Steve Bannon is trying to take his far right populist provocations to victory in Europe's ballot boxes - and to win Europeans' souls. Hard right, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-abortion, Christian traditionalist souls susceptible to cheap anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim dogwhistles, that is.
Derided by Trump and alienated from sectors of his party, Bannon will likely never again serve as a public face of Republican strategy, but has instead become an eminence gris whose influence many will conveniently disavow. Regardless, he is pushing his Trump-style nationalist and race-baiting victory strategy to its next logical battlefield.
Bannon has called the Christian right a fundamental "layer" in Trumpism, and has worked to develop an international system through which the religious right can gain hegemony.
He called on "the Church militant" to "fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that's starting that will literally eradicate everything that we've been bequeathed over the last 2,000 and 2,500 years." He spelled out the necessity of a global far right Christian coalition against the evils of socialism, atheism and Islam: "We are at the very beginning stages of a global conflict. If we do not bind together as partners, with others in other countries...[then] this conflict is only going to metastasize."
Last month, the same coterie convened in Verona for the World Congress of Families to rally a global movement against LGBQTI rights, abortion, and immigration. Tellingly, their meeting included members of the fascist Forza Nuova party, which also marched in support in the streets outside of the meeting.
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Bannon's "vision" requires not only attacking the democratic systems of nation-states in Europe and but also transnational power centers that show insufficient commitment to hard right values, such as shutting Europe's doors to immigration – including the Pope.
In a 2016 meeting with Italy's now deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, Bannon reportedly opined that "the pope is a sort of enemy. [Bannon] suggested for sure to attack, frontally." After that meeting Salvini was photographed holding up a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: "Benedict [the former arch-traditionalist pope] is my pope."
Bannon's seeding this far-right insurrection against the papacy by allying with Francis critics both within Catholicism and outside, building effectively a cross-denominational Christian traditionalist front. And he might be winning.
One of the trustees of his institute is an outspoken critic of the current Pope and ex-Breitbart contributor, Austin Ruse, who's also an official of the World Congress of Families, the coalition of far-right, anti-gay Christian groups meeting in Verona that is backed by Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian ultra-nationalist oligarch close to Vladimir Putin.
The Bannon anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda has strong backing from within the Vatican, not least in the person of Robert Sarah, an African cardinal who's a traditionalist favorite to succeed Pope Francis. His rhetoric in 2019 almost precisely tracks the language Bannon employed in his own speech at the Vatican in 2014.
He told a French paper recently: "If the West continues in this fatal way, [accepting mass immigration] there is a great risk that, due to a lack of birth, it will disappear, invaded by foreigners, just as Rome has been invaded by barbarians…This current desire to globalize the world by suppressing nations, specificities, is pure madness…If Europe disappears, and with it the invaluable [Christian] values of the old continent, Islam will invade the world."
It seems that Pope Francis may already be feeling the anti-immigrant heat. In his Easter message, he unexpectedly called for the international community to return refugees to Syria.
In tandem, Bannon is deepening his political efforts, which he calls The Movement, to swing Europe to the right, with one test being the upcoming EU elections.
For Bannon, organizing populist parties is "no different from Goldman Sachs" or when he started his own financial services firm - "it’s just a different conference room." That's the story, at least, that he fed Alison Klayman in her documentary The Brink, which followed Bannon from the aftermath of the disastrous 2017 alt-right protest in Charlottesville to the beginning of 2019.
The Brink sheds light on a strategy of collaboration across the far right that, by Bannon’s own admission, openly exploits anger and resentment. While identified as "populism" for its emotive appeals, Bannon’s strategy is forged in expensive hotels, in conversations with former Goldman Sachs head John Thornton, on private jets, and in the mansions of billionaires.
The guestlists for his exclusive dinners include members of Vlaams Belang, a repackaged version of the Flemish fascist party Vlaams Blok, and the most extreme elements of the far-right Sweden Democrats.
While Bannon’s proximity to far-right parties like the rebranded French Front National, now known as the National Rally, and Italy’s League indicate an identification with ostensibly non-fascist parties, his travels among the ranks of fascists indicate that his "populist" strategy involves incorporation of a vanguardist approach that deploys fascism for particular purposes.
Bannon's long-time ally, the UK's Nigel Farage, may be, after Salvini, the clearest beneficiary of Bannonism. Farage, once head of the pro-Brexit and virulently anti-EU and anti-immigrant UKIP party, has founded a new Brexit Party in advance of the EU elections.
Bannon was a key figure in dark-money funding and messaging the anti-EU Brexit campaign that Farage spearheaded, a role that Farage himself openly acknowledged and that is documented in a scene in The Brink between the two.
Farage for his part isn't shy about paying Bannon back: He's called him the "greatest political thinker and activist in the Western world today."
Bannon is seen offering tangible support to groups like the Sweden Democrats and Belgium's Vlaams Belang, reassuring them that "we do actually control the government." Later in the film, a figure from the Marine Le Pen-led National Rally insists that Bannon is "quite discrete in the way he helps. ‘I have these tools, you want them [or] don’t want them.’"
The National Rally just announced it had formally joined a new pre-EU elections alliance of far-right forces in Europe spearheaded by Italy's Salvini, to which Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far right party with neo-Nazi links, and Austria's Freedom Party, which has Nazi roots.
How does Bannon intend to widen the circle of provocateurs, entryists and far-right activists who are au fait with those tools and how to use them?
One way is Bannon's establishment of what he terms the "Academy for the Judeo-Christian West" in an old Italian monastery he intends to repurpose as a "gladiator school for culture warriors." As he commented on its curriculum: "Will we teach the underpinnings of populism and nationalism? Yeah, absolutely. But also a broader range of stuff. The trends of where we think the world is going."
It is difficult of course to gauge the extent to which Bannon and his populists have aided the rise of the international far right. He's hardly the only American right-winger so deeply committed to their resurgence.
As the World Congress of Families convened in Verona, Open Democracy released an expose showing millions of dollars flowing from U.S. evangelicals to European right-wing religious groups connected to populist radical right parties over the years. Stateside, his name seems to be achieving diminishing returns: his assistance to Republican contenders during the mid-term elections went bust.
The trans-Atlantic movement Bannon now represents, no matter how awkwardly or how much as a result of his own PR, dovetails globally with other right-wing populists, especially those who benefit from crucial support from right-wing evangelicals.
Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro’s son was photographed with Bannon during the election campaign that ushered his father into power, and his foreign minister Ernesto Araújo wrote an extensive tract citing Bannon and Russian fascist ideologue Alexander Dugin as important geopolitical reference points in the "multipolar world." Araújo has since glorified the "authentic national sentiment" of the Nazi Party.
In The Brink, Bannon makes scattered references to a "global revolt" that will stitch together the "guys in Egypt," Modi’s people in India, and Orban in Hungary. He posits a China-Iran-Turkey axis as a rising global power, and hopes to thwart Chinese hegemony with the support of billionaire fugitive Guo Wengui.
Given recent indicators, such as the far-right’s performance in elections from Belgium to Finland and the Pope’s Easter declaration, Bannon’s dream of "defeating the EU" by Europeans voting to destroy it and plunge the continent further into illiberal democracy may come to fruition sooner than even he dreamed possible, irrespective of his own efforts.
Bannon is a mass of contradictions, a self-marketeer supreme and narcissist whose grandiose visions are often mirages or spin.
He is a counter-revolutionary who considers himself a constituent part of a new French Revolution, a Catholic who targets the Pope, a purported populist who believes nothing can be accomplished without control over the government’s appropriations process, and a widely detested figure who believes he has his finger on the pulse of the "zeitgeist."
He is part of an ecosystem of far-right inciters and grifters who see themselves both as running the world and fighting a courageous uphill battle to take power. But he's helping Europe's far right decant its tired formulas into new bottles for popular consumption.
In one telling scene in The Brink, Bannon sits in an expensive Venetian hotel with a representative of the Brothers of Italy, a "post-fascist" successor to Mussolini's Italian Social Movement. Guardian associate editor Paul Lewis tells Bannon that he had previously called the Brothers a "neo-fascist" party. Bannon responds with a bromide to the effect of, "I don’t think I ever said anything like that."
In fact, in a 2018 Guardian interview, Bannon had called the Brothers, hardly disparagingly, "one of the old fascist parties," and went on: "We’re partnering with parties that are going to become quite mainstream, over time."
To credit Bannon alone with the incremental successes of the European far right's political and religious crusade would be internalizing his own narrative as the continent's great savior; but there's no doubt he's helped birth a new, and threatening, spirit of transnational co-operation, funding, and incitement to a neo-fascist spectrum from America to the Old World.
Alexander Reid Ross is a Lecturer in Geography at Portland State University. He is the author of Against the Fascist Creep (AK Press, 2017). Twitter: @areidross