I'm a bit behind on the crackpot theories of nihilists, neurotics, anarchists, fanatics, flakes, paranoids and top presidential advisers. It was therefore good to be schooled this morning by the Post's Michael Gerson on the nation's singular embodiment of the aforementioned collectivity: Donald Trump's "chief strategist," Steve Bannon. Much of what the latter believes about the world — its history and future — was once distributed on street corners and in mailed, plain brown envelopes; now it's whispered into the presidential ear (although its synaptic distribution and cerebral absorption from there is anybody's guess).
Bannon, as we know, is less a strategic intellect than a Breitbart ideologue, a label that can harbor any one of many an assorted, crackpotted, populist idea. As Gerson describes Bannon's role as the WH "ideologist," it is to "take some partially valid insight at the crossroads of pop economics, pop history and pop psychology; declare it an inexorable world-historic force; and, by implication, take credit for being the only one who sees the inner workings of reality." History is replete with such pop-populists as pretentious high thinkers, just as mental asylums are overbooked by them. They're generally the ones sitting silently in a corner, mournfully surveying the ignorance of society's uninitiated. Not so with Mr. Bannon, who has brayed his "mystic" (Gerson's word) knowingness with unabashed volume. Nonetheless, I hadn't kept up with all the dark workings of his swirling mind, hence I'm grateful to Gerson for the education.
What are the "inner workings of reality" that Bannon has grasped and we haven't? Reveals Gerson: "[I]t has something to do with 'the fourth turning' … [which] apparently involves cycles of discontent and disruption. Lots of disruption." And just what in heaven's name is the deeper meaning of the "fourth turning," yet another "philosophy," as Gerson further observes, "that can be derived entirely from an airport bookstore"?
In 2009, a scholar familiar with the concept, Naval War College professor David Kaiser, received a request by Bannon for an interview on it, which Kaiser granted. His recollection of Bannon's ramblings was this: "You have the American Revolution, you have the Civil War, you have World War II; they’re getting bigger and bigger. Clearly, he was anticipating that in this Fourth Turning there would be one at least as big." It was the Huffington Post, earlier this month, that published Kaiser's retrospection on Bannon's theory, and its headlining tease was more than that: "Steve Bannon Believes The Apocalypse Is Coming And War Is Inevitable."
Gerson responds that "there is a problem with the ... economic nationalism and ethno-nationalism" as major contributory elements of Bannon's fourth turning. "It is morally degraded and dangerous to the country." From a non-moralistic view, I see an even bigger problem: The American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II are endowed with as much historical linkage as, say, Jefferson's 1807 Embargo Act and Obama's Lilly Ledbetter legislation. How the three preceding conflagrations are fundamentally tied together and inelluctably foretelling of a global fourth is less "mystical" than utterly mystifying.
Of "cyclical historical models," Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz informs Gerson: "It’s just a conceit. It’s a fiction, it’s all made up. There’s nothing to them. They’re just inventions." (If leftist-vampire hunter David Horowitz were genuinely interested in just how far today's university history professors have traveled from the old ideological days of Marxist sequencing, well …). The "fiction" of Bannon's theoretical beliefs, however, profoundly replicates a peculiar characteristic of yesteryear's right-wing ideologues: Many of them came as still-believing refugees from the Hegelian-Trotskyite school of dialectics. Indeed, modern conservatism was founded on the sought synthesis of antithetical, internal factions.
Bizarre "fourth turnings," fictions, conceits and historical mysticism — such are the explicit underpinnings of Bannon's ideology, whispered daily, as noted, into the presidential ear. As for my guess as to their reception? The president has neither the time, inclination nor capacity to earnestly ponder them. His own creative recklessness and narcissistic aversion to others' thoughts keep him plenty occupied. We may be safe from Steve Bannon's flaky hallucinations, but not Donald Trump's.