The Haunted Believer

Steve Bannon fascinates me. It’s his face, mostly, which bears none of the features of a determined right-winger, yet many of the hallmarks of a wounded psyche. Compare it to the pugnacious appearance of his boss in the Oval Office, and you’ll see my point. The lips are nervously sucked in, there’s the blotchy complexion and the scruffy stubble that often define somebody who lives only partly in any given place, or mindspace. He seems vulnerable, unsure, and wholly unlike the back-office dragon we keep reading about. He is, I suspect, a man who doesn’t really know who he is, only what he needs to become.

His obsession with The Fourth Turning is perhaps a major key to him. The thesis of this book – that the history of different societies moves in cycles of between 80 and 90 years – is simultaneously dubious and fascinating. We can take the events of any nation and concoct such a structured account, without really proving anything. The authors, William Strauss and Neil Howe, who have written other books on the idea, obsessively back up their assertions with a lot of data, while appearing unaware of the problems of confirmation bias. I find the concept intriguing, while agreeing with many critics that it’s unfalsifiable, and thus forever speculative.

Bannon has produced several intense documentaries around the theme and its ramifications, and appears to have a true believer’s faith that current events do constitute the titular Fourth Turning, which will include a massive war at some point. Since he largely eschews interviews, (the vulnerable, unsure man again), it’s hard to be certain about his exact views. I discount anecdotal reports on his views, such as his self-description as neo-Leninist, or his possible anti-Semitism, as being plausible but unverified. But clearly he has a tunnel vision, a fixed concept to sell, which makes me see again the vulnerability: the absolute need to be aligned with some superior truth.

He is highly intelligent, and moderately rich. He is also not above spinning a story, such as that about his father’s losses in the 2008/9 financial meltdown, that doesn’t stack up well in the face of commonsense examination. In this tale, of sympathy for a parent recast as the common man, it’s tempting to play armchair psychologist, and see someone trying to curry favour with his father after the son’s strangely errant life. Or, perhaps, to find an anchor in family after all the turbulent career changes and misadventures.

He and his current boss are both fantasists. One believes in his own genius as the source of all solutions for problems, while Bannon himself has chosen a controversial belief system as the explanation of them.

The oddest thing about Bannon, though, is his espousal of Christianity. He has been through three wives and three divorces, and his apparent enthusiasm to see a global war has no apparent connection to the message of the Gospels. As my own recent blog posts have noted, the American conception of a Christian is a very strange thing now, far from the world of C.S. Lewis, or even a Billy Graham. Christians themselves have lamented the fact.

My fear with Bannon is not so much that he will get his war, because there are many forces arrayed against that, including Pentagon generals who are wary of a conflict with China or Russia. But if he suddenly finds the grand theory he espouses is nonsense, or is at least inadequate to explain what someone with political power must actually do, his underlying volatility could put him in a position where his reactions, and possibly his suggestions to his highly suggestible employer, become dangerously unpredictable. I look at that face and see no core, only a hard shell built around a very vulnerable one. And I get nervous.

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