destruction. This is the content of those opposing conceptions, but I still think it’s secondary.
And so the religious, the esoteric aspect, is secondary?
I think so too. They wouldn’t like to say that, but in these political incarnations, yes. It’s content rather than form.
Coming back to more contemporary times, with the war in Ukraine and the changes we are facing now—I think the electoral victory of Italy’s new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is interesting. Because she’s anti-Russian, or at least not explicitly pro-Russian, but she disassociates things that we were used to thinking of as being linked: Russophilia and the far-right.
In the US, who do you think remains among those with still relatively pro-Russian voices? Do we have a Tucker Carlson type of discourse? On the Russian side, the metaphysical aspect of the war is really being pushed hard. The more bogged down they are getting in the war, the more it’s really perceived as having a super-existential aspect. I wonder who on the Western side is still following that narrative, or is there a disjuncture?
It’s a great point that you’ve made in your commentary on Dugin, that if we want to speak about his influence, it’s actually going to be even greater on the international stage than inside Russia. And if you zoom out beyond Dugin, the effort to cast Russia as a force of tradition and spirituality and order, as opposed to Western decadence and disorder, the product of that is going to be increased sympathy among ultraconservative voices in the West. And I think that we would have to say that some of those voices that are active today, like Tucker Carlson, if indeed he looks at the world in those terms, then he does have a sort of natural proclivity toward Russia because it aligns with his political view. And you would see that from others like Darren Beattie, a prominent, far-right media personality—very interesting, very smart, but also very radical—who also has had his sympathies leaning towards Russia. Dinesh D’Souza, among others in the MAGA wing of the United States, have turned that way.
For me it’s quite strange that they would buy into this characterization of these opposing conceptions, this metaphysical opposition of tradition versus modernity. Not all of them do. Rod Dreher, for example, who is a prominent conservative voice, has said, essentially, that he loves Dugin’s criticisms of the West, but to count him out the moment you want to start to talk about Russia as some beacon of spiritual order and piety. But I also think we’ve seen when we look at Europe and the way that the political map has broken out in terms of Russia is that, in a way, there is an irrelevance of political ideology. Bear with me on this for a moment, but if you look at Poland, if you look at Sweden, if you look at Italy to a certain extent, and the Baltic countries as well, their far-right parties are in some cases hyper-aggressive towards Putin—some of the most fierce aggression is towards Putin. The same is true in Sweden as well, which has these historical antagonisms with Russia.
In other places, that’s not the case, like with the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, or in Italy, where it seemed to me things could have gone either way. I was a little surprised. And then yet, if you look at Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who should technically belong to the more liberal side of the far right—whose opposition to immigration, very much anchored in pro-secular liberal values, demonizing Muslims for not being feministic enough, not accepting the rights of LGBT people—he’s been more pro-Putin and has been more willing to serve as apologist for various Kremlin talking points. So we’ve seen other orientations, other identities play a more fundamental role than ideology in this conflict. That’s as much a takeaway for me as the other stuff.
Do you think in the MAGA movement, in its thinking about international politics, is Russia still celebrated?
I think so. I mean that’s where you hear the more pro-Putin commentary, the MAGA movement. That should be separated from the Noam Chomskys, the Ben Burgess crowd the left-wing antiwar critics, MSNBC host Chris Hayes, and so on. The actual pro-Russian voices are coming from the MAGA crowd. But still, it’s noteworthy to me what little traction it seems Tucker Carlson, despite his platform, has gotten for that position. Perhaps part of the reason is, if you look at opinion polling, it’s close to seven out of 10 Americans who are in support of Ukraine and are in support of US support of Ukraine.
I don’t know if seven out of 10 Americans agree on anything else right now. It’s an overwhelming, abnormally strong sentiment in our population. I think that that will keep the pro-Russian stance, for the time being, as a sort of curiosity among the MAGA movement and a litmus test for how hardcore you are. But it’s not a tool for evangelism. It’s not like fears about China, grievances about free trade, or criticism of wokeness. All of those are tools that MAGA is using to reach out with. I don’t see Ukraine as being treated that way at all.
But I think you see in the opinion surveys in Germany that AfD voters are much more pro-Putin than the rest of the country. And the party itself has been inconsistent. You have some really strong voices and some not so strong, but it doesn’t seem like the pro-Russian agenda is going anywhere, like they’re going to use it for anything.
Benjamin R. Teitelbaum is an author and scholar, a performer of Scandinavian music, and Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and International Affairs at the University of Colorado Boulder. He earned a doctorate from Brown University with auxiliary studies at the Royal College of Music, Stockholm and Harvard University, and a Bachelor of Music degree, summa cum lade, in nyckelharpa performance from Bethany College. Prior to coming to the College of Music, he was Instructor and Head of Nordic Studies, also at the University of Colorado Boulder.