Charts, graphs and general paranoia from “The Fourth Turning”

The assassination of Malcolm X. The Six-Day War. The birth of disco. These are moments cataloged in what we—for lack of a better word—call history. It’s an index of deaths and births celebrated with pictures and autographed t-shirts; history with a lower-case h. It works for Trivial Pursuit and PhD dissertations, but it’s only a proxy for the sovereign and unremitting thing we—for lack of a better word—call History.

More than just a collection of events on a timeline, History is absolute. History, with a capital H, is incomprehensible, like Joy or God. We’re the fish and History’s the water. We can’t know it the same way we know its symptoms, like our capacity for pain or our favorite food.

History, or it’s lower-case proxy, has taught us to tell stories that help us make sense of the past and bring meaning to the present. Some are so old and so core to our common sense—creation, rebellion, exodus—that we can’t imagine existence without them. Our ideas and beliefs are made of stories and reinforced by everything from small talk to TV shows. And just like stories, ideas and beliefs are flawed and anxious about ratings.

No matter how worshipped the stories are, or how many people count on them for truth, they’re still just stories; fractions of the total sum of History. It’s scary to think about, that all we can really know is a semblance—if that. We know one thing to be true, but then see Beyoncé lip sync or learn that God is dead, and we freeze up; the new stories conflicting with our self-made realities, giving us a brief but fearful glimpse of the cosmic unknowing background lingering at the edge of our mental galaxies.

It’s at this brief, fearful moment ideologues are born; the pastors, pedants and policy wonks of the world. Rather than deal with the revelation like Ghandi or Kurt Cobain, the ideologue jumps into quicksand and calls it fresh air. There’s ideologues on both sides of every big issue; think of all the murk surrounding sex, drugs or children’s books. Despite the drama of their differences and their manic commitment to their own systems, the one thing they all have in common is fear.

When they’re on at their snake handling churches or chairing meetings in rented conference rooms at the Holiday Inn, these fearful disciples aren’t a problem. But when ideology mixes power, the world ends; in some cases, for hundreds of people, as with the Peoples Temple at Jonestown, and in other cases, for millions, as with the Jews incinerated by the Third Reich. Now it’s America’s turn.

America has had its share of ideologues over the past few centuries, but none with as much power or malice as Steve Bannon, Seinfeld millionaire, former Breitbart CEO and chief puppeteer of America’s illiterate Idiot-in-Chief, Donald Trump. In addition to his anti-establishment strategies, Nacht und Nebel tacticsapocalyptic fantasies and poor physical health – Steve Bannon is on the record as an affiliate of “darkness“, citing Dick Cheney, Darth Vader and Satan as representatives of his own spiteful agenda. It makes for good soundbytes and lends itself to caricature—think SNL‘s Bannon-as-Grim Reaper—but these comic book characterizations sanitize the filth lurking beneath the Trump administration’s nationalist rhetoric (authored by Bannon) and Bannon’s terrorist vision for America.

Effectively using Donald Trump as his “blunt instrument,” Bannon is content to linger in the background like a badly-dressed wallflower, fueling media curiosity about his personal motivations. Because Bannon only gives interviews with a belt in hand, like a drunk dad, the media has had to look elsewhere to learn more about him; notably, his library. And of course it’s no surprise that Bannon is immersed in fringe social, political and fascist theory pulled from the dollar bin at Half-Price Books. While Bannon prefers the writerly company of Nassim Taleb (risk analyst and Trump supporter), Julius Evola (dead Italian fascist), David Halberstam (Vietnam reporter and sports writer) and other outsiders, the book he’s been citing and recommending since at least the mid-2000’s—The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny—is also the most telling about his nihilism, ideology and fear (and also says a lot about what’s happening in the White House).

The Fourth Turning is part old-man ranting about kids these days, part occult theory and part historical fan faction (the lower-case kind). With a method based on little more than observation and opinion, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe suggest a story of history that unfolds in cycles, or saecula, that reset every century-or-so. Each of these cycles is comprised of four “turnings.” The first is a High; an era of “strengthening institutions and weakening individualism.” The second is an Awakening, marked by an attack on the civic order by a “new values regime.” The third turning is an Unraveling, when institutions grow weak and individuals grow strong. And finally, 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.” Crises in history are, by necessity, violent, bloody and chaotic.

Like Strauss and Howe, Bannon believes we’re in a Crisis. Apparently America has only faced a few fourth turnings so far; the Civil War and WWII. Based on the several calendars, charts and graphs put together by these authors, we’re due for another turn—and responsible, enlightened citizens face a choice. “The new saeculum could find America a worse place. Its geography might be smaller, its culture less dominant, its military less effective, its government less democratic, its Constitution less inspiring,” Strauss and Howe write (sounding eerily similar to Donald Trump on the campaign trail, or the inaugural lectern). But at the same time, they’re not totally fatalistic:

“Alternatively, the new saeculum could find America, and the world, a much better place. Like England in the Reformation Saeculum, the Superpower America of the Millennial Saeculum might merely be a prelude to a higher place of civilization. Its new civic life might more nearly resemble that ‘shining city on a hill’ to which colonial ancestors aspired.”

In our supposed fourth turning, we’re either facing total annihilation or pure utopia. Never mind that the social, cultural, economic, technological and existential conditions of each previous saeculum have been entirely unique, contingent and intimately connected with the complex and living webs of time. Never mind that a crisis for one person is an “awakening” or an “unraveling” for another. Never mind that you can’t force a two-dimensional map onto four-dimensional space. Life in America isn’t going the way I want it to, so that means the world is ending?

In other words, Strauss and Howe’s theory of “turnings” is the story they’ve created to make sense of the past and bring meaning to the present. It’s more coherent than some histories, but is more riddled with holes, inconsistencies and nervous white-guy rantings than most. Using it to prop up an entire ideology, a totalizing architecture of History, is like using the tooth fairy to explain gum disease. But at the same time, it’s tough for fearful minds—no matter how stoic or nihilistic—to reject the allure of certainty afforded by such self-reinforcing narratives. Strauss and Howe are so confident in their theory that they call it “an American prophecy,” as if its spreadsheets and numerology have been divinely inspired and therefore above the harsh, unremitting scrutiny of common sense.

While it’s clear that Bannon’s ideology is grounded in fear, it’s not clear—at least from this book—why he sees himself as an agent of the Fourth Turning. If a crisis is fated, as Strauss and Howe suggest, that means it will happen regardless of who’s at the helm. But at the same time, Bannon is on the record saying, among other things, that voting rights should be limited to property owners (like in America’s good ol’ days, when you could own human beings), hinting at a broader vision of what his perfect America will look like after the Crisis ends and the next turning begins. He wants to be on the winning side of a war not fought by nations, but by fear of History, the Great Unknown.

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