History may not repeat itself precisely, but according to Steve Bannon, it sure does rhyme. And the rhyme we are soon to hear, according the White House chief strategist, will echo epochal crises like the Great Depression, the Civil War and the American Revolution.
As has been reported in several articles and interviews, Bannon is much enamored with the work of amateur historians William Strauss and Neil Howe, who, in their 1991 book Generations and their 1997 book The Fourth Turning, develop an elaborate and finely textured account of how history is structured in 80-100 year cycles.
Each cycle — or, as they call them, saecula — is divided into four "turnings." The first turning is a "High" (think the end of World War II through the 1950s), the second an "Awakening" (think the "Consciousness Revolution" starting in the 1960s), the third an "Unraveling" (think of the culture wars, which began in 1984) and the fourth a "Crisis" (think 2008 until "around 2026"). They liken the cycles of history to the seasons of the year: spring, summer, fall and winter. According to Strauss and Howe's predictions in their 1997 book, we're now deep into a chilly winter from which a new spring may emerge ... or not.
"The Crisis climax is human history's equivalent to nature's raging typhoon, the kind that sucks all surrounding matter into a single swirl of ferocious energy. Anything not lashed down goes flying; anything standing in the way gets flattened. ... The climax shakes a society to its roots, transforms its institutions, redirects its purposes, and marks its people (and its generations) for life. The climax can end in triumph, or tragedy, or some combination of both."
Thus do Strauss and Howe hedge their bets, optimistic, pessimistic and everything in between. Bannon is less sanguine. Watch on YouTube his 2010 documentary, "Generation Zero" — a film that portrays a crisis whose imagery contains ominous dark clouds, crashing planes and jittery investors — and you will come away scared.
But fear may not be the best motivator to make America great again. In order to evaluate the influence that Bannon is exercising on the White House and the world, we need to better understand the specific message of Strauss and Howe's books.
The Model of Generations
Three concepts drive their model: generations, the saecula and a sequencing of archetypes. Let us take each in turn.
Generations are defined not just by their length — 20-21 years more or less — but also by their place in history.
"The war-ravaged European 'generation of 1914' and American Lost Generation mingled at many of the same Paris cafes. After World War I, when the United States became a global symbol of progress, the interest of Americans in generations began to surpass that of Europeans. Since then, no peer group has come of age in America without encountering a determined effort to name and describe it."
While Strauss and Howe identify no less than 24 Anglo-American generations going back to the 15th century, the focus of The Fourth Turning falls on the most recent five:
The concept of the saeculum dates back to a political philosopher in the second century B.C., Polybius, who was the first to link a cyclical theory of historical time to the cycles of generations. The Fourth Turning is a long book because Strauss and Howe devote many pages to establishing the fixed rhythm of the saeculum by correlating historical events with generations and their archetypes all the way back to the Wars of the Roses (1459-87), the climax of the Late Medieval Saeculum.
"We should take solace that the saecular rhythm is only approximate. If it were precise, it would show human events to occupy the simple, inorganic domain of physical time, rendering our society hardly more interesting than an orbiting comet or a ticking metronome. Instead, the imprecise saeculum shows that society occupies the complex, organic domain of natural time. Nature offers numerous examples of this domain: the beating of a heart, the budding of a flower, the molting of a sparrow."
A Pattern of Archetypes
From the Greek myths to modern thinkers like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, archetypes have been used to explain the varieties of human behavior. The Myers-Briggs test is used to this day to classify different personality types based on such archetypes. While the characterization of each of the four archetypes is also imprecise — their descriptions are more literary than mathematical — the important point for Strauss and Howe is that their sequencing through a saeculum is always the same: "The labels vary, but the archetypal order (Prophet to Nomad to Hero to Artist) is always identifiable — and always the same."
By overlaying the patterns of each of these concepts — generations, saecula and archetypes — one atop the other as they unfold through history, Strauss and Howe reveal a moiré pattern that is invisible when considering any one pattern alone.
"During a Crisis era, Prophets enter elderhood, Nomads midlife, Heroes young adulthood, and Artists childhood. During an Awakening era Heroes enter elderhood, Artists mid-life, Prophets young adulthood, and Nomads childhood. These constellations push the saeculum forward, since generations that are predictably shaped by history become, as they age, generations that predictably shape history. Thus does the scripted reappearance of archetypes govern time's great wheel."
Given the imprecision of both the length of a generation and the characterization of an archetype, there is a danger that the model is infinitely applicable as a kind of socio-historical astrology. By cherry-picking events and their interpretations, one can "prove" almost any prediction. But Strauss and Howe do an admirable job of amassing details and precise numbers, from history to pop culture, to make their case.
If Sigmund Freud was correct in claiming that dreams are the golden road to the unconscious, the popularity of different books, TV shows and movies pave the road to the social unconscious.
"As the media standard for the typical American family changed from My Three Sons to My Two Dads, divorce struck 13ers harder than any child generation in U.S. history. ... In 1984, Americans were first noticing that the conventional family was no longer the norm and premarital teen sex no longer a rarity. A decade later, married couples with children had shrunk to only 26 percent of all households (versus 40 percent in 1970), and the share of sexually active fifteen-year-old girls had swollen to 26 percent (versus 5 percent in 1970)."
The Fourth Turning Foretold
After 271 pages of text establishing the cogency and consistency of their model, Strauss and Howe launch Chapter 10, "A Fourth Turning Prophecy." Given events that have already occurred since the book was published in 1997, their predictions aren't bad.
"Sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning. Any of a number of 'sparks' could ignite it. In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash [read, 2008], as ordinary as a national election [read, Trump], or as trivial as a Tea Party [read, the Tea Party]."
They offer five brief scenarios for other "sparks" that could ignite the Fourth Turning: the first a secessionist movement by a state. As of 2014, one could count movements toward:
- A 51st state called Jefferson, made up of Northern California and Southern Oregon
- A new state called Western Maryland
- A new state called North Colorado
Their second, a global terrorist group (read, the Islamic State). Their third, a government shutdown. Their fourth, a communicable virus (like Ebola). Their fifth, growing anarchy throughout the former Soviet republics (read, Ukraine and Crimea).
As the Fourth Turning unfolds, "America's initial Fourth Turning instinct will be to look away from other countries and focus total energy on the domestic birth of a new order. ... The crisis mood will dim expectations that multilateral diplomacy and expanding global democracy can keep the world out of trouble."
"As each archetype asserts its new social role, American society will reach its peak of potency. The natural order givers will be elder Prophets, the natural order takers young Heroes. The no-nonsense bosses will be midlife Nomads, the sensitive souls the child Artists. No archetypal constellation can match the gravitational capacity of this one — nor its power to congeal the natural dynamic of human history into new civic purpose. And none can match its potential power to condense countless arguments, anxieties, cynicisms, and pessimisms into one apocalyptic storm."
So you can see where Bannon gets his script for his documentary film "Generation Zero." As Linette Lopez writes in Business Insider, "Bannon believes that the catalyst for the Fourth Turning has already happened: the financial crisis."
A Time of Glory or Ruin
As Strauss and Howe describe the further unfolding of the Crisis, their prose evokes the image of U.S. President Donald Trump: "The final Boomer leaders — authoritarian, severe, unyielding — will command broad support from younger people who will see in them a wisdom beyond the reckoning of youth." Though here it should be noted that most of the young voted against Trump. "In foreign matters, they will narrowly define the acceptable behavior of other nations and broadly define the appropriate use of American arms."
"In this environment 13ers could emerge as the leaders of a Crisis-era populism based on the notion of taking raw action now and justifying it later. A charismatic anti-intellectual demagogue could convert the ad slogans of the Third Turning into the political slogans of the Fourth. 'No excuses.' 'Why ask why?' 'Just do it.' Start with a winner-take-all ethos that believes in action for action's sake, exalts strength, elevates impulse, and holds weakness and compassion in contempt."
Sound familiar? But recall again that Strauss and Howe are not as pessimistic as Bannon seems to be. "With or without war, American society will be transformed into something different. The emergent society may be something better, a nation that sustains its Framers' visions with a robust new pride. Or it may be something unspeakably worse. The Fourth Turning will be a time of glory or ruin."
Contrast these noncommittal words with what historian David Kaiser said to Time magazine: "Howe, too, was struck by what he calls Bannon's 'rather severe outlook on what our nation is going through.' Bannon noted repeatedly on his radio show that 'we're at war' with radical jihadis in places around the world."
Could Trump's fiery rhetoric about North Korea be the prelude to a climax of the current Crisis? Not according to the schedule in The Fourth Turning. "If the Crisis catalyst comes on schedule around the year 2005, then the climax will be due around 2020, the resolution around 2026."
Perhaps it is precisely Bannon's pessimism — his sensitivity to the imminence of disaster — that injects a note of moderation into his current stance. As Glenn Thrush and Peter Baker wrote in The New York Times on Aug. 9:
"The president's aides are divided on North Korea, as on other issues, with national security veterans like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, on one side and Stephen K. Bannon, the president's chief strategist, and his allies on the other.
"While General McMaster and Mr. Mattis consider North Korea a pre-eminent threat that requires a tough response, Mr. Bannon and others in the nationalist wing argue that it is really just a subset of the administration's conflict with China and that Mr. Trump should not give more prominence to an unstable rogue operator like Mr. Kim."
Then again, if "the saecular rhythm is only approximate," as Strauss and Howe say, further hedging their bets, then we should not take solace in our current flirtation with apocalypse.