Stephen K. Bannon Believes We Are Heading Toward a Global Cataclysm Because of a Pseudo-Historical 1990s Book about Cyclical History
From the world of alternative facts, a fake news story going viral on social media claims Giorgio Tsoukalos of Ancient Aliens appeared on L. A. Tonight, a local Los Angeles talk show, and alleged that space aliens used a brainwashing device that deploys sound waves to reprogram human brains in order to elect Donald Trump president. The program doesn’t exist, the screenshots of his appearance are actually from his guest spot on a 2011 episode of The Mo’Nique Show (with Mo’Nique misidentified as “Latifa Johnson”), and Tsoukalos had to take to Twitter on Saturday to deny that he claimed an alien space ray reprograms voters’ minds with pro-Trump propaganda.
If only every intersection between Trump and fringe history were so humorous.
In the current edition of Time magazine there is a profile of Donald Trump’s chief strategist, former Breitbart executive Stephen K. Bannon. The article explains that Bannon has an unusual view of history drawn from a goofy book about historical trends. The trouble is that this bit of pseudohistorical reasoning now has terrible consequences because Bannon is using the power of the White House to help fulfill his belief that we are in a moment of generational crisis that must end in a world-historical conflagration bigger than World War II. It’s scary stuff, especially since the underlying claims are so stupidly shortsighted. In order to understand them, let’s start with Time’s account of Bannon’s world-historical view.
Sometime in the early 2000s, Bannon was captivated by a book called The Fourth Turning by generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book argues that American history can be described in a four-phase cycle, repeated again and again, in which successive generations have fallen into crisis, embraced institutions, rebelled against those institutions and forgotten the lessons of the past--which invites the next crisis. These cycles of roughly 80 years each took us from the revolution to the Civil War, and then to World War II, which Bannon might point out was taking shape 80 years ago. During the fourth turning of the phase, institutions are destroyed and rebuilt.
According to Time, Bannon believes that the United States will enter into war with Islam and/or China as part of a cataclysmic—almost apocalyptic—reckoning with the rest of the world. Other reports suggest that the Trump Administration’s cozying up to Vladimir Putin is related to a desire to ally Protestant and Orthodox Christianity against Islam. Consider Bannon’s 2014 speech at the Vatican: “There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global,” he said. “Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.” The similarities between Bannon’s dark vision of a final conflict between Christianity and Islam and the fever-dreams of Rapture-ready Christians, going back to the medieval myth of the Last World Emperor, is probably not a coincidence.
However, I want to look at this idea of the “fourth turning” that seems to govern Bannon’s historical worldview. (It was also a favorite of former Vice President Al Gore.) This idea is, to put it mildly, pretty silly. William Strauss and Neil Howe proposed it in embryo in 1991 and developed it in 1997. It’s based, ultimately if indirectly, on Greek ideas of the four ages of man—gold, silver, bronze, and iron. Although Strauss and Howe radically condense the ages of man down to repeating cycles of generations of humans, they ultimately fail in that they take a narrow view that myopically focuses on the American experience and relates it to the arbitrary concept of generations that was invented only in modern times—by the same authors!
The authors claim that history moves in cycles and these cycles of crisis emerge because, after a fixed period of time of around 80 years, the new leaders who have arisen lack personal memories of the last crisis and therefore tend to repeat the mistakes of their elders, causing the failure of institutions and the need to reestablish a world order after a new crisis.
On the surface, that seems reasonable, but in practice, the authors cherry pick data. Let’s take a look at their chart of key crises, which they define as occurring in the “Anglo-American Saeculum”—already a rather iffy proposition at best—and culminating in a “climax year” arbitrarily defined by the authors. In the chart below, the year in parentheses is this arbitrary climax year:
It ought to occur to anyone reading this that the list of crises is highly selective. Notice important parts missing from their analysis: World War I, arguably the more important war for the European world order it destroyed, is absent. The social upheaval of the 1960s, again arguably more disruptive to social structures than the global financial crisis that began in 2008, is again absent. (The authors consider the 1960s to be a minor reflection of challenges to the “social order,” equivalent to Thoreau’s transcendental awakening.) But more importantly, the authors’ own views don’t hold in the other half of the “Anglo-American Saeculum.” England didn’t experience an existential crisis in the years of the American Civil War, and indeed saw its period of greatest peace, prosperity, and imperial power during a phase when our authors claim a generational crisis occurred. How is it that the English were on the same generational cycle down to 1781 and then somehow failed to keep pace with their American cousins? For that matter, even the authors claim that the American Civil War happened 10 years too early for their scheme, necessitating an embarrassing ad hoc explanation of how America “skipped” a generation.
This worldview is also suspect because it depends on the idea that the human experience is not a continuum of individuals but a series of blocs of people grouped by arbitrary generational boundaries. The authors focus on the G. I. Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials, but surely these are arbitrary distinctions that emerge from the decision to take the end of World War II as, essentially, the Year Zero for defining modern American history. Indeed, it probably shouldn’t surprise you that Howe and Strauss are the inventors of American generations as we know them today. They defined Generation X and the Millennials in their 1991 book Generations, which also had the effect of retroactively turning the baby boom into a monolithic bloc of Baby Boomers. (The term “baby boomer” was first used in 1970 but didn’t become a generational title until after 1980.) Yes, they’ve spent 26 years trying to convince Americans that social attitudes change every 22 years or so like clockwork.
Oh, and it’s also worth noting that Howe and Strauss turned their hypothesis into a business, setting up a consulting firm to offer horoscope-like advice to governments, school systems, entertainment companies, and marketing firms based on generational stereotypes. Pseudohistory brings in those sweet, sweet dollar bills.
But similar to the claim that decades have their own color and character, the Howe and Strauss vision of history is a simplification. In general terms, people born at certain times are more likely to share the prevalent attitudes of the time, but those changes are not cataclysmic but gradual, and not shared universally, or even, necessarily, by a majority. (In essence, it would only require those who become social decision-makers. No one cares whether a farmhand fantasizes about social disintegration as long as the cow gets milked.) I was born in 1981, which is the cutoff on many charts between Generation X and Millennials. The stereotypes about neither fit me. People are born every year, not in groups of 20 years, which means that “generations” are simply an arbitrary grouping framed around selected events. There is no inherent reason to suggest the Baby Boom of 1943-1964 (or 1946-1964, or 1943-1969; no one can agree) is a more valid “generation” than any random assortment of about 20 years, such as 1929-1950, or 1950-1972. Mostly, it’s just the Baby Boomers imposing their own vanity on history, arguing that all of time should be measured backward and forward from their own births. Yes, I know it’s ironic to ascribe to an artificially defined generation collective blame for the artificial creation of generations. The size of the baby boom after World War II isn’t in dispute, however, and that war-induced demographic bulge created the accidental yardstick by which we create the myth of generations with almost astrological faith. (The fact that social scientists had to slice and dice Boomers into sub-groups like “leading edge boomers” because they are too heterogeneous should give pause that there is any merit to the concept.)
Consider this: If World War II had dragged on five more years, the baby boom would have been delayed and all our fanciful generational calculations would all be wrong and we would today be fantasizing about the shared attitudes of those born from 1948 to 1969. The point is that human populations are more like rainbows; the “generations” may have different colors, but they shade into one another and where we choose to draw the line—and, indeed, what colors we see—are an artifact of culture, not a fact of history.
To that end, the authors’ fantasies about American history similarly fail to find parallels around the world. We should expect that other countries would face similar crises on the same schedule, and yet they do not. Consider, for example, Russia, where upheavals took place due to the Crimean War, the reforms of Alexander II, the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, World War II, and, of course, the fall of communism in 1989-1991. The periods, as you might intuit, are irregular and cannot be ascribed to fixed cycles of generational changes.
The authors are probably right that every society goes through periods of integration and disintegration, and the weakening of institutions leads to periodic crises. But the authors are almost certainly wrong in choosing only those crises that fit their timeline to ascribe greater meaning to. Moreover, they are probably even more wrong in claiming that the periods of integration, disintegration, and crisis are governed by the mystical attitudes of generations. They believe that people born every twenty years or so develop a fixed set of attitudes, and these fall into four categories which repeat on a regular clockwork cycle: prophets (self-absorbed narcissists), nomads (alienated anti-establishment types), heroes (pragmatic team players), and artists (conformists). Each type follows a specific trajectory as they go through 20-year life stages, changing their attitudes and actions with each new stage; consequently, the gears of history turn like clockwork, defined by which of the four groups is in which of the four life stages, and thus which “dominates” each period. It’s kind of like astrology in its way, and narrowly focused on American culture. What the authors have ascribed to generations is probably more accurately seen as the push and pull of cultural actions and reactions, which have toggled between reason and romance, individualism and conformity since the colonial period. If there is any truth to their claim, it is probably in that young adults tend to reject the views of their elders that they see as outdated or ineffective, and then get sucked back in to the older cultural mainstream as they get old and tired.
To that end, it’s probably worth noting that the authors’ (American) conservative beliefs shine through in their 1993 book 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?, where they look to the upcoming generation (the 13th form the Founding) to save America from Baby Boomers: “13ers will reverse the frenzied and centrifugal cultural directions of their younger years. They will clean up entertainment, de-diversify the culture, reinvent core symbols of national unity, reaffirm rituals of family and neighborhood bonding, and re-erect barriers to cushion communities from unwanted upheaval.” Hmm… Combat diversity, build walls around America, and punish the media… Where have we heard that before?
There is a certain facile appeal in reducing history to the clicking of gears, a certain peace in imagining that events are foreordained by the impersonal forces of History. But there is a danger in accepting that fatalism, particularly when someone like Steve Bannon takes it as license to bring about the destruction he imagines is inevitable. Creating policies with the express purpose of conforming to a fantasy version of history where an Iron Age or Kali Yuga is forever threatening imminent destruction has the painful effect of making it all the more likely that the imagined outcome will indeed come to pass.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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