Steve Bannon’s vision of civilizational crisis and
violent renewal has deep roots in the American political
By Alexander Livingston
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
commentators see the indifference to legal procedure and
mass protest as evidence of Bannon’s
gross incompetence; others divine incipient signs of
full-scale coup. Often overlooked, however, is the
broader vision of politics informing Bannon’s new
experiment with state power.
chaos he’s let loose stands a prophetic theory of
civilizational crisis and violent renewal — one with
deep roots in the American political tradition.
political vision finds its clearest expression in his
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
it would have struck a chord with American intellectuals
and politicians at the close of the nineteenth century.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Breitbart News’s fixation on gore, violence, and
well-documented. His co-writer on a hip-hop
adaptation of Coriolanus set in the 1992 Los
told the New York Times that Bannon “was
drawn to Shakespeare’s Roman plays because of their
heroic military violence.”
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?”
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.
this war has already begun. As he explained in his
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.”
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.”
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