LONDON – Once portrayed as one of Washington’s most powerful men, Steve Bannon is either back or he’s still out in the political wilderness. He’s either a dangerous xenophobe who trades in conspiracy theories or a Harvard-educated former investment banker who claims his true mission is to stand up for the little guy at any cost.
Nobody knows for sure — apparently not even Bannon himself.
What’s clear is that nearly 18 months after the architect of President Donald Trump’s “America First” national populism was fired as White House chief strategist, Bannon insists he remains a key player in an ongoing global political insurrection he defines as a clash between the legitimate demands and grievances of working-class citizens versus a corrupt, out-of-touch, cosmopolitan, liberal elite.
Bannon’s many critics counter he’s more a skilled provocateur whose Svengali-like instincts propel him to controversial political battlegrounds where he sows confusion and discontent. Think of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, corruption probes in China, far-right nationalist campaigns in France, Hungary and elsewhere.
“There’s populist movements everywhere, whether it’s with Brazil and (new President Jair Messias) Bolsonaro, in Pakistan with (Prime Minister Imran) Khan, in India (with Prime Minister Narendra Modi) or throughout Europe. I go all over the world to give talks. And if I wanted to, I could stay outside the United States for a whole year doing just that,” Bannon said in a recent interview with USA TODAY in Britain’s capital.
“This populist movement is all over the world. People are looking for assistance. They are looking for guidance. They keep coming to me and saying hey, ‘Tell me we’re not alone, tell me this is all interconnected,'” Bannon said in London.
But his remarks come amid at least a trio of accusations leveled against the 65-year-old former Hollywood producer and ex-chairman of far-right media outlet Breitbart:
- That since leaving Trump’s inner circle in August last year and effectively acquiring pariah status, few people are really interested in what he has to say. Campaign rallies Bannon held ahead of the U.S. midterm elections were poorly attended;
- That his attempts to launch a populism-focused think tank-cum-foundation in the heart of Europe’s political capital Brussels ahead of European parliamentary elections in May are being hampered by campaign-finance laws, as well as lukewarm interest from some of Europe’s most high-profile populist politicians;
- And that his efforts to investigate abuses of power by President Xi Jinping and China’s ruling Communist Party, as well as unite far-right political groups across borders, represents not only the internationalism he roundly rejects, but the latter may also be a form of election meddling or interference that succeeds by appealing to voters’ insecurities about immigration, jobs and cultural change.
“One wonders how an ‘America First’ ideologue can pursue his political project anywhere other than in America,” political scholars Kemal Derviş and Caroline Conroy wrote in an op-ed published by Project Syndicate, an online hub for commentary and analysis, in late November. “By joining forces with the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen – herself an open supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin – Bannon seems to have in mind a new type of ‘neo-nationalist international,'” they wrote.
In “Populism: A Very Short Introduction,” the political scientists Cas Mudde and
Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser write that “by itself populism can offer neither complex nor comprehensive answers to the political questions that modern societies generate.” They describe it as a “thin-centered” or “host” ideology politically left or right.
Yet none of this, perhaps predictably for a political operative who rose from relative obscurity to help Trump win an improbable election victory, appears to bother Bannon.
In the interview, he countered that his campaigning for the U.S. midterms did not bring out large crowds because it was deliberately focused on “grassroots leaders.”
He said he went into “living rooms, to prayer groups” to reach people who had a “force multiplier effect” – influential members of a community who can be relied on to get out the vote. “Our mission was to support the Trump program,” he said. “Go back and look at Buffalo, at Staten Island, all the districts we went to – you’ll see packed audiences.”
In Staten Island, where Bannon screened his documentary “Trump at War,” 38 people showed up. The event in Buffalo drew a few hundred Trump supporters.
Bannon spoke to USA TODAY last month, a few days after he appeared at a media conference in Scotland where there were calls, including from Scotland’s top politician Nicola Sturgeon, for him to be dropped from the event over claims he normalizes far-right, racist views. Later the same day, he took part in a debate at Oxford University. Bannon’s presence there, too, sparked protests and calls for a boycott.
“People can play gotcha all day long but it’s not going to work. It’s a lie. I have done thousands of interviews, speeches, broadcasts and there’s not one racist statement,” Bannon said, responding to those claims. “People think the Muslim (travel) ban is racism, it’s not. The Supreme Court upheld up it. They think the immigration policy at the (Mexican) border is racist, it’s not. It’s a humanitarian policy,” he added.
Immigrant-rights groups and federal and district judges concluded both of these Trump policies were guided by racial animus. They were condemned on moral grounds by allies such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and by religious leaders, including Pope Francis. “Let them call you racist,” Bannon told a crowd at a far-right rally in France in March. “Let them call you ‘nativist.’ Wear it as a badge of honor,” he said.
Less than a week after the interview, Bannon was in New York City, where he announced during a press conference he was partnering with Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese billionaire, to form something called the “Rule of Law Fund.”
Bannon described this as a $100 million effort to come to the aid of Chinese executives, politicians and government officials unfairly targeted by China’s government for persecution. He said he would serve as the fund’s executive chairman. No details were released on how it would operate, why this was happening now or indeed how the fund’s managers would select appropriate cases. However, Bannon has for years argued that China is waging an economic war against the United States, a line of thinking that is thought to have inspired his former boss – Trump – who has threatened to slap more tariffs on China if trade-deal talks with Beijing fall apart.
“China’s my baby,” Bannon said in the interview in London.
He then took from his bag a book he said he always carries with him. In the book, “Unrestricted Warfare,” two former senior military officers in China’s People’s Liberation Army argue that since no country can hope to challenge the United States’ military supremacy the next best option is to wear it down gradually through economic and information warfare. Bannon’s copy was well thumbed and full of Post-it notes.
Bannon also said that next month the Movement, his fledgling think tank operation based out of a “chateau” in a wealthy suburb of Brussels, will start hosting conferences, dinners and other events that allow for the “exchange of ideas.”
These “ideas” will reflect his longstanding political beliefs, chiefly economic nationalism and anti-establishment populism. It will seek to unite anti-immigration, “nativist,” eurosceptic political groups as they prepare for battle in European Parliament elections next year. Mainstream political parties have historically controlled the parliament. A surge in support for populist parties could disrupt the European Union’s broadly centrist policies on migration, economic policy and other salient issues.
Bannon referred to the Movement as a “loose association” that will be “totally voluntary.” He said he also wants to undertake “detailed polling” and to use data analytics to “drive where the voters are” – those persuadable ones who can sometimes determine the outcome of an election. It’s all part of a “what I call a war room,” he added, noting that “it’s what we did for Trump in the U.S.: writing op-eds, booking people on media, surrogate media – all that. The last part of it is to do with grassroots social media and getting organized physically and getting out the vote.”
Nigel Farage, a Trump ally credited with helping to engineer Brexit, Britain’s 2016 vote to the leave European Union, said “eurosceptic groups in the EU have never been well coordinated despite similar goals.” He said Bannon’s “idea of a clearinghouse for ideas and sharing best practice is a good one – if parties choose to do it.”
Bannon and Farage, and Brexit have history.
“I got my chops here (in Britain) back in 2014 following Nigel Farage around” when he was campaigning for the European parliamentary elections, Bannon said in the interview. Information unearthed by Emma Briant, a British academic, revealed Bannon’s name was on Brexit-related corporate emails dating to October 2015, when he was a vice president of Cambridge Analytica, the same American-owned firm that has faced scrutiny as part of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Like in the U.S., British law prohibits foreign contributions to political campaigns. Bannon did not respond to a question on whether he ever worked for Brexit campaigners.
Still, election-law experts say Europe’s campaign-finance laws are a major obstacle in the Movement’s way because only four out of 28 EU member states have no restrictions on foreign funding: Belgium, Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands, according to Kristine Berzina of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank.
And the British newspaper The Guardian reported that these restrictions apply even to “in-kind donations,” meaning that Bannon could not legally provide polling and other campaign-related services in many of the European countries he wants to operate.
Bannon, who said he’s using his own money and funds from “high net worth European individuals” to pay for the Movement, said he would be active “to the degree that election law allows us.” He said the organization has at least 12 people on its payroll.
One of them is Mischaël Modrikamen, a Belgian lawyer in whose “chateau” the Movement’s office is based. Modrikamen is also the leader of Belgium’s right-wing People’s Party. His office said he was too busy with official party business to address questions about the Movement. Bannon chose not to comment on a follow-up question about the scope of the Movement’s future activities given the legal scenario.
Hope Not Hate, a London-based advocacy organization that campaigns against racism and far-right ideas, cautioned against accepting Bannon’s version of events.
The Movement “isn’t going anywhere at the moment,” said spokesman Nick Ryan. “He’s fallen foul of election laws in just about every country where he’s tried to float his rabble-rousing message. He uses the media to promote his particularly nasty brand of toxicity. It’s entirely possible he’s using media to hype it up when it isn’t really established.” Ryan added that “the media should be careful not to talk (Bannon) up.”
Meanwhile, support from key European populism leaders for Bannon’s project has been tepid despite him saying in the interview that they are “1,000 percent supportive.”
“Bannon is an American and has no place in a European political party,” Jérôme Rivière, a spokesman for France’s far-right National Rally, said in July. “We reject any supra-national entity and are not participating in the creating of anything with Bannon.”
A month later, Alexander Gauland, one of two co-leaders of Germany’s far-right, anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany, also rebuffed Bannon, saying the “interests of the anti-establishment parties in Europe are quite divergent.”
Gauland added: “We are not in America.”
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has wished Bannon’s project “a lot of success” and Bannon has said he plans to “spend a lot of time in Hungary between now and (Europe’s) election day.” Orbán has called all refugees “Muslim invaders” and used anti-Semitic tropes to demonize and force out of Hungary a U.S.-accredited university funded by the Hungary-born Jewish billionaire George Soros. USA TODAY asked Orbán’s spokesman Zoltán Kovács to clarify the Hungarian government’s working relationship with Bannon. Kovács emailed back comments Orbán made in September.
“I would like to remind everyone that the European elections are held by everyone voting in their own country for the parties taking part in the elections there and included on the party list. This means Americans cannot be candidates and trans-European movements also cannot be launched,” Orbán said in a speech in Strasbourg.
Still, Matthew Goodwin, author of “National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy” and an authority on the subject based at Britain’s University of Kent, said populism and economic nationalists are likely more durable than the liberal left are willing to admit. He said polling shows, for example, far-right political parties will probably increase their seats in the European Parliament in May irrespective of whether Bannon’s organization is somehow involved in boosting their cause.
“The mainstream is going to be squeezed again,” Goodwin predicted, noting that issues such as Europe’s refugee crisis and cultural and economic changes brought about by years of immigration are still pushing many voters to the right.
In fact, a recent study by Washington-based Pew Research found that a third to a half of Europeans are wary of global engagement no matter how it is defined. In Britain, it’s 52 percent, the exact percentage who voted for Brexit. In Greece, it’s 83 percent.
In the U.S., 57 percent feel this way, according to the study.
And last week, anti-government protesters in France who are angry with President Emmanuel Macron for what they claim are a range of policies that favor the wealthy over the working class vowed to continue weeks of demonstrations even though Macron’s cabinet walked back a planned fuel-tax increase, a hot-button issue. This week, Macron raised France’s minimum wage to appease protesters.
“This is springing up on a planetary basis,” said Bannon, referring to interest in the populism movement he has done so much to publicize. “Whether I’m speaking to guys in Italy, men and women in France, or in Switzerland, it’s the same audience. Same working-class audience as in New Mexico or Texas or wherever.”
In the interview, Bannon accused the media, including USA TODAY, of being “virulently anti-Trump,” of being “elitist” and of “atrocious coverage” that was already failing to recognize, among other things, that the European parliamentary elections in May would be the “next big move” or test for populism after Trump’s election in 2016.
Throughout, he oscillated between being personable and aggressively accusatory.
“You media guys are all phony, lazy and dumb,” he said. “And I want that in the article.”
Bannon abruptly ended the interview because he needed to travel to Oxford to take part in the debate at the university’s student union, a prestigious chamber that dates back to 1823 and has hosted numerous world leaders and well-known public figures. Asked by USA TODAY whether he would be dressing up for the occasion and whether a populist would feel at home there, Bannon said: “Dude, I may not even wear socks.”
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