Bannon falls flat

Populists of Europe, unite!

Thus spake Steve Bannon, former strategist of US President Donald Trump who failed to foresee his own ouster from the White House. With much fanfare, he launched his campaign to fan the flames of right-wing populism across Europe and ensure its triumph in the European Union’s approaching parliamentary elections.

Bannon got off to a splendid start. He sought to unite prominent populist-nationalists so they can together destroy the European Union from within. He met with many of them; was even the surprise guest at the party renaming event of the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Bannon’s arsenal includes founding the Brussels-headquartered The Movement that champions national sovereignty by fighting immigration and European integration. For €100,000 a year, Bannon also leased for 19 years a secluded 800-year old Catholic monastery nestling in the Italian mountains. The monastery will become the “gladiator school for cultural warriors”, training the next generation of populist and nationalist politicians.

Heading this school is Benjamin Harnwell, a devout Catholic-convert who believes Bannon is “one of the greatest men” alive, and an inspiring “defender” of the Judeo-Christian foundations of western civilisation. What about Bannon’s three divorces? Nobody is perfect, he ripostes. Harnwell favours fake news, fear-mongering and Islamophobia, claiming 800 million African migrants will swamp Europe and America. Fact: Less than 1.5 million arrived over a seven-year period.

Bannon hatched the perfect plan to propagate populism in Europe—replicate Trump’s stunning election. He could advise, assist and share with the Europeans his bag of tricks that masterminded Trump’s victory—polling, messaging, social media targeting and voter profiling with skimmed data.

But, Bannon’s plan has failed to take off so far. First, this is Europe, not the United States, where complex issues curdle instantly into black and white. Alexander Gauland, co-leader of far right Alternative for Germany, who rebuffed Bannon said, “We are not in America. The interests of the anti-establishment parties in Europe are quite divergent.” Second, The Movement evokes strong negative reactions in Europe because that is what Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini called their fascist organisations. Third, Bannon’s tricks, like snake oil, is illegal in Europe. Fourth, most top-notch European populists who have taken Bannon’s sovereignty message to heart would rather be national warriors than American lackeys. Some have formed loose alliances among themselves.

Pointing out that Bannon is American, not European, Le Pen said, “It is up to us, and us alone, to structure the political force that will emerge from the election because we are attached to our freedom, our sovereignty.”

Even the neighbouring villagers are clamouring to wrest the monastery’s sovereignty. They want Bannon evicted so that the medieval monastery does not become a far-right boot camp.

So, has “Sloppy Steve”, to use Trump’ words, “lost his mind?” No way. Bannon believes he is about to set Europe ablaze. Without the faintest trace of irony, his ally, Mischaël Modrikamen who administers The Movement, says it will become the “Davos of populists”. Nothing national about the Swiss forum, which European populists loathe as a cabal of their enemy number one— “the globalised elite”.

Public anger against the elites, the establishment, against income inequality and immigration will enable the populists to win an estimated one-third of the seats in the European parliament. A significant achievement, but no thanks to Bannon.

Pratap is an author and journalist.