Steve Bannon’s Roman Holiday | The New Yorker
According to the invitation, printed in Italian, on the letterhead of an arcane association called Lettera22, the topic of Steve Bannon’s European speech would be “Gli algoritmi dell’Informazione”—the algorithms of information. Bannon, formerly of Breitbart and the Donald Trump campaign, had called the European Parliament elections, scheduled for the end of May, “one of the most important elections ever,” and I thought he might let slip a few details of his strategy for disrupting them. The arcaded street outside the Augustinian library, in the center of Rome, which hosted the speech, was blocked off with yellow tape, a cluster of polizia dawdling out front. Inside a vaulted reading room lined with dusty, gold-bound books, television correspondents stood before a row of cameras, and reporters with opened notebooks claimed most of the seats at several long wooden desks. When I managed to find an empty chair, I asked a man with a digital recorder next to me whether he’d met anyone at the event who wasn’t a journalist. He shrugged.
An hour into the speech, most of the journalists were staring at their phones, including Paolo Corsini, the Italian radio broadcaster who had earlier introduced Bannon, by asking, “Steve Bannon, are you the devil?” Bannon’s speech included a laundry list of his favorite inflection points, from the tenets of economic nationalism to the health of what the far right euphemistically calls the Judeo-Christian tradition, which anyone familiar with Bannon’s public performances would have heard before. Reporters from The New York Review of Books and the Globe and Mail asked questions, and Corsini posed for a photo in front of the event placard, which bore the blackened outline of Bannon’s corpulent figure. Within a few hours, the American press posted articles about the speech. Yahoo! News ran a story that called the talk “uninformative,” observing the “yawns being stifled” in the audience. It was stamped with the headline “Bannon Descends On Rome, Sowing Chaos.”
After Bannon left his position as chief strategist at the White House, in August of 2017, he announced that he would spend much of his time in Europe to help coördinate the efforts of kindred nationalist movements across the continent. He also, he said, wanted a think tank. “We don’t have, in our populist movement here, a lot of highly defined policy alternatives,” Bannon told me in an interview last December. “Conservatives have Heritage, A.E.I., but they’re not economic nationalism. There’s just not a lot of analytical policy work. It needs to be done, and it needs to be done now.” Bannon’s European adventures actually began much earlier, around 2013, after the Tea Party had lost momentum and he felt that similar groups were more developed in Europe. He wanted to expand Breitbart abroad, notably to Jerusalem, London, and Rome, a symbolic presence in what he called the pillars of the Judeo-Christian West. In 2014, he launched Breitbart London, one of whose editors also ran communications for Arron Banks and Nigel Farage’s manipulative Leave.EU campaign, which is currently under federal investigation for allegedly concealing the source of its funding.
Bannon’s aim of knitting far-right parties together across Europe into a unified bloc does not seem to have got very far. A spokesman for the far-right Alternative for Germany said recently that party representatives had met with Bannon but weren’t interested in working with him, because he doesn’t understand Europe. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right party formerly known as the National Front, said last year that Bannon was of limited help because he “isn’t from a European country.” One senior official in the Italian “League,” whose leader, Matteo Salvini, is one of Bannon’s most important allies on the continent, told Politico Europe that Bannon is “not on the radar.” This could be posturing, evidence that the parties believe that being seen working with an outsider would turn off their voters. And, as each country is bound by national politics, there’s only so much Bannon could realistically do. Bannon himself has said that these leaders “don’t need [him].” Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome, told me that Bannon in Europe “is an all-élite story.” She added, “There is concern that he could actually be effective, so in this respect even those who oppose him, who are part of the élite, are giving him greater credit than what he deserves. And then, obviously, he has the support of another segment of the élite that is highly nationalist, extreme right wing.” But, Tocci said, “I think that there’s no awareness of this guy in the broader public.”
Bannon’s latest project is the establishment of an academy at a thirteenth-century Carthusian monastery an hour and a half outside of Rome. The idea, Bannon told me, is to build a right-wing response to George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. “Soros has done an amazing job,” Bannon said, of supporting organizations that feed into N.G.O.s, government, and media. “He’s created cadres, and those cadres have immense political power. To me he’s a role model in that regard.” Young professionals “who want a change in life” will be able to come for a few weeks, or even an academic year, to form, Bannon hopes, the foundations of a network in media and government.
On a recent drive out, in a caravan of black Mercedes vans, Bannon was accompanied by an entourage that included his regular public-relations and event staff, his translator, a well-known Italian-American journalist, a film crew from a prestigious premium channel, and me. Bannon, fuelled by Red Bull, led the film crew over the bleached stone porticos of the Trisulti monastery, charming them with lectures on Julian the Apostate, the fourth-century Roman emperor who fought against the flourishing of Christianity, and a tour of an ornate pharmacy where monks once sold tinctures, its shelves lined with glass bottles still filled with almond oil and arnica flower. The algorithmic potential of the property, perched at twenty-seven-hundred feet in the forested Ernici mountains, is exponential.
In 2017, the tender for a nineteen-year lease for Trisulti, at a hundred thousand euros a year, was won, with financial support of unclear origin coming through Bannon, by Ben Harnwell, a British national and former assistant in the European Parliament. Harnwell wanted to use the monastery as the headquarters for his organization, the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, which he founded a decade ago, four years after the Italian Catholic politician Rocco Buttiglione was forced to withdraw his name for European commissioner. (“I may think that homosexuality is a sin, but this has no effect on politics unless I say that homosexuality is a crime,” Buttiglione claimed at the time; he now sits on D.H.I.’s board of directors.) Harnwell, who converted to Catholicism in 2004, launched a parliamentary working group and drafted the “Universal Declaration of Human Dignity” with the goal, he said, of helping Christian politicians to be actively Christian in the public sphere. “That means we helped Christian politicians through promoting the recognition of man as made in the image and likeness of God, as the basis of human dignity,” Harnwell told me.
Harnwell and I spoke outside of Trisulti’s church, where the Italian sun, in late March, was already hot (the chill inside th stone monastery is on the order of existential pain). Harnwell wore a brown corduroy jacket, a chew stick clenched between his teeth, and his chin-length hair was slicked back like Bannon’s. I asked Harnwell if the academy’s focus would be more on culture than on politics. “Well it’s all of it together,” he said. “The distinction is pretty artificial. It sort of entered in Western discourse after the medieval period.” He motioned around the grounds, which was once the summer palace of Pope Innocent III, who, Harnwell said, exemplified the principle of inseparability between catechism and politics. “Before, it was a seamless thread,” Harnwell continued, arguing that “what we believe in our hearts is what we ought to then do for politicians.” I asked him if this conception of politics was at odds with the modern, secular state. “Sure,” Harnwell replied. “I’m O.K. with that.” He added that if leftists truly believed in secularism, they would run more articles in their newspapers about Muslims who wanted to impose their views on everyone; instead, all those articles were about Christians. “The issue is that they don’t like Christianity,” he said. “People talk about multiculturalism, not because they believe in it but because they use it to try and suggest that Christianity should be less muscular, less visible in the political square. The secular liberal left have engineered a multicultural society in order to have that very argument.”
Harnwell organized a conference at the Vatican in 2014, at which Bannon gave the keynote address, a speech that went viral a week after Trump’s victory, in 2016. Bannon talked about what he believed was a crisis of the Church, a crisis of the West, and a crisis of capitalism. He also argued that ISIS represented “the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism,” an imminent threat “that is going to come to Central Europe, it’s going to come to Western Europe, it’s going to come to the United Kingdom.” These days, he starts his speeches by saying that his fight is “not about race or ethnicity.” And yet the politicians whom he supports, Matteo Salvini, in Italy, Viktor Orbán, in Hungary, and Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil (Bannon met with Bolsonaro during his visit to Washington, in March, and Bolsonaro’s son is leading Bannon’s Movement initiative in Latin America), are perhaps the most unfailing in the Western world in employing the dehumanizing rhetoric of violent xenophobia.
At Trisulti, Bannon’s press attaché had overheard my interview with Harnwell, and Bannon joked to me that he would “undo the damage that Ben did.” When we finally spoke, during the car ride back to Rome, I asked Bannon for his response to the violent and racist views of the politicians he promotes. Feigning naïveté, he asked me whom I was referring to. Salvini, for example, has advocated an immigration policy that he described as a “mass cleansing, street by street,” and has repeatedly targeted Italy’s Roma population with derision and threats of expulsion. “Some of that is in the heat of the moment, and provocative,” Bannon said. Of Orbán, whose statements on “Muslim invaders” were echoed in the manifesto of the alleged Christchurch terrorist, who killed fifty Muslims last month, during a Friday prayer, Bannon said that he supports “one hundred per cent of what [Orbán is] saying and what he’s doing.” He went on, “I realize sometimes their rhetoric is a little heated, but you have to assume in each country, sometimes it’s going to be a little heated.” (Bannon later clarified that he doesn’t believe that the rhetoric of Orban and Salvini is racist.)
Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, recently told me that Bannon in a European monastery is “catnip” to reporters; they help sustain the myth of Bannon in precisely the manner that he intends them to. At the same time, it would be wrong to believe that his abilities as a strategist aren’t real. Two weeks ago, openDemocracy published a study by two of its editors, Mary Fitzgerald and Claire Provost, finding that over the last decade, fundamentalist Christian groups in the U.S., some with connections to Bannon and some with leaders who propagate hate speech, donated more than fifty million dollars to extreme right-wing groups in Europe, with a significant acceleration of funds over the last five years. (Members of the European Parliament are now calling for an investigation into the influence of the US groups.) Back in October, Bannon told a reporter from the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, that he could conduct “in-depth polls, which have never been done for the European elections, on a national and provincial basis, by social segment.” He claimed to have lined up donors, and would put in some of his own money, as well. “I can produce data analysis to pinpoint where voters are located to encourage them to vote,” he told the paper. “And I can provide a quick-response war room. In 2016, I managed one for Trump that operated round the clock.” When I spoke with Bannon, he told me that he had “pulled back” on polling “because our lawyers looked at it and it’s quite restrictive in Europe.” But, he said, Italy has among the loosest laws about foreign contributions.
The European parliament elections normally mark a referendum on each country’s domestic policies. In this year’s vote, the very idea of Europe is at stake. Nationalist parties across the continent, expecting to do well, announced this week that they will seek to form a bloc in the new parliament that will have more control over the direction of the E.U. Italy is especially important to Bannon because its current government is a coalition of anti-establishment parties, something Bannon would like to replicate elsewhere. His entourage is constantly quoting Andrew Breitbart, who was actually reinterpreting Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist philosopher, when he said that politics is downstream from culture. Trisulti monastery, with its sparse furnishings and rudimentary classrooms, is a long way from being influential, but, combined with other new institutions across Europe, such as Marion Maréchal’s new political training school, in Lyon, and the National University of Public Service, in Budapest, one can make out the contours of a much larger culture war.
In recent weeks, hundreds of residents from the towns around Trisulti have held protests outside of the monastery. The demonstrators have avoided speaking with the press, perhaps not knowing whether taking public action against the D.H.I., with its deep pockets, might someday cause them trouble. But Chiarina Ianni, an attorney in nearby Frosinone, is leading a group of locals trying to contest the legality of the lease. They argue that the D.H.I. does not fulfill the law’s requirement of five years’ experience in managing and protecting a cultural heritage site. In fact, Ianni wrote me in a letter, the D.H.I. didn’t even exist as a legal entity until six months after it submitted its application to the Italian government, in 2017. The organization apparently tried to prove that it did fulfill the requirements by producing a contract from a museum that doesn’t exist. As Ianni wrote to me, “We believe that all this is a good reason to fight.”
Harnwell had shown me what will eventually be Bannon’s quarters at Trisulti, a cavernous room flanked by two thirteenth-century frescoes, a chapel, and a small sitting room where the monastery’s procurator general was murdered, in 1947. Harnwell flung open the doors to the balcony, which looks out onto a dramatic slope, announcing that “even Il Duce” would be brought to shame by the view. “The whole thing is staging,” Phillips, at Syracuse, remarked when I told her about it. “All of the choices are totally calibrated to how the American news media works, seeing what its weaknesses are. People keep getting manipulated by him.” The system is being hacked, she said, and emphasized that, “the fact is, it’s easy to do. If Bannon was genuinely doing this for reasons related to mission, and not his own personal brand, it would be inconspicuous and there wouldn’t be cameras. That’s what he’s courting, and he sets it in a place where no reporter could let it go, and he knows that.”