Instant Recap: The Fourth Turning (1997) predicted the pattern of events that is now unfolding around us, based on the saecular cycle: a recurring historical rhythm in which the successive generations correspond to four seasons, each dominated by a particular archetype and marked for a special destiny. We are now in a Crisis era that began with the 9/11 attacks, and is predicted to hit a cataclysmic climax.
The accuracy of The Fourth Turning’s basic schema is attested by the authors’ panoramic presentation of historical examples; but as always in human affairs, and prophecy in particular, the devil is in the details. Both Steve Bannon and co-author Neil Howe concur that the catalyst for the present fourth turning was not 9/11 but the mortgage meltdown of 2008. (William Strauss died in 2007, so he can’t weigh in on the question.) This alternate interpretation dramatically changes the timeline and probable nature of the rest of the crisis. If the era began in 2001, then the climax is due between 2019 and 2023, whereas a 2008 opener would push the window to seven years later.
It’s hard to understand how intelligent men with an understanding of the hypothesis (including one who helped formulate it) can so misinterpret the obvious contours as presented in the book. There it’s laid out plainly that the fourth turning catalyst dramatically alters the whole collective mood of the people ~ the Zeitgeist itself does a double-take and the Weltanschauung changes: the prevailing worldview of the society. 9/11 obviously accomplished this apocalyptic shift, just like the previous catalyst: the 1929 stock market crash. Compared to the latter the ’08 mortgage crisis was a little blip in the economic slipstream, quickly forgotten by the mass mind. This is confirmed pragmatically by the opposite outcomes: the Great Depression vs. the instant reuptake of the bull market after the blip accomplished its possibly intended objective of electing Obama.
The glitch in vision can be partially explained by raison l’etat, a common expression before the dumbing-down of the culture. The literal meaning is “reason of state”, the conventional meaning is “national interest”, and the extended meaning is a vested interest that skews one’s point of view in favor of a desired outcome. In chapter one I quoted Strauss & Howe’s prescient imagining of the 9/11 attack, and mentioned that the only major miss was that it would occur on American soil. I suggested that their raison l’etat as patriotic Americans prevented them from imagining such an outrage.
As for the outcome of the fourth turning, the authors laid out four alternatives: (1) the glorious rebirth of a unified America, just like after the World War II victory in the last cycle; (2) the collapse of world civilization and death of the Zeitgeist of the Modern Age, which has lasted five and a half centuries; (3) modernity survives but America dies, the union destroyed in a clash of irreconcilable factions; (4) “the end of man” in a nuclear world war, an “omnicidal Armageddon”. There’s little doubt that Neil Howe would lean heavily toward outcome #1, and Steve Bannon emphatically does. In fact his influential views pivot on a raison la guerre, a vested interest in war.
In the years leading up to the presidential election, Bannon repeatedly proclaimed that “we’re at war” with Islamic terrorists and other foes, locked in “a global existential war”. Even President Trump may have finally gotten spooked by his sabre-rattling for war against China or even Russia, leading to Bannon’s firing from his White House advisor gig. And this bellicose agenda of the USA launching a high-risk offensive to reclaim global hegemony hinges precisely on a 2008 “mortgage catalyst” for the fourth turning.
In the book’s theory, between the catalyst and the crisis is a period of regeneracy, of which the last model was FDR’s efforts to alleviate the Depression with his New Deal, and then the USA gearing up for the leap into World War II. In the present cycle, the narrow focus that would construe the mortgage meltdown as the catalyst would then take Obama’s massive bailout as the beginning of the regeneracy, which progressed as the market soared to new heights. But all insiders know that this is simply pumping up the bubble to blimplike proportions, as the debt to the global banksters breaks through ever ascending ceilings. Sooner or later the balloon must pop, and what goes up must come down. Furthermore, the imagined economic regeneracy, rather than bringing the people together, drove the ‘haves’ so far beyond the ‘have-nots’ that the country divided into hostile camps, as revealed in the 2016 election.
No matter which catalyst you prefer, this was a dramatic fulfillment of another prediction made in The Fourth Turning: the emergence of a Grey Champion, a man of the Prophet Generation, in this case a boomer, who appears out of nowhere and wins the mantle of leadership ~ namely Donald Trump.
Bannon quickly identified Trump as the prophesied Grey Champion, and supported him so vociferously that he got hired. His subsequent firing hasn’t changed his vision of the ripening crisis nor its timeline: he’d be overjoyed if Trump kick-started a global conflict bigger than World War II, with the grand climax around the end of his second term. 2008 to 2024 = 16 years into the fourth turning, an exact match with the last one: 1929 to 1945. If we tack on the next presidential term it would round out the turning nicely at 20 years, perhaps with President Bannon happily presiding over the new American Imperium. Unless, of course, the outcome is “omnicidal Armageddon” and “the end of man” ~ but hey, for a big payoff you have to take big risks.
What makes this nightmare unlikely is the choice of the wrong catalyst. If you set your clock seven years too late you’ll sleep through the real crisis, or else get a rude awakening. Next we’ll offer a qualitatively more likely turn of events based on 9/11 as the true catalyst of the fourth turning.