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.
2/6/2017 11:48:38 am
This appesars to be another attempt at redefining current dispensationalism with a touch of Hegel thrown and trying to appear less "churchy" It will probably sell well to those already in the fold.
2/6/2017 01:43:56 pm
If Bannon wants a cataclysmic war he can have one. The GOP in Congress won't stop him.
2/6/2017 02:17:42 pm
The cycles are like crop circles, fakes that were designed to make sense of chaotic and otherwise disconnected things, to sell stuff.
2/7/2017 10:18:45 am
KAL, you're talking like a homeless person and not making sense, starting with "WW1 and WW2 were extensions of the same conflict". Then you go on to your own arbitrary divisions of generations like "X Gen was effectively gone by 1987 but some lingered into 1990." WTF?
2/7/2017 12:13:26 pm
On what ground do you deny that "WW1 and WW2 were extensions of the same conflict"? both were wars in which Germany attempted to assert dominance in Europe. Certainly, the German government of WW1 was swept away by WW1 and the aftermath, but many ideals and key officials from that government strongly influenced the Nazis and closely allied German nationalist movements.
3/18/2017 03:43:48 pm
Yes, I would like to know that as well.
2/6/2017 02:29:11 pm
If the profile on Bannon is true, then, yeah, the idea of interpreting history as a perpetual monolithic cycle is silly.
2/9/2017 12:47:16 am
Labels never meant much for me either for the most part. I agree about Baby Boomers, and I'd argue that Millennials too are a distinct group given both their upbringing in the digital age and the large-scale impact of entering the workforce late due to the Great Recession. Those things are already having measurable impacts on society and will continue to do so.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
2/6/2017 04:18:55 pm
Multiple news stories on the workings of Trump's White House make it look like Bannon is the most influential figure there, having slid into the vacuum created by Trump's lack of intellect and the jettisoning of more experienced advisors like Chris Christie. This insight into Bannon's worldview is very disturbing.
2/6/2017 04:43:29 pm
Christie has stated he wanted to finish his term as governor, so he wasn't "jettisoned".
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
2/6/2017 05:51:17 pm
Both Christie and several people close to him left the transition team at the same time, just a few days after the election. Several anonymous sources within Trump's campaign/transition team spoke to the media about Christie's exit, as did Roger Stone, who hasn't been a member of the campaign since 2015 but is close to Trump. They all agree that Christie was forced out, though they differ on the reasons why.
2/6/2017 06:11:46 pm
I'm going off this interview with Bill O'Reilly:
2/7/2017 09:45:41 am
I read Christie was forced out by Trump's son in law because Christie over saw the prosecution and incarceration of the son in law's father for fraud, among other crimes.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
2/7/2017 10:06:53 pm
That is one of the explanations put forward for Christie's ousting, but some of the sources say it was for other reasons.
2/6/2017 04:25:58 pm
"The stereotypes about neither fit me."
2/6/2017 05:18:27 pm
You understand that I am using the dates that the authors provided, not dates that I made up. They claim the baby boom began during the war, when soldiers had kids on the way to war and more on the way back home. Other demographers give different dates.
2/7/2017 10:28:18 am
"You understand that I am using the dates that the authors provided, not dates that I made up."
2/7/2017 04:29:57 am
The 1943 date is not nonsense, it's just not very sophisticated. There were two Baby Booms, the first being a Mini Babyboom in 1942-3 following an upsurge in marriages in 1941-2. The birth rate then declined again, to approximately 1941 levels by 1945, only to rise again, even higher, in 1946-7. Although 1947 was the peak, it did not fall back to 1941 levels (or even 1943 levels) again in the 1940s or 1950s. Clearly, if the war had dragged on longer, the mini-boom would have been more remarked upon as a separate phenomenon (not least because the number of young widows would probably have been much higher).
2/7/2017 04:32:39 am
Come to think of it, if
2/6/2017 04:32:33 pm
"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."
Pop Goes The Reason
2/6/2017 05:27:01 pm
Trump and the shower of shite surrounding him have fallen right into Putin's simple trap. His strategy is straightforward and obvious- manoeuvre America into fighting a proxy war for Russia against China. He doesn't mind much whether it's cold or hot, or which one loses, in fact he'd prefer both to lose. With them tied up, he's free to occupy what he thinks he can get away with in Europe.
2/6/2017 06:32:22 pm
The generation dates I arbitrarily picked were not set in stone nor official. The only pop culture date that is really, the Baby Boom, began in 1945 or so.
2/6/2017 07:45:18 pm
Good comments on the so called generation buckets. I was born in 1963 and never could figure out how I was part of the 60s types as I came of age in the early 80s. A much different time.
2/6/2017 10:58:39 pm
To your point and to expand on it further; I actually just had this conversation a couple days ago with my roommate. She was born in 1979, yet identifies herself more with the traits ascribed to the Millennial generation. I was born in 1982, meaning I literally came of age at the dawn of the Millennium (by popular reckoning and cultural norms of adulthood, anyway- disregarding that a new millennium didn't actually start until 2001), yet most of my attitudes and traits are of those ascribed to Gen X- even though according to the generationalist mindset we should be reversed by virtue of our birth dates alone.
2/6/2017 10:13:53 pm
Dang, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, WWI, and the Russian Revolution didn't make the charts. Those are my favorites.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
2/7/2017 02:10:58 am
And the English Civil War and the wars related to it were far more disruptive to English society than the Glorious Revolution, even if the Glorious Revolution dealt the deathblow to absolute monarchy in Britain.
2/7/2017 02:23:40 pm
Surprised nobody brought up the fact that we can document things... far harder to forget the past when it's there in photos, videos and text. Isn't that one of the reasons why the Vietnam War was such a big controversy? Because for the first time people could see video of what was going on, not just still photos and written accounts like previous wars, and reacted to the clear brutality of it all.
If Bannon believes in (ca.) 80 years cycles of decay and regeneration of the democratic society, I have to say two things on this:
2/9/2017 05:00:17 pm
Thorwald, I see that you are a regular here. And you appear to be at home whether it's a discourse on Atlantis, or on one similar to Atlantis, the USA. Hopefully we will not have our names hijacked by those calling others idiots, as I find your comments on Bannon very interesting, since the are coming from a German national. Have you taken that much time off from your main hobby, Atlantis seeking, that you had still enough time available to have studied our laws and history that close? And also you seem to know the rest well enough too, like Islamic religion and Islamic matters.
It is totally biased to compare Trump to Hitler. The radical leftists said the same about Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. This radical leftist propaganda becomes boring. Having measure is a virtue. A virtue that liberals really lost over the years. He who is not able to accept that the other side wins an election, he cannot be a democrat.
2/7/2017 07:30:41 pm
When I look at your background and education I find it interesting that you call Strauss and Howe's research "silly". OBVIOUSLY you are a bias political hack. Your article is propaganda because their analysis does not fit your political agenda. I guess because this article is about Steve Bannon you have to disparage the Fourth Turning. If you were being honest in this article it should have been your hate for Trump and Bannon. To include the Fourth Turning is a false flag argument like YOU.
Not the Comte de Saint Germain
2/7/2017 10:09:48 pm
And yet Jason spent much more time picking apart the obvious illogic of The Fourth Turning than he spent discussing Bannon.
An Over-Educated Grunt
2/8/2017 08:08:14 am
You do realize that no single sentence in that post either makes sense internally to itself OR flows into a coherent whole, right?
2/9/2017 08:38:37 pm
Frank, what about the dictatorship of Obama and his crown princess Clinton? Remember the chorus of those who wanted an unconstitutional 3rd term for Obama? Remember that Obama personally decided whom to kill, without a judge in between? Remember Obama's reckless withdrawal from Iraq? Remember this, and remember that? There is enough to make a (silly!!!) narrative of "Obama the dictator" ... and especially Clinton and her connections to radical Islam.
2/10/2017 06:55:27 pm
2/10/2017 06:59:21 pm
2/10/2017 07:19:36 pm
Frank, Do you remember Michael Moore? Once they said, George W. Bush won the elections because of the ridiculously exaggerated criticism of Michael Moore. And your fears and your criticism of Trump is exaggerated in the same way as Michael Moore's.
2/12/2017 11:50:07 am
Thorwald, we are all fools, and not just you. To be a fool simply means that you have been had, taken advantage of, made to believe a falsehood, etc. That is what is meant as being a fool. You are a fool because, in the first place, you have fooled yourself in thinking that you have understood Plato, and that you possess unique knowledge and special insight about his Atlantis. Second, you are a fool because you do not understand the gravity of the situation, which again this is due to your blindness to Plato's prophesied cycles of political events, as they are sure to come and repeat, due to unchanging human nature, and our reluctance to heed the warnings. In other words, human nature, and our behavior under certain conditions is something that can be forecast with nearly 100% certainty, like the weather. And, again, you are a fool there too, because you claim to know Plato so intimately, and yet fail to see, in the Republic, Plato/Socrates making plain for us the "facts" and conditions that will, with nearly 100% certainty, result in the making of a tyrant. It's also rather obvious that you, again and again, are indeed a fool, as most of all you have fooled yourself, as this is the worst thing that a fool can do, into believing a falsehood about Plato's Atlantis. Because here too, Socrates/Plato is giving us a prophecy about human nature and the conditions that will ultimately lead to man's demise, and send us all into OBLIVION.
2/13/2017 07:32:54 am
An interesting article Jason but could you please refer to the 'UK and 'British' unless you are specifically referring to England or the English. It may seem nit-picking but the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish don't like being forgotten about
2/13/2017 09:20:31 am
I am the historian who was quoted in the Time article about my experiences with Bannon.
2/13/2017 05:14:21 pm
Thorwald, the more you comment on my comments of your comments, the more you prove to be a fool, time and again, and you stand as accused. You cannot even see that in using Plato's own written words, within them, I had already anticipated how you were going to respond.
2/14/2017 07:38:49 am
"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."
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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