The chaos unleashed by President Trump’s executive order selectively barring Muslim entry into the United States has stoked an urgent debate about the man behind it, Stephen K. Bannon. Bannon, we now know, had a direct hand in both drafting the travel ban and directing the Department of Homeland Security to bar lawful residents and green card holders from entering the country.
Some commentators see the indifference to legal procedure and mass protest as evidence of Bannon’s gross incompetence; others divine incipient signs of a full-scale coup. Often overlooked, however, is the broader vision of politics informing Bannon’s new experiment with state power.
Behind the chaos he’s let loose stands a prophetic theory of civilizational crisis and violent renewal — one with deep roots in the American political tradition.
Bannon’s political vision finds its clearest expression in his 2010 documentary, Generation Zero. The film presents the financial meltdown and bailout as the product of a corrupt and incompetent political class beholden to global financial elites. “The party of Davos,” Bannon argues, ruthlessly plundered the wealth of the nation’s working men and women. But the documentary, of course, is no leftist polemic.
Underpinning Generation Zero’s melodramatic, right-populist discourse — which suffused President Trump’s “carnage”-filled inaugural address — is a strange theory of historical change proposed by Neil Howe and William Strauss.
Writing in the 1990s, Howe and Strauss asserted that American history could be understood as an orderly system of generational change. Every four generations constitutes a “saeculum” that passes through four predictable stages of development, each lasting approximately twenty years.
A saeculum begins in the wake of a great crisis. Conformity and self-denial reign, and energy is channeled into building and protecting stable institutions. This first generation, or “turning,” eventually gives way to a subsequent generation where the social order begins to erode. Stultifying conformity is thrown off in pursuit of spiritual discovery and individual freedom.
The second turning leads to a third, where corroding skepticism unravels stable institutions and social trust breaks down. Society atomizes and identities fracture, while speculation and elite power break free of traditional constraints. This cycle of unraveling is followed by a cataclysmic “fourth turning” into the new saeculum. The complete collapse of social institutions plunges society into chaos, and individuals are forced to embrace a common purpose in order to rebuild society. As Howe explains in Bannon’s Generation Zero, fourth turnings are tragic but necessary stages in the consolidation of national unity.
Howe and Strauss identified three great cycles of climactic crisis in American history: the revolutionary war, the Civil War, and the Second World War. In each case the nation faced existential annihilation from internal division or external dangers. And in each case, the nation emerged stronger than before because of citizens’ heroism and sacrifice.
Generation Zero positions the 2008 financial crisis as the nation’s latest fourth turning, the byproduct and successor to the counter-culture of the 1960s and ’70s.
As Bannon tells it, the socialism and black power politics of the 1960s laid siege to both the institutional stability of the 1950s and the cultural values that had traditionally sustained American free enterprise, unleashing a torrent of greed that ultimately sparked the financial crisis. Generation Zero traces the convergence of these lines of crisis back to the Clinton presidency, when crony capitalism and welfare socialism ostensibly conspired to gut the American economy and abandon “the forgotten men.”
Bannon sees the current cycle of crisis as the most perilous yet, for the United States lacks the “Judeo-Christian values” that sustained American exceptionalism in prior eras of crisis. Will the United States and its tradition of liberty and free enterprise endure the coming convulsion? Or will this “turning” be the end of American civilization as we know it? Does the zero that numbers this generation denote being first or last? All Trump’s chief adviser knows is that the Right must gird itself for a twenty-year battle to see the fourth cycle through.
Bannon’s cyclical theory of crisis sheds additional light on his heavily circulated 2014 speech at the Human Dignity Institute. Speaking before a Catholic audience at the Vatican via Skype, Bannon presented his theory of national crises in global terms.
At one time, Bannon argued, an “enlightened form of capitalism” prevailed, alongside peace and prosperity. But secularization destroyed the Judeo-Christian values that animated this order and detached the profit motive from its moral foundations.
The result? The current era of “corporate” or “state-controlled” capitalism, which funnels national wealth into the pockets of a global Davos elite and “looks to make people commodities,” further hollowing out civilizational values. The “crony capitalism” fueling the populist rage across the advanced capitalist world is a symptom of the decline of the “Judeo-Christian values” that once kept the free market in check.
For Bannon, these economic and spiritual crises are compounded by yet a third: the rise of “jihadist Islamic fascism.” Western civilization, he insists, is fracturing from within and being terrorized by “barbarians” from without.
Echoing his prophecy in Generation Zero of a fourth turning, he warned the assembled right-wing Catholics: “we’re at the very beginning stages of a global conflict, and if we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries . . . this conflict is only going to metastasize.”
Bannon’s vision of a coming clash of civilizations is a terrifying one, particularly since he now sits on the National Security Council. But however nightmarish and bizarre, his speculative theory of civilizational decline and crisis has plenty of precedents in American political thinking.
In particular, it would have struck a chord with American intellectuals and politicians at the close of the nineteenth century.
As the historian T. J. Jackson Lears argues in his classic study of Gilded Age America, turn-of-the-century elite discourse was marked by a reactionary antimodernism that lamented civilizational decline and looked to violence and danger as experiential wellsprings of renewal.
Historian Brooks Adams, for example, predicted that the coming century would see the exhaustion of American civilization. In his 1896 book The Laws of Civilization and Decay, Adams offered a theory of history as the dissipation of energy, whereby the very forces that drive civilizational development ultimately leave it spiritually enervated and ripe for collapse and revitalization through a period of social breakdown. Adams thought that the expenditure of power required to industrialize the economy and centralize the state had rendered America “inert until supplied with fresh energetic material by the infusion of barbarian blood.”
In 1885, Josiah Strong infused national decline with millennial significance in his hugely popular Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis. Prophesying the imminent “final competition of the races” for global supremacy, the Social Gospel leader advocated global imperial expansion as the sole way to save the Anglo-Saxon race in America. Unfortunately, Strong lamented, the forces of secularization, immigration, and Mammonism had weakened the national character and left the Anglo-Saxon unfit to confront this urgent challenge. Our Country was a jeremiad calling the nation back to its Christian values, which could combat the forces of domestic corruption and “rise to a higher level of sacrifice” demanded by the coming race apocalypse.
But no figure better captured the republican melancholia of Gilded Age political thought — handwringing about civic virtue lost, criticism of corrupting greed, fear of immigration and “race contamination,” fantasies of global empire, romanticization of sacrificial renewal — than the promulgator of Big Stick diplomacy, Theodore Roosevelt.
In Roosevelt’s eyes, the United States was a global representative of Anglo-Saxon civilization. But it was threatened from abroad (by competing imperial powers and cultural contamination) and decaying from within (thanks to commercialism, immigration, “race mixing,” and humanitarian sentimentalism).
Warfare was the answer. He promoted military conflict as a training ground for American men who lacked the courage and public spirit that citizenship demanded. As he told an audience at Chicago’s Hamilton Club in the spring of 1899:
When men fear work or fear righteous war, when women fear motherhood, they tremble on the brink of doom; and when it is that they should vanish from the earth, where they are fit subjects for the scorn of all men and women who are themselves and strong and brave and high-minded.
To Roosevelt, the fate of the Anglo-Saxon civilization depended on whether “the strenuous life” of the American soldier — who was fighting to expand the nation’s “empire of liberty” across the Western Hemisphere — would be embraced.
What can we glean about Bannon’s political vision from examining his intellectual antecedents and his alleged “obsession” with Strauss and Howe?
For one, it shows that Bannon’s apocalyptic vision is indebted to what Richard Slotkin diagnosed as the American mythology of regeneration through violence: a celebration of violence as an expiating ritual that can renew both the individual and the nation.
Bannon and Breitbart News’s fixation on gore, violence, and sacrifice is well-documented. His co-writer on a hip-hop adaptation of Coriolanus set in the 1992 Los Angeles riots told the New York Times that Bannon “was drawn to Shakespeare’s Roman plays because of their heroic military violence.”
Bannon’s fascination with violence is not merely provocation. Like Roosevelt, he sees in war a transformative experience of moral regeneration that serves as a bulwark against civilizational decline. One “of the biggest open questions in this country,” Bannon declared on Breitbart Radio this past summer, is whether the United States is willing to embrace the strenuous life. “Is that grit still there, that tenacity, that we’ve seen on the battlefields . . . fighting for something greater than themselves?”
Plumbing the past also demonstrates that we have to take seriously Bannon’s insistence that the US’s corruption and decadence will be expunged through apocalyptic war. David Kaiser, who appears in Generation Zero, reports Bannon’s “alarming” fascination with the implications of great wars in Strauss and Howe’s theory. “He expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis,” Kaiser said, “and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.”
The cycle of crisis needs military conflict — it is only the threat of total annihilation that can summon a nation back to a common purpose and inspire mutual sacrifice to confront its collective danger.
For Bannon, this war has already begun. As he explained in his Vatican lecture:
[T]here is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today.
The war in Bannon’s mind is the war radical Islam is waging on the “West.” It involves the calling of the “church militant” to “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
Understood in prophetic terms, the gruesome detail with which Bannon recounts ISIS atrocities on Breitbart Radio and his warnings of a Muslim “fifth column” inside the US are not simply calls to prepare for the coming war. They’re incitations meant to accelerate the coming catastrophe, which will purge the nation and bring about the coming saeculum of order and stability.
Total war is both the challenge facing American civilization and its salvation. As Bannon announced on Breitbart Radio in 2015, “It’s war. It’s war. Every day, we put up: America at war, America’s at war. We’re at war. Note to self, beloved commander in chief: we’re at war.”
Indeed we are. With Steve Bannon.