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In Europe, Steve Bannon can still play the hero

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Former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon has been cast out of the West Wing, scorned by President Trump and cut adrift from the far-right website that helped catapult him into the spotlight. But don't tell that to his friends in Europe.

Despite his extremely public fall from grace, Bannon went on what seemed like a victory march through Europe over the past week. He jetted into Italy ahead of elections that saw populist parties, including one that shares his brand of nativist populism, claim about half the vote. He then spoke at a nationalist rally in the Swiss city of Zurich, where he also reportedly met Alice Weidel, one of the leaders of Alternative for Germany, a far-right party that now is the largest opposition faction in Germany's Parliament. And he journeyed to France for the party congress of the far-right National Front, where he delivered a keynote address under the aegis of party leader Marine Le Pen.

To some, his appearances marked the toxicity of the populist moment. “The arrival of Bannon, like a maggot on a wound, is an indication that the infection is becoming septic,” Vanity Fair's Isobel Thompson wrote.

During both speeches, Bannon hailed the electoral gains made by right-wing populist parties across Western Europe and celebrated the nationalist examples of politicians further to the east. He described Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, known for his hostility to both migrants and the European Union, as a “hero” and a “patriot.” (Unconfirmed reports suggested the two would meet during Bannon's trip.)

The warm reception is quite a change from the treatment Bannon has been receiving at home. He was driven out of the White House last August in one of the Trump administration's endless rounds of internecine infighting, and he became further estranged from Trump after a controversial book on the president's chaotic first year featured Bannon as a key source. His falling-out with the president also compelled him to leave his beloved website, Breitbart News.

Bannon's American critics frequently mock his overinflated ego. One White House foe famously described Bannon's behavior in office as nothing but a particularly impossible form of onanism. A number of anti-establishment, right-wing candidates backed by Bannon suffered embarrassing defeats in local U.S. elections.

But in Europe, Bannon can justifiably pat himself on the back. More than any of Trump's other confidants, Bannon articulated a populist ideology that helped galvanize America's right-wing voters and brought Trump to power. In many ways, his creed directly borrowed from the long-standing positions of Europe's far right, combining a narrative of economic anxiety over globalization with seething cultural resentments about immigration. His rhetoric conspicuously drew from a deep reservoir of European neo-fascism. And having installed that agenda in the West Wing, Bannon offered further encouragement to his ideological brethren across the pond.

“What I’ve learned is that you’re part of a worldwide movement that is bigger than France, bigger than Italy, bigger than Hungary — bigger than all of it. And history is on our side,” Bannon told the crowd in the French city of Lille, repeating the message he had delivered in affluent Zurich a few days earlier. “The tide of history is on our side,” he said there, his entrance preceded by a soundtrack that included Survivor's “Eye of the Tiger.”

And despite his domestic setbacks, Bannon assured his European audiences that he has big plans ahead — including a desire to help spread far-right messaging across the continent on platforms similar to Breitbart. “Whether I do it or a local entrepreneur does it, there are going to be these populist nationalist news sites that pop up in the next year online. That will only take these things to the next level,” Bannon told the New York Times on his trip.

During the same interview, he also appeared to admit the truth of reports that right-wing populists benefit from a profusion of fake social-media accounts and “bots” that spread their propaganda. “You can’t just have just all humans, I’m sure they have some bots,” he said. “The thing is that they are generating enthusiasm on shoestrings.”

The important thing, he argued in Zurich, is that the “movement” keeps building up a head of steam. “The momentum in the movement continually goes, and now you’re beginning to see a symbiotic relationship” between far-right groups in various countries, he said. “One can feed off the other with messaging.”

In France, Bannon also urged his allies to cling to their nationalist guns and not worry about the censure of their liberal opponents. “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists,” he said, perhaps remembering how a host of Trump supporters embraced their status as “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton called them on the campaign trail. He told the French far right to “wear” such accusations “as a badge of honor.”

The incendiary polarization that Bannon celebrates has indeed become all the more stark on both sides of the Atlantic. “Whether populists in the United States — drawn to Trump’s policies on immigration, race and other issues related to diversity — officially embrace the 'racist' label or not may be irrelevant,” my colleague Eugene Scott wrote. “It appears a growing number of conservative Americans are embracing the worldview that Bannon, and even the president, perpetuate and defend.”

Yet for all the insistence that “history” is on their side, Bannon's friends in Europe still seem to find new ways to turn up at the wrong end of things. Not long after Bannon's speech, Le Pen rebranded her party as the National Rally, a name that earned immediate condemnation for its connections to a Nazi-aligned World War II-era faction (more on that below).

Time magazine's Simon Shuster pointed to the literature distributed in Zurich by the publication linked to Bannon's Swiss host, far-right politician Roger Köppel. “Copies of his magazine, Die Weltwoche, were handed out free ahead of Bannon’s speech, and they featured some rousing items that would not be out of place in Breitbart News,” Shuster wrote. "'Is Obama a racist?' one of them asked. Another showed portraits of the German Wehrmacht fighting in Stalingrad during World War II, and lamented how history has not given them the honor they are due.”

Many onlookers were not so impressed: “Bannon and Le Pen don't offer something new,” tweeted Brussels politico Guy Verhofstadt. “Just a return to the dark days.”

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