How does Donald Trump view history and America’s role in shaping it? No one, including Mr. Trump himself, seems able to answer that. To find a grand vision guiding this administration, one must look to Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the architect of his campaign’s final months before his victory via the Electoral College.
On its cover, Time magazine labeled Bannon “The Great Manipulator,” and in an accompanying article, the magazine asked if he is the second most powerful man in the world, leading the reader to believe indeed he is. Yet at first blush, Bannon does not fit the stereotype of a Washington, D.C., powerbroker. His hair is disheveled, he frequently ditches a tie, and his face is typically full of scruff, giving him the vibe of an absent-minded professor.
The look is intended to reflect Bannon’s anti-establishment worldview but it conceals his more elitist roots. After seven years in the Navy and a degree from Harvard Business School, Bannon worked as a Goldman Sachs financier and then as an investment banker on his own. He transitioned to producing films, especially conservative documentaries, and then, in 2012, took over Breitbart News, one of the leading voices of fringe and grassroots conservatism. Trump was a frequent guest on his Breitbart radio talk show, and in August 2016, Bannon was appointed Chief Executive of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Donald Trump’s populist approach to policy seems to blow in the changing winds of public opinion and outrage without much long-term strategic direction. The real guiding anchor for Trumpism comes from Bannon, the man with Trump’s ear. Steve Bannon, and therefore Donald Trump, view history as a repeated cycle of civilizations rising and falling. They believe America’s current cycle is in crisis, threatening Western culture itself, and it is their job to rescue it from global elites intent on liberal, secular exploitation of America and its values.
Bannon dubbed these establishment elites the “Party of Davos” after the Swiss resort where the World Economic Forum meets. In Trump’s inaugural address, which Bannon helped write, he said the “wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world.” Speaking to the Liberty Restoration Foundation in 2011, Bannon complained about the elite’s “socialism for the very wealthy” and “socialism for the poor” at the expense of “common sense, practical, middle-class people.” For both Trump and Bannon, capitalism is in crisis mode, and it is a consistent theme in their speeches and interviews.
Part of this economic crisis came about through dependence on government programs redistributing wealth, but in their view, global elites also encourage government-dependent immigrants to flock to the U.S. and other Western countries as a source of cheap labor. The Party of Davos can benefit from immigration and leave working class Americans with the responsibility of integrating them into society and dealing with the alleged crime and corruption that comes with it.
Thus, Bannon and Trump believe the Party of Davos created not only an economic crisis but also a cultural one. Bannon’s documentaries like the 2010 film Generation Zero frequently focus on “American values,” which, to him, means capitalism built around “Judeo-Christian values” and a strong sense of nationalism. At a 2016 South Carolina Tea Party convention, Bannon complained the “swells, the investment bankers, the guys from the EU” are the “same guys who have allowed the complete collapse of the Judeo-Christian West in Europe.”
Trump and Bannon do not believe in religious tests nor do they believe that everyone must be Christian. In fact, the two rarely attend religious services themselves and seem to care little for theological matters. Instead, their Judeo-Christian values refer more generally to a moral compass opposed to pluralism and relativism. It especially means opposition to immigrants from different cultural and religious backgrounds.
These economic and cultural crises follow an ancient pattern, they believe, and we are due for a monumental battle to resolve it. The Bannon-Trump worldview has deep roots in the classics, and Bannon delights in drawing from it. Ancient statesmen, philosophers, and historians from Lycurgus, to Heraclitus, to Herodotus, and to Plato all believed that history was cyclical. Repeatedly, over and over again, civilizations rise and fall by losing touch with their hard-working, humble traditions.
According to this theme, war is waged by poor and nomadic people, an able leader unites them into a confederation, and they begin to take on richer neighbors. The united front fights and conquers and then begins to take on the rich, soft, effeminate characteristics of luxury. Having abandoned masculine military virtues and the religious values that once united them and helped them succeed, they begin to look down on those who still hold on to traditional values. The conquerors then become the conquered, and the cycle repeats. Each empire and civilization, in turn, gets overrun by its poorer, but more aggressive and fertile, neighbors. The end is always the same: a fallen civilization that lost touch with its noble values.
If there is a recurring theme that political philosophers throughout history keep telling themselves, this is it, and it is one that Bannon and Trump buy into wholeheartedly. The historian Livy, who experienced the Roman Empire at its height, said that Rome was “struggling with its own greatness.” A century later, the poet Juvenal said, “[W]e are now suffering the calamities of a long peace. Luxury, more deadly than any foe, has laid her hand upon us, and avenges a conquered world.” Juvenal fretted that success in life used to depend on military excellence but eventually led, instead, through the loins of a rich woman.
Although this mythology draws from the ancient classics, it keeps modern political scientists busy with their own twists to the theme. As the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union disintegrated, President George H.W. Bush triumphantly declared it was the beginning of “a new world order.” Political scientist Francis Fukuyama viewed the occasion in even grander terms and tried to break free of the traditional cyclical theme, famously proclaiming in 1989 that the end of the Cold War marked “the end of history.” In Fukuyama’s view, World War II represented a massive struggle between three distinct ideologies: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism. The war destroyed fascism, and 50 years later, Soviet communism failed. For him and many political scientists, history was over. Liberal democracy won and was here to stay. Fukuyama admitted that democracy may suffer “temporary” setbacks but argued, in the long run, it would become more and more prevalent.
Fukuyama’s grand theory envisioned that liberal democracy’s permanence would also bring globalization and a strong middle class. Since democracies engage in less warfare, war itself would even disappear. The new utopia might be a bit boring, but that is a small price to pay for peace and prosperity.
In 1993, just four years after Fukuyama’s “End of History” proclamation, political scientist Samuel Huntington sought a return to the traditional theme with “The Clash of Civilizations.” Huntington argued that Fukuyama was wrong and that identity, not ideology, shapes the world. These identities are shaped by “history, language, culture, tradition, and, most important, religion.” These different civilizations are marked by “different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy.” Huntington concluded, “These differences are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear.”
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 seemed to bolster Huntington’s thesis, but the American administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama explicitly rejected it, stressing that the United States was fighting violent extremists, not Arabic civilizations or Islam as a religion. However, in Bannon and Trump, we now have an administration, not only believing in that kind of clash of civilizations, but even welcoming it as a way to save the West from an economic and cultural crisis.
For Bannon and Trump, the most powerful theory based on this cycle mythology is one put forward by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their 1997 book The Fourth Turning. Strauss and Howe have a “generational theory” of American history that predicts repeated cycles lasting about 80 years. Each 80-year cycle has four “turnings” that are defined by four moods: “high,” “awakening,” “unraveling,” and, finally, “crisis.”
Following World War II, America experienced a “high.” The 1960s brought about a tremendous “awakening,” and then we experienced several decades of “unraveling.” Now, of course, we must confront the crisis. In Bannon’s view, this is the fourth time we have confronted the “crisis” phase, and each time, the stakes and resulting war get more severe. The Strauss-Howe generational theory is featured heavily in Bannon’s documentaries, and it comes up frequently in his speeches. In a presentation before the Liberty Restoration Foundation, Bannon says, “This is the fourth great crisis in American history. We had the revolution, we had the Civil War, we had the Great Depression and World War II. This is the great Fourth Turning in American history.”
Subscribing to the latest trendy twist on an old political theory of cycles is not particularly earth-shattering. However, Bannon’s solution to the supposed crisis has started to gain understandable attention. David Kaiser, the historian interviewed in Generation Zero, told Time magazine, “A second, more alarming interaction didn’t show up in the film. Bannon had clearly thought a long time both about the domestic potential and the foreign policy implications of Strauss and Howe. More than once during our interview, he pointed out that each of the three preceding crises had involved a great war, and those conflicts had increased in scope from the American Revolution through the Civil War to the Second World War. He expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.”
Although Bannon and Trump blame the Party of Davos for causing much of the crisis, the war they envision will not be waged against elites. Instead, the target is radical Islam. In a 2014 Vatican lecture, Bannon said, “I think we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and on top of that we’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.… This may be a little more militant than others.… I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam.… See what’s happening, and you will see we’re in a war of immense proportions.”
Perhaps a global existential war against Islam can be averted, but in Bannon and Trump’s view, that will only happen if Americans embrace traditional American values and block those who may not from ever entering the country.
Viewing history through this lens, all of the administration’s early goals and executive orders make sense. Ban immigrants from Islamic countries, or at least those most likely to cause trouble. Build a wall along Mexico to stop immigrants and end trade agreements, each viewed as assisting global elites at the expense of the middle class. Bolster the military in preparation for war. In other words, “America first.”
The Bannon-Trump view of history also accounts for Trump’s unusual embrace of Vladimir Putin. Despite Putin’s many failings, Trump views him as an ally in the war against Islamic extremism. To Trump and Bannon, the European Union seems unaware or uncommitted to addressing the perceived crisis. If they won’t stand up for Western civilization, why not enlist Putin’s help? In his inaugural speech, Trump vowed to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.”
Americans of all political stripes now seem to agree we face a crisis of some sort. Trump and Bannon blame the Party of Davos and radical Islam, while their detractors see a different type of crisis spurred by Trump and Bannon themselves. As David Brooks wrote recently, “We are in the midst of a great war of national identity.”
Martin Luther King, paraphrasing the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker, famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Unfortunately, the arc of history seems to be bending toward something other than justice.
Whether you support or oppose Trump and Bannon’s efforts, the history they seek to bend is fluid. Those who act as if justice or progress is inevitable will be sorely disappointed.