The Crackpot Theories of Stephen Bannon’s Favorite Authors

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David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. His most recent book is Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.

Ethel Kennedy opened the door in her bathrobe, welcoming us in from the blizzard. The snowstorm had made it impossible to reach Harpers Ferry, where a retreat had been planned for a gaggle ofWashington-based Generation Xers, as we were called then. So one participant, Doug Kennedy, asked his mother to let us relocate to their Hickory Hill estate. Over the next hour that Saturday morning in March 1993, twentysomethings of diverse stripes including Jon Karl, now of ABC News, Jon Cowan, now of Third Way, and Eric Liu, now of Citizen University, streamed in for a weekend of debate.

The confab was hatched by a man much older than we were—William Strauss, a charming, gray-haired congressional staffer known in Washington for founding the Capitol Steps, a troupe of Hill aides who performed mildly funny political satire in a small Georgetown theater. One typical parody featured a George Bush Sr. impressionist lamenting his lack of the common touch with a song called “If I Weren’t a Rich Man.”

Strauss (who died in 2007) and his collaborator, Neil Howe, another onetime Hill aide, have vaulted back into the news lately as intellectual influences on Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist. Their 1997 historicalmanifesto The Fourth Turning, an iteration of their generational theories,posits that the tides of history have placed America on the cusp of a world-historical crisis—akin to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II—that could plunge the nation into disaster. And Trump’s self-styled intellectual guru reportedly is so taken with the book that, according to the New York Times, he has read it three times and shelves a marked-up copy alongside his most admired volumes at his father’s Virginia home. Bannon has described the book’s arguments as central to his worldview, and his 2010 documentary, “Generation Zero,” rested on its claims. As a result of his reported regard for it, The Fourth Turning is now a No. 1 Amazon best-seller—in the category of “divination.”

Back in 1993, though, Strauss and Howe didn’t yet have a cult following. They were just getting to be known for their first book, Generations, a best-seller that analyzed all of American history as the experience of successive generations, to whom the authors assigned distinct, coherent and predictable personality types. More recently, they’d published 13th-GEN, which sought to capitalize on the baby boomer-dominated news media’s sudden and faddish interest in my generation. Strauss, a fiscally conservative centrist, believed that his generation, for all their change-the-world idealism, had screwed things up royally by saddling their children with insurmountable debt, environmental disaster and other long-term headaches. By gathering our group,he thought he could orchestrate a Port Huron Statement for the Gen-X era, one that would, in line with his book’s picture of our cohort, preach solutions that were pragmatic, middle-of-the-road and “post-partisan” (a buzzword at the time)—ideas of the sort Ross Perot might have espoused in the previous year’s presidential campaign.

Of course, Perot had finished third in the 1992 election while waltzing to Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” and, despite the best efforts of a few Strauss disciples at Hickory Hill, the weekend’s project also collapsed in incoherence. Most of the policies that the conservatives proposed were anathema to the liberals, and vice versa. (I remember one of the ideological conservatives present being demolished in an impromptu debate by a young Andrew Cuomo, who had dropped in out of curiosity; he was visiting with his then-wife, Kerry Kennedy.) At one point, Cowan and Rob Nelson, of a deficit-reduction group called Lead or Leave, proposed that we all accept their idiosyncratic mix of proposals, but that didn’t satisfy anyone. By the end, I had become convinced that the members our supposedly “post-partisan” generation had no more in common with one another than did the members of Congress. Although some participants in the end crafted a document, not everyone was happy with it and not everyone signed. It got a little attention and was then forgotten. ...




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