Ahead of the European Union election in May 2019, some observers fear that right-wing nationalists and populists, coordinated by former Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, will come close to taking power, united by a common commitment to destroying the E.U. from within.
Bannon gained further notoriety in Europe after the establishment of his think tank the Movement, formed to support Euroskeptic and far-right groups, and meetings with Europe’s anti-immigration leaders. In early September, Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, joined Bannon’s Movement. The small neo-fascist Brothers of Italy have also jumped on board, with Bannon speaking recently at their national rally.
The Economist’s editor in chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, has dubbed Bannon, “one of [the] chief proponents” of nativist nationalism. Defending the choice to invite Bannon to the magazine’s Open Future Festival, she said “his populist nationalism is of grave consequence in today’s politics. He helped propel Trump to the White House and he is advising the populist far-right in several European countries where they are close to power or in government.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has, perhaps prematurely, determined that Bannon has “been remarkably successful” in “helping right-wing elements gain ground in France, Italy and elsewhere.”
These assessments involuntarily contribute to the myth of Bannon’s influential ideas and tactics — that he is a strategist with some innovative methods and rhetoric, as well as relevance in European politics.
But the history of fascism suggests this is not the case. Fascism has crossed regional borders back to its earliest days. The first fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, claimed fascism embodied universal connotations. Some fascists have long cultivated this ideal, which was flexible enough to encompass many national circumstances. Such universal fascism has always been anti-liberal, focused on protecting the dominant civilization. It represented a radical reaction to the egalitarian values of the Enlightenment.
In Europe, this spiritual revolution went along with the development of a specific Pan-Europeanism which aimed at an “alternative Europe” — a continent that expunged other political forces and ideologies and regenerated in its true essence. This thinking is still present in many contemporary right-wing nationalist activists’ rhetoric about the necessity of a contemporary revolution and the supremacy of certain civilizations.
When it comes to unifying Europe under this fascist idea, Americans usually have not been the front-runners. But Bannon is hardly the first U.S. far-right traveler to the old continent trying to promote an international extremist ideology. Right-leaning and white-nationalist ties between Europe and America have existed since the 1920s and 1930s. In most cases, these American extremists were latecomers to a scene in which fascism was already flourishing.
In the late 1940s, U.S. fascist Francis Parker Yockey moved to Ireland and wrote “Imperium.” This pamphlet theorized a united Europe, based on a racially defined organic (and spiritual) civilization rooted in Christianity. His imagined Imperium would have included nationalist and anti-Jewish Russia. Yockey promised a new global fight for the defeated fascists and also had links with another promoter of this Pan-European far-right extremism, the notorious British fascist Oswald Mosley.
Although the impact of “Imperium” in the United States was probably limited to some of the most radical and racist fringes, Yockey’s ideas contributed to a broader extremist political and cultural environment, which would lead to the first Pan-European neo-fascist associations in the 1950s. They were a reaction to the democratic process of European integration. His work also influenced the pan-national ideology of young activists in the postwar years.
In the 1960s, anti-Semitic right-winger Willis Carto popularized this thinking in the United States. Carto was a major figure in such organizations as the xenophobic Liberty Lobby and the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review. He was also fascinated with the Imperium.
But these ideas drifted from the old continent to America, not the other way around. Like midcentury Europe, the E.U. today does not need a Steve Bannon to bring together intracontinental fascism or nationalism. A coordinated effort at the European level already exists. After decades of transnational and ideological exchanges, major far-right parties in 2015 established an official group, the Europe of Nations and Freedom, in the European Parliament. The E.U. group receives a number of parliamentary rights, along with essential funding for political activities, and doles out propaganda centered on the protection of national sovereignty and “the preservation of the identity of the peoples and nations of Europe.”
Even Bannon’s Movement has European origins. It was established in 2017 by Mischaël Modrikamen, a Belgian lawyer and Euroskeptic politician. Modrikamen is a fervent admirer of Trump, and promotes an anti-radical Islam alliance with Russia and the United States. He met Bannon in July 2018 with the help of British politician Nigel Farage. Only then did the legend of the previously obscure Movement become popular.
The existing strength of the far-right raises a fundamental question: Why are we overestimating the significance of Bannon? Salvini’s League or Marine Le Pen’s National Rally are efficiently structured and supported by widespread local activism. The former is rising in opinion polls, currently considered the main Italian party. An anti-Muslim politician such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban could easily win the coming E.U. election.
It is, in fact, hard to understand how Bannon’s presence or support would boost far-right parties anywhere in Europe. He brings nothing new to the table. Journalists should be focusing not on his influence, but rather the Movement’s ties with Russian nationalists, its funding and its eventual use of voter data. Otherwise, the media risks acting as a mere megaphone for Bannon, while further mainstreaming the global appeal of ultraright beliefs.
This is the most worrying side of the story: the way the media focuses on — or invents — the myth of an American extremist’s influence in modern Europe. Excessive (and undeserved) media exposure, seen in documentaries such as “American Dharma,” which focuses on Bannon’s influence, popularizes the Bannons of the West without helping us to understand the spreading of fascistic ideals, the anger of people, the appeal of ethnic policies, the legitimization of hate language and the failures of traditional elites.
It’s time for journalists to aim the spotlight on those questions, and allow Bannon to sink into irrelevance.