But the men who enjoy prerogatives which are the result of old violence, frequently forget, and like to forget, how these prerogatives were obtained.  We need, however, only think of history, not the history of the successes of various dynasties or rulers, but real history, the history of the oppression of the majority by a small minority, to see that the bases of all the prerogatives of the rich over the poor have originated from nothing but whips, prisons, hard labor and murder.

--Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You

Faith in the fuhrer is enveloped, it could almost be said, in a mysterious, unfathomable mysticism.

--Joseph Goebbels, The Struggle Over Berlin

I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the Lord.

--Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

"If you were looking for a tone or pivot, Bannon will pivot you in a dark, racist, and divisive direction.  It'll be a nationalist, hateful campaign.  Republicans should run away."

--Rick Wilson, GOP Consultant, Devil's Game

Joshua Green in Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, And The Storming Of The Presidency (2017) paints a picture of Steve Bannon as the Machiavelli to Donald Trump's Prince.  Bannon most of all resents modernism and individual freedom.  Green posits that Bannon's term for his politics, and Trump’s--"nationalism"--was already in wide circulation in the political press [and in the American society itself].  But the term's meaning was (and remains) confusing and has never been fully explicated.  While Trump's embrace of "America first" nationalism was chiefly due to its resonance as a campaign slogan, Bannon's attraction to it had a far deeper and more complicated lineage.

From an early age, Bannon was influenced by his family's distinctly traditionalist Catholicism and tended to view current events against the broad sweep of history.  Though hardly a moralizing social conservative, he objected bitterly to the secular liberalism encroaching upon the culture.  "We shouldn't be running a victory lap every time some sort of traditional value gets undercut," he said in 2015.  While he was still in the Navy, Bannon, a voracious autodidact, embarked upon what he described as "a systematic study of the world's religions" that he carried on for more than a decade.  Taking up the Roman Catholic history first instilled in him at Benedictine, his Catholic military high school, he moved on to Christian mysticism and from there to Eastern metaphysics.  (In the Navy, he briefly practiced Zen Buddhism before wending his way back to Tridentine Catholicism).

Bannon's reading eventually led him to the work of Rene Guenon, an early-twentieth-century French occultist and meta-physician who was raised a Roman Catholic, practiced Freemasonry, and later became Sufi Muslim.  There are many forms of traditionalism in religion and philosophy. 

Guenon developed a philosophy often referred to as "Traditionalism (capital "T"), a form of anti-modernism with precise connotations.  Guenon was a "primordial" Traditionalist, a believer in the idea that certain ancient religions, including the Hindu Vedanta, Sufism, and medieval Catholicism, were repositories of common spiritual truths, revealed in the earliest age of the world, that were being wiped out by the rise of secular modernity in the West.  What Guenon hoped for, he wrote in 1924, was to "restore to the West an appropriate traditional civilization."

Guenon, like Bannon, was drawn to a sweeping, apocalyptic view of history that identified two events as marking the beginning of the spiritual decline of the West: the destruction of the Order of the Knights Templar in 1314 and the Peace

Of Westphalia in 1648.  Also like Bannon, Guenon was fascinated by the Hindu concept of cyclical time and believed that the West was passing through the fourth and final era, known as the Kali Yuga, a six-thousand-year "dark-age" when

Tradition is wholly forgotten.

The anti-modernist tenor of Guenon's philosophy drew several notable followers who made attempts during the twentieth century to re-enchant the world by bringing about this restoration.  The most notorious of these was Julius Evola, an Italian intellectual and the black sheep of the Traditionalist family.  A monarchist and racial theorist who traced the decent of the Kali Yuga to interwar European politics, Evola, unlike Guenon (a pious Muslim chiefly interested in spiritual transformation), took concrete steps to incite societal transformation.  By 1938, he had struck an alliance with Benito Mussolini, and his ideas became the basis of Fascist racial theory; later, after he soured on Mussolini, Evola's ideas gained currency in Nazi Germany.

The common themes of the collapse of Western civilization and the loss of the transcendent in books such as Guenon's The Crisis of the Modern World (1927) and Evola's Revolt Against the Modern World (1934) are what drew Bannon's interest to Traditionalism (although he was also very much taken with its spiritual aspects, citing Guenon's 1925 book, Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta, as "a life-changing discovery").

Bannon, more synthesist than adherent, brought to Guenon's Traditionalism a strong dose of Catholic social thought, in particular the concept of "subsidiarity": the principle expressed in Pope Pius XI's 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo anno, that political matters should evolve to the lowest, least centralized authority that can responsibly handle them--a concept that, in a U.S. political context, mirrors small-government conservatism.

Everywhere Bannon looked in the modern world, he saw signs of collapse and an encroaching globalist order stamping out the last vestiges of the traditional.  He saw it in governmental organizations such as the European Union and political leaders such as German chancellor Angela Merkel, who insisted that countries forfeit their sovereignty, and thus their ability to maintain their national borders.  He saw it in the Roman Catholic Church, whose elevation of Pope Francis, "a liberal-theology Jesuit" and "pro-immigration globalist," to replace Pope Benedict XVI so alarmed him that, in 2013, he established Breitbart Rome and took a Vatican meeting with Cardinal Raymond Burke in an effort to prop up Catholic traditionalists marginalized by the new Pope.

More than anywhere else, Bannon saw evidence of Western collapse in the influx of Muslim refugees and migrants across Europe and the United States--what he pungently termed "civilizational jihad personified by this migrant crisis."  Expounding on this view at a 2014 conference at the Vatican, Bannon knit together Guenon, Evola, and his own racial-religious panic to cast his beliefs in historical context.  Citing the tens of millions of people killed in twentieth-century wars, he called mankind "children of that barbarity" whose present condition would one day be judged "a new Dark Age."  He added, "We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.  And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it."

Bannon's response to the rise of modernity was to set populist, right-wing nationalism against it.  Wherever he could, he aligned himself with politicians and causes committed to tearing down its globalist edifice: arch-conservative Catholics such as Burke, Nigel Farage and UKIP, Marine Le Pen's National Front, Geet Wilers and the Party for Freedom, and Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.  (When he got to the White House, he would also leverage U.S. trade policy to strengthen opponents of the EU).  This had a meaningful effect, even before Trump.  "Bannon's a political entrepreneur and a remarkable bloke," Farage said.  "Without the supportive voice of Breitbart London, I'm not sure we would have had a Brexit."

For all his paranoid alarm, Bannon believes that the rise of nationalist movements across the world, from Europe to Japan to the United States, heralds a return to tradition.  "You have to control three things," he explained, "borders, currency, and military and national identity.  People are finally coming to realize that, and politicians will have to follow."  The clearest example of Traditionalist political influence today is in Russia. 

Vladimir Putin's chief ideologist, Alexander Dugin--whom Bannon has cited--translated Evola's work into Russian and later developed a Russian-nationalist variant of Traditionalism known as Eurasianism.

Bannon initially thought restoration lay in a rising political generation still some years off: figures such as Frauke Petry, of German's right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland, and Marion Marechal-Le Pen, niece of Marine, whose politics he approvingly described as "practically French medieval," adding: "She's the future of France."  It took some time for him to realize that that in Trump (whose familiarity with French metaphysics, we can be certain, is no more than glancing) he had found a leader who could rapidly advance the nationalist cause.

In the summer of 2016, Bannon described Trump as a "blunt instrument for us."  But by the following April, Trump was in the White House and Bannon had raised his estimation of him to path-breaking leader.  "He's taken this nationalist movement and moved it up twenty years," Bannon said.  "If France, Germany, England, or any of these places had the equivalent of a Donald Trump, they would be in power.  They don't."

When he took over Trump's campaign in August, Bannon did indeed run a nationalist, divisive campaign in which issues of race, immigration, culture, and identity were put front and center.  This wasn't by accident or lacking in purpose, even if the candidate himself didn't care to understand its broader historical context.  By exhuming the nationalist thinkers of an earlier age, Bannon was trying to build an intellectual basis for Trumpism, or what might more accurately be described as the American nationality-Traditionalism.  Whatever the label, Trump proved to be an able messenger.


What surprises me about Devil's Bargain is that Green doesn't reference William Strauss and Neil Lowe's The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous With Destiny (1997) when Bannon uses it as the basis for his film Generation Zero.  The book touts itself as "an American prophecy.

Moreover, it has been acknowledged on NPR and other news outlets that The Fourth Turning is Bannon's "bible."  It is rhetorical arrangement Strauss and Lowe declare that "It's All Happened Before:" the reward of the historian is to locate patterns that recur over time and to discover the natural rhythms of social experience.  In fact, at the core of modern history lies this remarkable pattern: Over the past five centuries, Anglo-American society has entered a new era--a new turning--every two decades or so.  At the start of each turning, people change how they feel about themselves, the culture, the nation, and the future.  Turnings come in cycles of four.  Each cycle spans the length of a long human life, roughly eighty to one hundred years, and a unit of time the ancients called the saeculum.  Together, the four turnings of the saeculum comprise history's seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and destruction:

  • The First Turning is a High, an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays.
  • The Second Turning is an Awakening, a passionate era of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.
  • The Third Turning is an Unraveling, a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants.
  • The Fourth Turning is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.

Each turning comes with its own identifiable mood.  Always, these mood shifts catch people by surprise.

Steve Bannon's obsession with a dark theory of history should be worrisome

Steve Bannon
Steve Bannon.Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

President Trump's adviser, Steve Bannon, is on the cover of this week's Time magazine, and in the piece it is revealed that Bannon deeply believes in a theory about America's future laid out in a book called "The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America's...

This fact should concern every American.

In the book, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe theorize that the history of a people moves in 80-to-100 year cycles called "saecula." The idea goes back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that at a given saeculum's end, there would come "ekpyrosis," a cataclysmic event that destroys the old order and brings in a new one in a trial of fire.

This era of change is known as the Fourth Turning, and Bannon, like Strauss and Howe, believes we are in the midst of one right now.

According to the book, the last two Fourth Turnings that America experienced were the Civil War and the Reconstruction, and then the Great Depression and World War II. Before that, it was the Revolutionary War.

All these were marked by periods of dread and decay in which the American people were forced to unite to rebuild a new future, but only after a massive conflict in which many lives were lost. It all starts with a catalyst event, then there's a period of regeneracy, after that there is a defining climax in which a war for the old order is fought, and then finally there is a resolution in which a new world order is stabilized.

This is where Bannon's obsession with this book should cause concern. He believes that, for the new world order to rise, there must be a massive reckoning. That we will soon reach our climax conflict. In the White House, he has shown that he is willing to advise Trump to enact policies that will disrupt our current order to bring about what he perceives as a necessary new one. He encourages breaking down political and economic alliances and turning away from traditional American principles to cause chaos.

In that way, Bannon seems to be trying to bring about the Fourth Turning. 

The book in Bannon

Bannon has never been secretive about his desire to use Trump to bring about his vision of America. He told Vanity Fair last summer that Trump was a "blunt instrument for us ... I don’t know whether he really gets it or not."

Perhaps not, but putting a Fourth Turning lens on Trump's policies certainly give them a great deal of context. Bannon believes that the catalyst for the Fourth Turning has already happened: the financial crisis.

So now we are in the regeneracy. Howe and Strauss describe this period as one of isolationism, one of infrastructure building and of strong, centralized government power, and a reimagination of the economy. 

Of course it's important not to lose sight of the end here. Bannon believes in authoritarian politics as preparation for a massive conflict between East and West, whether East means the Middle East or China.

china militaryReuters

Over the years, Bannon has unsuccessfully tried to pressure historians such as *Professor David Kaiser to say the same thing.

From Time:

"I remember him saying, 'Well, look, you have the American revolution, and then you have the Civil War, which was bigger than the revolution. And you have the Second World War, which was bigger than the Civil War,' Kaiser said. 'He even wanted me to say that on camera, and I was not willing.'

"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. This is 'a global existential war' that likely will become 'a major shooting war in the Middle East again.' War with China may also be looming, he has said. This conviction is central to the Breitbart mission, he explained in November 2015: 'Our big belief, one of our central organizing principles at the site, is that we're at war.'"

The reality of repetition

Ultimately, the danger of writing about the past at the same time one writes about the future is that it can be hard for an author to separate the two. The steps and missteps of the past seem so easily repeatable that the future seems to march in lockstep. But this is not what history has shown us. The catastrophes of every era have always materialized in their own unique ways.

It is here where Strauss and Howe fail in their work, and here where Bannon gets caught in their failure. The authors mention in passing that the event that brings us into a crisis could be "as ominous as a financial crisis or as ordinary as a national election."

This makes sense. The Fourth Turning of the Civil War and Reconstruction played out differently than the Fourth Turning afterward, the Depression and World War II.

But Strauss and Howe fail to recognize that difference in their description of the Fourth Turning to come. They forget that no two Turnings are alike; instead, they get trapped thinking that the last catalyst — the Great Depression, a financial crisis — was the next one as well, and Bannon does too.

This is why he believes that the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 was the catalyst of our crisis, just as the Great Depression was the catalyst in the previous saeculum. But the two are not comparable. Unemployment in the US never reached 20%, as it did then; it hit 10% in October 2009. In 2008 the government acted fast to prevent a full global meltdown, and it did not allow the situation to deteriorate the way President Herbert Hoover and his administration did for two years.

Instead of all of America suffering as one, what the financial crisis brought on was an exacerbation of the inequality growing in the world for the 40 years before it.

So when President Franklin Roosevelt described a country laid waste by the Great Depression in his inaugural address in 1933, he was describing a picture that all Americans were seeing. On the other hand Trump, in his inaugural, described a dark "American carnage" that many did not recognize. That lack of recognition marked our deep division as a country.

Trump inauguration speechPresident Trump gives his inaugural address on January 20.AP Photo/Patrick Semansky


So perhaps there is a Fourth Turning to come, but Bannon is not an architect of its initiation. According to Howe and Strauss, unity is the defining feature of the regeneracy. It is what allows leaders during a crisis to become "authoritarian, severe, unyielding" in commanding resources in order to rebuild society.

This is what allowed FDR to command the full force of government to put people back to work. But unity is less apparent in American society than it has been in years. Quite the contrary, our society is showing division as never before.

The stars of the "Fourth Turning" are baby boomers and millennials. Boomers are the ideologues who lead our country into conflict through folly; millennials are cast as the young heroes that bring them out of it.

Once the catalyst event takes place, Strauss and Howe describe a situation in which America coalesces under one leader — a boomer "Gray Warrior" — who will "urgently resist the idea that a second consecutive generation might be denied the American Dream. No matter how shattered the economy ... "

Millennials vs Boomers on gay marriage immigrationPew Research Center

If Bannon believes that he is working for this Gray Warrior, then he's missing a very important point: Millennials are the ones who lead the way forward out of crisis in this story, but considering the needs of the young has never had any place under Trumpism. Trump's words appealed most to older generations who felt like something had been taken away from them, not to younger generations who felt like they were never given a chance at the American Dream in the first place.

The majority of young people who voted in 2016 voted against President Trump, and even more millennials chose to stay home. That is, in part, because Trump never offered young people anything. In July, at the Republican National Convention, the national head of the young Republicans, Alexandra Smith, warned her party about this.

"For too long Republicans haven't been making their case to millennials," Smith said, her saccharine tone smoothing over the severity of the situation. "There's just too much old and not enough grand in the way we express our party's value to the next generation of voters."

"The Fourth Turning" envisioned by Howe and Strauss requires a return to an agreed-upon set of values, but millennials and the GOP (or Bannon for that matter) couldn't be farther away from one another. For one, millennials are the most diverse group in US history (43% of them are nonwhite). Most do not share Bannon's vision for ethnic conflict.

"The Fourth Turning" is the story of our country unifying against internal struggles and an outside threat. The authors describe it as the natural course of history, as something that just falls into place. Instead, what we are seeing, with Trump's travel ban and his threats against Mexico and China, is the creation of enemies, enemies many Americans don't want to have.

Instead of uniting us, Bannon's belief in "The Fourth Turning" is dividing us. This is dangerous, uncharted territory. What comes next is, as always, unwritten.

*A previous version of this story mistook David Kaiser for another history professor of the same name at MIT.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.

Bannon has taken Strauss and Lowe's theory of historiography to heart, believes that The Fourth Turning has arrived, and eventually uses it as base to the superstructure of Generation Zero and for other structures in his historic present which is obvious in his 60 Minutes interview.

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Views: 60

Comment by mary gravitt on September 19, 2017 at 1:27pm

f you sup with the Devil, you'd better use a long-handled spoon.  The Devil is a busy man and a smooth talker.  This should make you busy about studying your own history.  History and and economic are bound.  These people at the UN know who the Devil is, but do you?

Comment by alsoknownas on September 19, 2017 at 2:23pm

Thank you for this piece.

Comment by koshersalaami on September 19, 2017 at 4:30pm

Good piece. 

I've never read The Fourth Turning but I read their Generations, a book I think is enormously important. 

Those analyzing Strauss and Howe here miss something they write about: Most generational cycles are four but if a major crisis happens too soon we get three, we miss the equivalent of a Greatest Generation and how we rise to the occasion is not as successful.  WWII and the American Revolution were both four generation cycles but the Civil War was a three generation cycle and you see how unsuccessful that aftermath was. 

Manufacturing a crisis is idiocy. 

Comment by mary gravitt on September 20, 2017 at 12:26pm

Thanks for the comments.  The Fourth Turning is an important book.  It is back in print and my library purchased a copy.  It's on Amazon.  What we need to be studying is WWI because it never ended.  After Trump's speech at the UN put Barbara Tuckman's The Guns of August on your reading list.  Manufacturing a crisis is what Trump is all about. 

Strauss started the Capital Steps political satire group.  Strauss is dead, but nothing dies on youtube.

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