In the frenzy of hot takes, pop theories, academic analyses and turbo-partisan “narratives” confounding the effort to make some sense of the disorienting post-truth dystopia that appears to have enveloped the United States now that Donald Trump commands the American presidency, most of the exertions tend to run along a single line of inquiry.
The point is to resolve the puzzle by expounding upon or at least discerning some kind of precedent or prophetic warning or harbinger from the past that might account for the underlying circumstances that allowed the White House to be taken over by a possibly crazy reality-television egomaniac, and that might even anticipate the implications.
It was widely noticed last month when George Orwell’s 1984, with its Airstrip One nightmare state of thought control and propaganda fictions, suddenly shot up to become the best-selling title on Amazon.com. This made some sense, owing to Trump’s various proxies and spokespeople accusing mainstream news organizations of trafficking in “fake news,” and then redoubling their anti-journalism rhetoric by inventing their own category and inventory of “alternative facts.” Trump’s own routinely upside-down, 2-plus-2-equals-5 assertions come so thick and fast it’s nearly impossible to track and enumerate them all.
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Admirers of Orwell’s contemporary, Aldous Huxley, quickly revived their long-held objections to 1984: No, if you want to know something about what has led to this state of affairs, it’s Huxley’s Brave New World you should be turning to, with its blissed-out, manipulable subjects lulled into a mass stupefaction and idiocy. In the pages of the Guardian, siding with the Huxleyites, but with a twist, Andrew Postman, son of Neil Postman, author of the mid-80s Amusing Ourselves to Death, waded into the fray under the headline: “My Dad Predicted Trump in 1985”.
Still other antecedents of Trumpism are said to be found in the Depression-era Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here, which conjures a fascist demagogue, Berzelius Windrip, and the terrors he inflicts upon Americans after winning the presidency. To make sense of Trumpism and its contemporary lumpen populist iterations in Europe, quite a bit of effort has similarly gone into revisiting the real-world features of 20th century fascism. It isn’t just “liberal” hysteria that explains the renewed interest in Hannah Arendt’s history, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which charts the outlines of despotic European regimes down through the years into the rise of Adolph Hitler.
And it isn’t just from Trump’s adversaries that you’ll find this strange juncture in American history vested with such dark, bloodcurdling significance. An analysis of precisely that variety, but one that situates Trump as a hero rather than a villain, comes directly from Steve Bannon, the radical-right webzine editor and documentary filmmaker who is Trump’s closest confidante and advisor.
Now that Bannon has been promoted to a senior post in Trump’s National Security Council, his profile has quickly evolved from the persona of a Breitbart News rabble-rouser to a kind of White House Rasputin. An important point to take in about Bannon’s view of Trump’s pivotal place in American history, however, is that the theory behind it has the benefit of at least some serious intellectual coherence.
Central to Bannon’s obsessions is an interpretation of history set out by Neil Howe and the late William Strauss in their 1997 tome The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. The gist of it is that history unfolds in generational cycles lasting up to a century, each ending in cataclysm. Within each cycle are four “turnings.”
In America’s case, the last cycle’s turnings were punctuated by the conformist period following the Second World War, the rebellious “awakening” of the tear-it-all-down 1960s, the cynicism and corrosion of the years leading up to the 2008 financial crash, and with Trump’s election the United States is now up against a cataclysm. Bannon is pleased with this. He wants to bring it on, and he says so: it is only with the destruction of the old order that a new cycle, and a new flowering, will begin.
There is nothing even slightly eccentric about the idea that the world is currently shuddering from social, economic and geopolitical upheavals at some deep tectonic level. There’s nothing especially fascistic in the notion that such crises present opportunities to advance long-stalled, systemic, radical reform: that is, after all, what Naomi Klein was advocating in her 2014 bestseller This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate.
While The Fourth Turning failed to impress many of their fellow historians, Howe and Strauss are not alone in postulating a cyclical understanding of history. Two of the modern world’s most influential historians, Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, both dominated the study of history with their own versions of its cycles. It’s the rigid, deterministic view arising from The Fourth Turning‘s theory, however, and Bannon’s extreme, mechanistic, bring-it-on attitude towards the impending cataclysm the theory postulates, that is more than just a bit creepy. It’s history as conspiracy theory. It’s why Marxism failed. It’s why every economic earthquake, decade after decade, would caused campus Marxists to declare confidently that at last, the final crisis of capitalism was at hand.
It’s the apocalypse that never happens. But for Bannon and the Trumpists, a cleansing apocalypse is just waiting to happen, and all it requires is a few strong shoulders to history’s wheel. It’s the American people against their parasitic elites, the heartland against the establishment, the United States against an expansionist China and an expansionist Islam, and the Judeo-Christian western world at war with pretty well everything else, abroad and at home. Nothing else matters. Bring it on.
There is another line of inquiry, however, that does not attempt to solve the puzzle of the Trump presidency by peering into the past for prophecies or by reckoning what comes next in the autopsies of history’s cycles, real or imagined. It’s not necessarily any more comforting, but it requires some close attention to what is unprecedented about the current moment, and offers a way of accounting for Trumpism as something wholly new and utterly abnormal.
This is where “fake news” and post-truth disorientation come back into the picture, along with the Kremlin’s vandalism by disinformation during the U.S. presidential campaign, Trump’s own habitual conflation of the real with the wholly fabricated, and the trafficking in “alternative facts” that is apparently a requirement of membership in Trump’s post-election entourage.
It could very well be that Trump and the people around him are just crazy. The California Congressman Ted Lieu, unsurprisingly, a Democrat, is proposing a bill that would compel the Trump administration to retain an in-house psychiatrist. But what distinguishes the present moment in history from everything that came before is that it’s a time of “hyper-reality,” a postmodern chaos swirling around in the diffusion of digital technologies that up-end everything and wear down our capacity to discern reality from virtual reality and the objective from the subjective. Legacy media is shrinking in its sphere of influence, crowded out by social media and the Twittersphere. We’re all retreating into our “safe spaces,” content that we don’t have to confront people or ideas that we’d prefer to avoid.
It could be that Trump isn’t lying all the time, that he genuinely can’t tell the difference between what is real and what isn’t. And if that’s the case, a great many Americans, a great many of all of us, might share more in common with Trump and his legions of guileless admirers than we would want to admit.