Opinion

Steve Bannon's Campaign to Conquer Europe Marks Its First Victory: Italy

Trump ex-strategist Bannon famously called himself a Leninist, but he's more like Trotsky, wandering Europe whipping up revolutionary fervor for his global populist movement. In Italy, he found the perfect set of circumstances

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon speaks during a conference of Swiss weekly magazine Die Weltwoche in Zurich, Switzerland. March 6, 2018
\ MORITZ HAGER/ REUTERS

After weeks of political infighting, multiple flip-flops, and a tense constitutional faceoff accompanied by thinly-veiled Mussolini-throwback threats to march on Rome, Italy finally has a new government – the first in western Europe led by a coalition of Euroskeptic, anti-establishment populists. 

Among those who were cheering for this result was one Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and chief strategist, who visited Rome last week and lavished praise on the coalition formed by the far-right, xenophobic League party and the grassroots anti-establishment 5 Star Movement.

"Italy matters on a global stage, you are the focus of world politics," Bannon said at a packed event in the Italian capital. He predicted the new government would "stand up to foreign powers, and foreign capital and the foreign opposition party media" – noting that "if it works in Italy, it’s going to show that we’ve broken the back of the globalists."

YouTube/ La Repubblica

It is no secret that ever since he was forced out of his post at the White House and dismissed from Breitbart, Bannon has been touring Europe lending his support and political savvy to rising far-right and populist forces across the continent. 

He has rubbed shoulders with France’s National Front and its leader Marine Le Pen; whipped up a crowd of conservatives in Zurich; and there have planned visits to support populist parties in countries including Spain and Sweden.

But last week’s was, at least, Bannon’s second trip to Italy in three months, highlighting how he sees the unprecedented populist victory in the country’s March election as a key test case for the "global populist movement" he's explicitly declared he wants to form.

And he has good reason to fix his eye on Rome.

U.S. President Donald Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon poses in Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy. March 2, 2018
\ TONY GENTILE/ REUTERS

After Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum in the UK, the populist wave that has been crashing into western democracies faced setbacks in France and Germany, where mainstream parties fought back strong challenges from the National Front and Alternative for Germany, respectively.

These defeats may have been partly brought on by the fact that these movements were still too openly linked to the extreme right or neo-Nazi ideologies, and were unable to appeal to a broader base. They could not convincingly replicate Trump’s successful formula of gathering support from old-school racists, xenophobes and white supremacists while also appealing to a new crowd of disgruntled, anti-establishment voters with no previous strong political affiliation.

It is no coincidence that Bannon has described himself as a Leninist for his desire to bring down the state. Now, in his new role of traveling ideologue, he seems more akin to Leon Trotsky, the communist revolutionary leader who led the Red Army to victory only to be exiled and expelled from the Soviet Union, spending the rest of his days trying to spark a global revolutionary movement.

Similarly, ousted from the White House, Bannon is trying to find the perfect recipe to reproduce elsewhere the success he had in propelling Trump to success. And in Italy’s new coalition government he may have run into just the right ingredients.

The League, the junior partner in the coalition, successfully stole the votes of the far right and neo-fascists by running on an Islamophobic and xenophobic platform that promised to put "Italians first" and "cleanse" the country of undocumented immigrants, by force if necessary.

The League party's activists hold flares as they arrive to attend a rally by party's leader Matteo Salvini, in Milan, Italy, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018.
Antonio Calanni/AP

But the party could also somewhat legitimately claim to have no connection to actual fascism – since it began as a local movement that advocated the secession of Italy’s north from its underdeveloped south, which it saw as leeching off the richer northern regions (a view no doubt rooted in bigotry, but not necessarily fascism.)

The other half of the coalition, the social media-savvy 5 Star Movement, is an even more nebulous and hard-to-pin-down organization, providing a welcome home to everyone from hard left opponents of capitalism and global financial institutions to malcontents fed up with Italy’s corrupt establishment and poor economic prospects. 

The new government these two parties put together has something for everyone: A dash of technocrats to reassure markets. A respectable international façade, with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, an unknown law professor (replete with a padded resume) and Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero, a jurist and former EU affairs minister.

The EU affairs portfolio goes to Paolo Savona, the controversial economist who had proposed a plan to take Italy out of the Euro. Also pleasing the Euroskeptic crowd was Giovanni Tria's appointment as finance minister - another economist who has expressed support for Savona’s views.

Marine Le Pen, National Front political party leader, and Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon attend the party's convention in Lille, France. March 10, 2018
\ PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/ REUTERS

The right wing can rejoice in the elevation of the League’s tough-on-migrants leader Matteo Salvini, an avowed Trump fan and political ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to the interior ministry, while 5 Star voters still hoping to see a universal income program and a lowering of the retirement age were comforted by seeing Luigi Di Maio, a college dropout who rose to lead the movement, named minister for labor and welfare.

Garden variety reactionaries were pleased with the new Ministry for Family and the Disabled, which went to the League’s Lorenzo Fontana, a Catholic pro-lifer who thinks that the fight for gay marriage is part of an attempt to "dominate" and "destroy our people" .

Even the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, who live large in both parties, have reason to celebrate with the naming as health minister of Giulia Grillo - a doctor who opposed the previous government’s law that made inoculating children compulsory.

Clearly Bannon is not some kind of foreign grey eminence who, behind the scenes, is brokering power arrangements like this one in Italy. As a proponent of populist internationalism, he simply goes where he senses fertile ground for his views, networking with local leaders, sowing the seeds of his ideology, while adding new elements to his recipe for a global revolution.

And if the new rulers in Rome are even remotely successful, we can be sure this latter-day Trotsky will know how to repackage the "Italian way" for export to other western democracies.

Demonstrators hold a photo of Steve Bannon, then chief strategist for U.S. President Donald Trump, in New York, U.S. May 4, 2017
Bloomberg

Of even greater concern is the fact that in Italy and Europe at large there seems to be little interest in mounting a serious challenge to populism's rising tide. The Italian mainstream, beaten and virtually leaderless, seems content with predicting that the new coalition will implode under the weight of still major differences between the 5 Stars and the League – definitely a possibility, but hardly a certainty.

At the EU level, the complacency is even more striking, as evidenced by European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker, whose helpful contribution was to say that "Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work; less corruption; seriousness." 

After the comments sparked outrage, Junker’s office said they were taken out of context. Still, Italians are genuinely struggling under heavy taxes, high unemployment and a sluggish economy.

Eurocrats who don’t offer solutions but only patronizing remarks, referencing stereotypes about Italians being lazy and inept, are probably the last thing needed to avoid driving Italians, and other Europeans, into the open arms of Bannon-Trotsky and his populist "internationale."

Ariel David is an editor at Haaretz, and a Tel Aviv-based foreign correspondent for Italian and English-language publications. He worked for five years as AP's correspondent in Rome, covering Italy and the Vatican. Twitter: @arieldavid1980