When Steve Bannon was ousted from the White House as president Donald Trump’s chief strategist, the populist provocateur and former Hollywood executive was back running staff meetings at Breitbart less than 24 hours later. The rumpled, grizzled, grey-haired Bannon – who has a fondness for philosophy, history, political bloodsport and green camo jackets – is constantly on the move for a new project. In the United States, the big project was getting Trump elected and ensuring the New York billionaire never forgot about the part of America that loved him and the part that cringed at the mention of his name. But ever since he left the Trump administration – and later had a falling out with his former boss – Bannon has sought to take his pro-populist mission international. This master of the dark arts found an opportunity almost immediately in the 2019 European Union parliamentary elections.
Post-White House life has been busy for Bannon, who has collected thousands of frequent flyer miles jetting to numerous European cities for speeches about nationalism’s revival. In Rome, he congratulated Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini for forming the first anti-establishment government in western Europe. In France, he addressed Marine Le Pen’s National Front to, well, rally anti-Macron forces (Macron’s poll numbers have plummeted in the months since). And in Brussels, the city that hosts many of the EU institutions he would like to burn down, Bannon has promised his enemies full-throated political warfare. “The beating heart of the globalist project is in Brussels,” Bannon told the Guardian last autumn. “If I drive the stake through the vampire, the whole thing will start to dissipate.”
Bannon would never admit it, but he fancies himself a puppet master – a man who can harness his big, bold ideas, channel them through politicians of his liking, and spread his ideology through the halls of power. Listening to the former Trump campaign chairman speak, you get the sense he firmly believes he is on the frontline in a war of ideas, one that will determine the future of western civilisation. Bannon’s type of politics is a no mercy, unforgiving marathon against the “globalists” who have been dining on caviar in the stately, dark-wooded ballrooms for most of their existence. It was this us vs. them, good vs. bad mentality that helped power Donald Trump to a victory when most of America thought it was laughable to even discuss the possibility.
Either due to urgency, attention, or ego, Bannon hopes to pull off another miracle during the EU elections this spring. “The Movement,” Bannon’s Brussels-based organisation, was crafted as a non-stop repository for Europe’s populist parties and a place the Le Pens and Viktor Orbans of the world could pool resources and share intellectual inspiration.
Bannon, however, has found out that running a European political campaign is a lot different than managing one in America. The rules of the road largely prevent Bannon from financing populist politicians in many of the EU member states he wanted to operate in. His organisation postponed its big coming out party in January, which was supposed to provide anti-establishment political parties with a jolt on energy heading into the spring. Many big-name nationalist Europeans prefer to go their own way and are concerned about the optics of taking direction from an American; last August, Alternative for Germany co-leader Alexander Gauland seemed offended at the prospect of accepting help from the former Trump adviser. Le Pen was ambivalent about cooperating when support was offered. Others aren’t especially happy with melding European far-right politics with Trumpism given the president’s deep unpopularity on the continent.
As is his nature, Bannon is enthusiastic and confident. Reports of a less-than-stellar beginning to his pan-European populist crusade are explained away as insignificant or overhyped. He insists the cause of state sovereignty, Judeo-Christian beliefs, family values, respect for the common man, and disgust for the political elites will catapult the populist-nationalists into the EU parliament. It’s only a matter of when, not if, the traditional establishment monopoly is broken.
He may very well be right. But if Europeans do back populist parties in the May elections, it is difficult to see how much of the credit can go to Steve Bannon, who will have played only a very minor role in the drama.