Early last month, Steve Bannon — the man who designed Donald Trump’s America First strategy in 2016 — scored a win for his newest political crusade: to forge a continentwide populist movement that will triumph in European Parliament elections next May.
In his first enlistment of a major European leader, Bannon convinced Matteo Salvini, the most powerful politician in Italy’s new nationalist-populist government, to sign up with his Brussels-based project, known as the Movement. Bannon’s goal: to meld Europe’s diverse nationalist and populist parties into a broad alliance that will undo the European Union.
Having been ousted from the White House, Bannon believes Europe is ripe for a political tsunami that builds on populist gains within individual countries. He views a takeover of the EU parliament as the path to remaking — or dissolving — it.
Down that road lie economic and political chaos, the further weakening of America’s key allies, and a potential slide toward illiberal democracy in several European countries.
At a conference in Budapest in May, Bannon proclaimed: “The populist nationalist revolt is about a year ahead in Europe than in the United States.” He believes tea party-style populism is a global phenomenon on the upswing.
So, as Americans debate the impact of populism at home, it’s worth paying attention to Bannon’s maneuvers in Europe over the coming eight months.
Italy is a good place to start.
A former radio disc jockey, Salvini heads the nationalist, anti-immigrant League party in a coalition with a strange internet-based party known as the Five Star Movement.
The new government is hostile to the European Union, is pro-Russia, and has a distinctly Trumpian attitude toward the media. Salvini has 3.2 million followers on Facebook and 880,400 on Twitter and imitates Trump with constant, offensive nuggets. The Five Star Movement, for its part, was notorious for spreading fake news and conspiracy theories on its network of websites. Meantime, the coalition government has appointed an Infowars, Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorist to head its public TV station.
I asked the distinguished Italian journalist Lucia Annunziata what use Bannon was to Salvini and the new Italian government. “They get celebrity from Bannon,” she replied swiftly. “They say we can use him, as he uses us.”
She added that Bannon, and Trump, had already had a stimulating effect on populist parties that were once derided in Europe. “Trump provided a change of atmosphere, the template to say this is how it is done, how it can work,” she said. “He provided a major inspiration, a change of mood.”
As for Bannon: “He’s the guy who has galvanized the nationalist, sovereignty-first movements.” Although he failed in prior efforts to organize a social-media empire in Europe, “he is a good manipulator.”
Moreover, says Annunziata, “The idea of transnational lists (to run in the European Parliament) is popular now.” Bannon could help Europe’s populist parties form an alliance that ran a single list, while offering them the expertise in polling, data analytics, and voter turnout he provided to Trump.
The elections for the European Parliament, with which many Americans are unfamiliar, “will redefine Europe,” says the Italian journalist. They will pit two sets of leaders with opposing ideologies against each other.
On one side, led by France’s Emmanuel Macron, will be those who defend liberal democracy, rule of law, and a strong Europe, and want to push back Chinese and Russian meddling. On the other side will be the populists, such as Italy’s new leaders; would-be authoritarians, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban (also wooed by Bannon); and other Euro-skeptics, most of whom want to cozy up to Moscow.
If a populist slate managed to win a majority, they could rewrite the rules that set up the European Union, including provisions for open borders between European countries. “The project on the left to defend Europe is weak,” Annunziata admitted.
Not just on the left, but on the center-left and center-right.
A look around Europe makes clear why Bannon is ebullient. Britain is heading toward the March 29 deadline for a Brexit from Europe, without any domestic agreement on an exit plan. All the cheery economic promises made to voters by Brexit supporters have proven false, but no one yet knows how to stop the process. And there’s no guarantee that a second referendum, if held, would yield a different result.
Meantime, Germany’s Angela Merkel, a strong EU defender, is seriously weakened by political challenges within her own party. The nationalist-populist Alternative fur Deutschland party is now the main opposition and gaining strength.
None of the above guarantees Bannon’s project will take off. He failed to raise funds for an earlier effort to set up a media operation in Europe similar to Breitbart, the gadfly website he once ran in America. His bragging often outstrips his means. Moreover, some European populist parties will be reluctant to associate with any movement led by an American.
However, if he succeeds, Bannon’s Movement could change the face of Europe and prove the populist trend is truly global. So put May 23 and May 29 — the dates when voters will choose a new European Parliament — on your calendar to watch.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by email at [email protected].