In the Sunday “New York Times,” the journalist Jeremy Peters does a good job unpacking the book that has probably had the most lasting influence on the worldview of Trump’s “chief strategist” Stephen K. Bannon.
It turns out Bannon’s favorite American “history” book is the 1997 “The Fourth Turning” by a couple of amateur historians, Neil Howe and William Strauss. Howe and Strauss put forth a bleak version of American history that is deterministic and grandiose. They predict a “cycle” in American history that happens every 80 years or so, which predestines the United States to endure widespread catastrophe and warfare that transforms institutions in its wake. It’s creepy that someone so close to power in the White House is enthralled with this dystopian vision of the near future.
Whereas President Barack Obama often chose to cite Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea that the “arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.” Bannon has made the philosophical choice to follow the less optimistic view that the “arc of history is short and bends toward war, carnage and catastrophe.”
Bannon’s obsession with reading and re-reading “The Fourth Turning” (even making a movie about it) shows he’s fascinated with big wars and big destruction. He’s on record spouting off constantly about the coming “clash of civilizations.” Maybe Bannon should put down Samuel Huntington and the claptrap from amateurs and read some real historians like David Kennedy on the “Great War,” Martin Gilbert on World War Two, or George McT. Kahin and Marilyn B. Young on the U.S. war in Vietnam. He might also want to take a look at Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas Sugrue’s “These United States” and learn about how all those people who he believes exist outside the “core” of his white nationalist worldview have built this nation.
Instead of blaming 'political correctness' or 'snowflakes,' Bannon should learn about the true causes of the decline of the American middle class.
Instead of blaming “political correctness,” “snowflakes,” or “cucks” for creating the social divisions he’s so dedicated to exacerbating, Bannon should learn about the true causes of the decline of the American middle class. In recent decades the United States has become more socially inclusive while becoming more economically unequal. The ludicrously wealthy people who Bannon so faithfully serves, like Robert and Rebekah Mercer, not only wish to perpetuate the socially distorting income and wealth gap, but also apparently want to use walls, deportation, and voter suppression to segregate society by race and ethnicity.
Despite claims to the contrary, Bannon and his team of sycophants aren’t really interested in the plight of the white working class. They’re just a bunch opportunistic racists and xenophobes who dress up their emerging fascist ideology in postmodernist verbiage. Bannon’s version of history is racialized. His contempt for diversity and “political correctness” and his promise to “deconstruct the administrative state,” are really just ideological window dressing to hide the pursuit of destroying programs that value human solidarity and uplift, and sacrificing their budgets to military hardware and border walls.
The fact that Bannon and Trump have risen to power at all is a clear indicator of the deep crisis in values our country faces right now. We need to decide whether we will honor the social contract that sees all of us in this country working together in solidarity, or cut loose millions of America citizens from any meaningful investment in our society beyond mere survival in an increasingly harsh form of capitalism.
But the non-white people Bannon wants to disfranchise have agency. People-power isn’t going away any time soon despite the vision of crisis and catastrophe Bannon is toiling so hard to bring about. Trump and Bannon want to privatize everything, strip away basic services from working people, and “deconstruct” the very idea of a social commitment we all share to whoever resides in the United States.
During the 1930s and 1940s, amidst economic crisis and global war (the contemporary starting point for The Fourth Turning) the only way President Franklin D. Roosevelt could rally the people was to adhere to an ideology that was the exact opposite of the Bannon-Mercer worldview. Roosevelt held back the forces of reaction and fascism in this country and promoted a vision of solidarity among all Americans that valued each other and the contributions every American could make in working together to confront the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. There were still many harsh injustices and glaring contradictions, but the overarching ideology was one of solidarity and workers’ rights.
Today, the social programs that Bannon, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Trump want to dismantle are what have stitched together our society in times of economic crisis. Far more than “an administrative state,” these federal programs created a new social contract that allowed for the building of a middle class and reflected the values contained in FDR’s “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. He later added to the list the right to remunerative work, education, housing, and health care. Without the values of solidarity that the New Deal embodied a divided America at the mercy of rapacious ruling elites that waged class warfare against its fellow citizens would have rendered the country too divided to fight any war.
Everybody seems to admit that the country is more divided today than at any time since the Civil War. And even with the corporate media fawning over Trump’s recent cruise missile attacks in Syria, which magically transformed a charlatan into “a president,” Trump might be surprised by the size of the opposition if he and Bannon seek to send large numbers of soldiers into any new U.S. military adventure.
If you win election by playing on people’s innate selfishness and bigotry then when the time comes you need them suddenly to be altruistic and willing to sacrifice for your big, expensive war it might not go as planned. New U.S. wars in the Middle East aren’t even popular among Bannon’s ideological brethren in the “alt-right.”
Who would’ve known that Donald Trump, perhaps the most dangerous and incompetent president in U.S. history, only needed to fire some cruise missiles at an Arab country and the Establishments of both major political parties would be eating out of the palm of his hand? But the Establishments are out of touch with the rank and file. In 2013, President Obama discovered when he tried to drum up support to strike Syria that after Iraq and Afghanistan and other U.S. interventions the public has turned a corner on waging pointless wars. Especially in a period of forced austerity in the form of stagnant wages and savage budget cuts, millions of Americans from across the political spectrum see these wars as costly and gaining them nothing.
It’s pointless for analysts and commentators from the corporate media or NPR or the big think tanks in Washington to even entertain the idea that there’s such a thing as an emerging “Trump Doctrine.” The only “doctrine” to come out of the spectacle of Trump’s cruise missile attack in Syria is that he is now incentivized to “wag the dog” in the future whenever he and Bannon see potential political advantage in doing so. The task ahead is to stop any moves towards fulfilling Bannon’s catastrophic “vision” of the future.