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Turning the wheel of history in the Trump era
Is American history a cyclical thing; a series of concentric circles endlessly repeating? Are its contours defined by temporary revivals of old hopes and old fears, inevitably renewed and repeated every 80 years or so? Or is it something else, something closer to a straight line evolution; a curve that we sometimes bend towards justice and later let slope down into recession and depression. This hour, we’re testing these two competing models of history against each other, and trying to find where the Trump generation fits into these larger historical frames.
The generational model of history, in which each 80 year cycle is divided into four generational “turnings,” was popularized by William Strauss and Neil Howe. These two hobby historians are best known for their bestselling pop history books Generations: The History of America’s Future and The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy. They also gave us a new, broad label for a diverse and widely-varied set of people. “Millennial” was and is their term for today’s rising generation. Finally, they may have also given our political leaders a new ideology with a dark twist: Steve Bannon, who’s played navigator on the Trump ship, credits Strauss and Howe as his masterminds. Some believe he’s steering us into the skid; embracing the “fourth turning” crisis that Strauss and Howe predicted and that Obama somehow missed.
To help us breakdown our current turn, we brought in a mix of generational theory enthusiasts, skeptics, and critics.
David Kaiser is a prolific academic with Ph.D in history from Harvard. He’s also one of the few historians who takes the Strauss-Howe thesis seriously. He’s made a fighting case for why others should too on his History Unfolding blog. While Kaiser doesn’t share Trump’s politics, he was interviewed by Steve Bannon several years ago as a Strauss & Howe expert in his film, Generation Zero.
John Stauffer, professor of English and African-American studies at Harvard, sees cycles of history swirling in his field of 19th century history, from Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, similarly, finds connections between the generational model and the cyclical view of history advanced by the preeminent 20th century liberal historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Arianne Chernok argues that these cycles interfere with our sense of history’s broader continuities. In particular, they overlook the persistence of activist movements fighting for more sustained forms of change throughout these historical periods.
Finally, Shaun Scott, author of the forthcoming book Millennials and the Moments that Made Us: A Cultural History of the US from 1984-present, breaks down some of the many myths that have been told about today’s generation.
American historian and author of No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War
professor of English, American Studies, and African American Studies at Harvard University.
professor of modern British and European history at Boston University.
the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of the American Revolutionary Era at Princeton University.
filmmaker and historian.