Some men, according to The Dark Knight, just want to watch the world burn.
White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon may be one of them.
His obsession with apocalyptic imagery – and, in particular, the ideology of a coming “cleansing war” – is well-documented.
In a November 2015 interview, he described one of the “central organising principles” of his alt-Right news organisation Breitbart News, of which he was then executive editor, as being “that we’re at war.”
And as Bannon continues to occupy the media spotlight in the disastrous wake of President Trump’s “Muslim ban”, more has come out about his fascination with global destruction.
He is obsessed with the 1999 book The Fourth Turning, by sociologists William Strauss and Neil Howe, which posits that every generation in American history responds to the failure of its institutions by cataclysmic but ultimately necessary violence: the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Second World War.
During the making of Bannon’s documentary Generation Zero – which began as a film about The Fourth Turning – historian David Kaiser recalls Bannon asking him to predict that the next bout of violence – now overdue – would be the biggest one yet.
Bannon may see the coming storm as unprecedented.
But his fascination with imagery of the apocalypse is anything but. The link between atavistic war narratives and ferocious, racialised nationalism is a long one.
In the chaotic, fragmented days of the late nineteenth century, after all, Richard Wagner finished his epic, apocalyptic Götterdämmerung – rooted in the Norse account of the “twilight of the Gods”.
It was a fierce and powerful expression of the wider nineteenth-century German fascination with folk tales, myths, and national identity that would, two generations later, reach its zenith in the figure of Adolf Hitler, himself obsessed with Wagner’s opera.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, in an equally uncertain, newly-unified Italy, the futurist poet F.M. Marinetti – whose movement would become the intellectual as well as political forerunner to the nationalistic Italian fascism of the 30’s – waxed ecstatic in his “Futurist Manifesto” about his desire to “glorify war – the only hygiene of the world – militarism, patriotism, the anarchist’s destructive gesture, the fine Ideas that kill, and the scorn of woman.”
And of course, in contemporary pockets of the alt-right internet, Neo-Nazi memes can be found alongside half-ironic invocations of “chaos magick” and discourse about victory in the “meme wars”: the Internet’s self-proclaimed role in getting Donald Trump elected.
What is it about the ideology of the apocalyptic “cleansing war” that makes it so appealing to violent nationalists and white supremacists alike?
Part of the answer might lie in its vision of a dynamic masculinity: a chance for adherents to a violent cause to paint themselves as soldier-heroes (the American classicist Donna Zuckerberg has written extensively on the modern alt-right and masculinity culture).
But might this interweaving of – essentially – racism and apocalypticism say as much about a hunger for community as it does about longing for glory? The research of Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse might give us some insight.
CREDIT: EYEVINE/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX
Whitehouse theorises that shared trauma – experience of violence and warfare – can essentially “rewire” our family connections, reshaping our group identity.
In his field research in Libya in 2011, Whitehouse found that a full 50% of front-line rebel fighters identified with their battalion over their own families. Shakespeare, as usual, was right: war really does make us a band of brothers.
It’s telling, therefore, that apocalyptic imagery and ferocious racialised nationalism both arise at moments of perceived cultural crisis.
Men like Bannon (and plenty of fascists before him) see a multicultural, globalised nation-state as inherently threatening; in the absence of cultural uniformity, they think, the whole system breaks down.
If they are lonely, whether on a personal or a political level, they can blame a society whose institutions no longer seem geared exclusively to them.
The promise of shared violence in a “cleansing war” doesn’t just appeal to a male fantasy of glory, it also advertises a group identity: a vision of a country in which “we” (or at least, whomever Bannon deems “we” to be) exist in a single, streamlined, narrative of history: easily reducible to “turnings”, crises, and regenerations.
History, of course, is never that simple, nor is the alt-right’s “we” so easily defined.
That götterdämerung, if it comes, isn’t going to spare a Bannon any more than the rest of us degenerates.
The fourth turning is no less a fantasy than Valhalla burning down.
To men like Bannon, the reality of a country not reducible to one single community – or one foundational myth that unites us – is more terrifying than the chaos they idealise.
Let’s just hope that none of us find out the hard way.
Tara Isabella Burton is a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, where she is finishing a DPhil in Theology
In his own words | Steve Bannon
“Fear is a good thing. Fear is going to lead you to take action,”
– 2010 interview, quoted by the New York Times
“I’m a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
– in conversation, 2013, quoted by The Daily Beast
“Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them [the Republican party establishment] do their duty,”
– 2014 Breitbart internal email obtained by The Daily Beast
“We think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti-’ the permanent political class. We say Paul Ryan was grown in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation.”
– 2016 interview quoted by the Washington Post
“The progressive narrative [is] all about victimhood. They’re either a victim of race. They’re a victim of their sexual preference. They’re a victim of gender. All about victimhood and the United States is the great oppressor; not the great liberator.”
– 2011 radio interview quoted by BuzzFeed News
“Look, are there some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right? Maybe. Are there some people that are anti-Semitic that are attracted? Maybe. Right? Maybe some people are attracted to the alt-right that are homophobes, right? But that’s just like, there are certain elements of the progressive left and the hard left that attract certain elements.”
– 2016 Mother Jones interview
“Not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with 2008 crisis. And in fact, it gets worse. No bonuses and none of their equity was taken. So part of the prime drivers of the wealth that they took in the 15 years leading up to the crisis was not hit at all, and I think that’s one of the fuels of this populist revolt that we’re seeing as the tea party.”
– 2014 speech to Vatican conference
“…at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand.”
– 2014 Vatican conference speech