“History is seasonal, and winter is coming…Some time before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II.
The risk of catastrophe will be very high. The nation could erupt into insurrection or civil violence, crack up geographically, or succumb to authoritarian rule.”
That grim prophecy wasn’t from the latest Qanon conspiracy drop. It was written in the 1990s, by the controversial authors Neil Howe and William Strauss in their pseudoscientific historical tome, The Fourth Turning: an American Prophecy: What the Cycles of History Tell Us about America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny.
Howe and Strauss painted a grand theory of history as a recurring cycle of generations, each in turn leaving their mark on their time and all part of a four-generation “saeculum” of 80-100 years, until a totalising crisis of political, economic and social convulsion reboots the system. A long period of cultural decadence and increasing individualism creates the conditions for the crisis, which forces the restoration of communitarian values and institutional authority – so they wrote.
If you queasily hear that as some combination of Myers-Briggs personality tests, horoscopes, Game of Thrones and Mormon-inflected Battlestar Galactica fanfic (“all of this has happened before…”), you’re not alone. But for a time in the 1990s, the authors of The Fourth Turning and their first book, Generations, sold enough books and garnered enough attention that they pivoted to create a successful micro-industry and consultancy practice. They even coined the term “Millennial” to describe the generation born between 1982 and 2000 and that has certainly stuck, along with their archetypal characterisation as a potentially heroic set pit against their nemesis, the selfish Boomers (born 1943-1960). Seminars followed for people in sectors ranging from investment fund managers to HR professionals. And of course, politics.
“I got mocked and ridiculed by so many people,” said one particular Strauss/Howe stan, describing reactions to his inability to STFU about his adopted pet galactic-historical theory. “They said: ‘You can’t believe in this stuff. It makes you look like a kook.’”
That particular fan quote was from Steve Bannon, the fascist-curious Rosacean-American strategist who managed to exceed even Vladimir Putin’s expectations by guiding one Donald J. Trump into the White House.
Profiles of Bannon were popular in 2017, in the weeks after Trump inaugurated his presidency with a speech so dark and doom-laden that George W. Bush reportedly sputtered, “That was some weird shit.” Almost all of them dwell on Bannon’s obsession with The Fourth Turning and his apocalyptic vision for an ethnonationalist American rebirth in fire and blood.
And then, just like that, he was gone. As we know, Trump is psychologically incapable of voluntarily sharing the limelight. When Bannon got his own TIME magazine cover, his days were numbered.
After his fall, Bannon drifted and grifted. Stoking up right-wing ethnonationalist dreams from Rome to London of a heroic future in the twilight struggle to save Judeo-Christian civilisation from Islam and liberal decadence, he then returned to America, set up a fake crowdfunding effort for private (non-Mexican) contributions to complete Trump’s “Wall”, finally arrested for the scheme in a surreal August 2020 raid of a Chinese billionaire’s 150-foot luxury yacht on Long Island Sound by seaborne forces of the US Postal Service. (Weird shit, indeed.) Until emerging for one last 15 minutes of infamy for publicly calling for the beheading of FBI Director Christopher Wray and suburban housewives’ favourite immunologist, Dr Anthony Fauci.
Post-return and pre-indictment, however, reporters dug out prodigal Bannon’s phone number again in the summer to populate articles resurrecting interest in The Fourth Turning. A deadly pandemic raged. City centres stood silent. Black Lives Matter protests filled the streets. Semi-automatic-wielding incels heeded Trump’s call to “liberate” states on COVID lockdown. And gunned down, and threatened to gun down, people pushing back on the established racial order. Trump himself ordered masked security forces to snatch protestors from American streets in the dead of night. He prepared active-duty military to disperse protestors near the White House so he could hold up a Bible for a photocall. The “American carnage” Trump said he was there to dispel seemingly had been instantiated…by Trump. And to be fair, the coincidence of Strauss and Howe predicting a world-historical crisis around the year 2020 (in their 1991 book, Generations, they actually specified 2020 would itself be the “hinge of history”) was…spooky.
Then there was Trump himself. The Fourth Turning also predicted a “Grey Warrior” would rise to lead the people in their time of trial. In Bannon’s telling, the crisis had really begun in the 2008 financial meltdown, preparing the way for Trump.
“National issues will break clear of the Unravelling-era circus and cast a clear and immediate shadow over the everyday shape of American life. The Unravelling-era culture warriors will no longer be attacking national institutions mostly from the outside. Come the Fourth Turning, they will be fully in charge.”
“The winners will now have the power to pursue the more potent, less incrementalist agenda about which they had long dreamed and against which their adversaries had darkly warned. This new regime will enthrone itself for the duration of the Crisis. Regardless of its ideology, that new leadership will assert public authority and demand private sacrifice. Where leaders had once been inclined to alleviate societal pressures, they will now aggravate them to command the nation’s attention.”
You could be forgiven for giving in and crediting this kind of guff, written 25 years before 2020, for being eerily prescient. If you are a Yank. If you are a Yank, you tend to be prone to this blurring of reality and fantasy, dark or otherwise.
Another book, also spookily prescient, is worth considering when trying to explain our historical moment and the American generations whose predisposition to seduction by unreality led to it: Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, by Kurt Andersen.
Published a few months into Trump’s presidency but – the author claims – begun well before Trump’s improbable (or was it?) hostile (or was it?) takeover of the Republican Party, Andersen retells the American saga as a story of a people sinking deeper into circles of delusion, punctuated by a period (1900-1960) when “The Long Arc of History Bends Toward Reason” and America’s rising military and economic dominance was matched by – and fuelled by – a cultural imperium played out on Hollywood studio lots.
Andersen argues, convincingly in my view, that the 1960s and 1970s and the Boomer generation that came of age during that period decisively broke with the (on the surface) orthodox and conformist past, not just in politics and culture – but in epistemology.
As he writes, excerpted in The Atlantic:
“Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us.”
“For all the fun, and all the many salutary effects of the 1960s—the main decade of my childhood—I saw that those years had also been the big-bang moment for truthiness. And if the ’60s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are probably mistaken to consider ourselves over it.”
Few public intellectuals are more qualified than Andersen to analyse Trump. The Nebraska native became a fixture of New York journalism around the time Trump was sublimating from fake casino and property mogul to fake successful business icon. Andersen – along with future Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter – started the satirical magazine Spy in 1986. (Spy owed its sensibility to its older British cousin, Private Eye, but owed its name to a fake gossip magazine featured in the 1938 classic Jimmy Stewart/Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant film, The Philadelphia Story.)
In 2015 as Trump made his improbable rise to power, Vanity Fair gleefully recounted the by-then-defunct Spy and its war on, as they called him, “short-fingered vulgarian” Donald Trump.
What perhaps the 1980s Andersen couldn’t foresee, however, was that Trump would turn out to be more in step with the fast-mutating American psyche than he was. Where Andersen recoiled at and then mercilessly satirized Trump as the apotheosis of the ascendant but ridiculous Boomers of the crass, “greed is good”, “reality distortion field” 1980s, Trump fed his grievances and wounded sense of entitlement.
Fast-forward to 2016. Twenty years of right-wing talk radio, FOX News, conspiracy theories, Bush v. Gore, 9/11 Trutherism, Iraq WMDs (Full disclosure, this author was an enthusiastic consumer of that particular delusion. My bad.), Obama Birtherism, Hillary’s emails, Pizzagate. They took their toll.
From 1992 onwards, the country’s presidents – Clinton, Bush II, Obama – and ascendant political class (Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi) had all been Boomers or Boomer-adjacent. (Some argue Obama is more Gen-X than Boomer, at least in temperament. Some argue Biden is solidly Silent Generation in his current stoic but empathetic incarnation. Your mileage in using generational nicknames may vary.) That demographic fact may or may not be relevant as a factor in analysing the decay of the US political order, though some certainly felt so even before 2016.
With Trump’s ascendancy, however, there came an efflorescence of jeremiads excoriating the Boomer generation for basically destroying the world and hope for the future. Trump so cartoonishly contains within himself the villainous multitudes of Boomer generation worst characteristics – “deceit, selfishness, imprudence, hostility, remorselessness” – that there can be no denying he has become the ultimate symbol of that generation. And that Boomer generation, argues Bruce Cannon Gibney in A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, is the first in modern history – across the West – to leave their children worse off than their parents left them. Consistent with other anti-Boomer polemics, it indicts that generation for inheriting a relatively healthy environmental and fiscal balance sheet, leveraging it to the hilt with debt to fund a frivolous lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, cheating on the taxes due and blaming everyone else for causing the problem. OK, Boomer: Trump’s family financial chicanery writ large, across whole continents.
So as the Trump era slouches towards January to die, what are we to conclude about its meaning in the frameworks offered by the book beloved by the man who made Trump president, and the book written by his most perceptive observer?
Certainly it is possible to imagine that both Fantasyland and The Fourth Turning are both in some sense true, even if accuracy is unevenly distributed: There is a generational Armageddon at hand; there is a radical break with reality over decades that allows us to be LARPers, both believing and not believing in that ridiculous idea; Trump and his enablers have weaponized that very broken connection with reality to hold power and revel in their own IRL cruelty; and Trump being high on his own supply of delusion prevents him from doing more damage by commission rather than omission. All four ideas can be true at the same time. A fitting end for an era of contradictions.
Of course, that assumes that the story is over.
Like any number of Boomer-starred/directed action flicks – Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc – this era has never been short of false endings. We think Gary Busey is done in the final fight with Mel Gibson but somehow manages to grab a cop’s gun. We think Robert Mueller is about to announce the president’s indictment but is unceremoniously shot in the back of his metaphorical head by Bill Barr. Bruce Willis thinks he’s done with Alan Rickman but, well.
Did you really think we were done with Trump or Trump was done with us? You thought history’s greatest zombie sociopath was going to go gently into that good night and stay dead?
Perhaps you are a credulous Millennial. We Gen-Xers are wise to all those tropes.
We observe Trump in what we hope to be his final days. He is still fully capable of taking all of us with him, in some Twilight of the Cons, a Gotterdamerung of Grift. He is both sign and signifier, symptom and cause, reality and fantasy, of some deep toxicity in American and Americanized global culture. And culture, as Steve Bannon was fond of pointing out, is upstream of politics. Trump is staying true to form, doing more damage to both the reality of political institutions and the fantasy version of them, that in some sense is required to sustain any political order, the necessity of faith in some unreal or at least fully unrealizable ideal that sustains the day-to-day working reality.
Will the tanks roll? Will his new, sycophantic SecDef facilitate a pre-emptive attack on Iran to plunge the world into a new level of unreal horror? Not likely for a Commander-in-Chief who holds his “sucker” and “loser” troops in such contempt. But 70% of Trump’s 70 million voters believe the election was illegitimate. If not a crisis in 2020, with 50 million people who overindex for firearms ownership actively rejecting the legitimacy of the political order and opting into an ever-deeper, ever-darker, ever-more-violent political fantasyland where Qanon is real and even FOX is now fake news, then certainly soon. Perhaps even, to keep sales of The Fourth Turning humming, before 2025.
History has seasons, and winter is here.