Europe shouldn’t fear Steve Bannon. It should fear the hype that surrounds him
Trump’s former adviser is no evil genius. But his reputation as a dangerous figure risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, writes Cas Mudde
If Steve Bannon didn’t exist, the media would have had to invent him. And, in fact, they largely did. US coverage has turned Bannon into Donald Trump’s Rasputin, single-handedly responsible for his shock election as the 45th president of the United States. And now, as Bannon crosses the Atlantic, breathless reports speak of his “Plan to Hijack Europe for the Far Right”. His meeting with the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson was apparently convened to plot “new moves that could have a significant impact on European politics”.
The notion of the evil genius, particularly one on the far right, is seductive. It helps externalise the evil. Rather than accepting that nationalist and populist ideas are part of the mainstream of society, their success is presented as the outcome of a devious plot, constructed by a political mastermind, in which a gullible population is seduced by a charismatic leader.
While this might be an attractive narrative, it is dangerous for at least two reasons. First, it is wrong, and leaves people poorly informed about the most significant danger to liberal democracy today. Second, it exaggerates the importance of the far right, which can, ironically, lead to an actual increase in its power.
Bannon is neither Trump’s Rasputin, nor a political prodigy. If anything, he is a master at selling himself as a successful entrepreneur and political operative to both investors and journalists. His early support for Trump was also not a stroke of genius but of luck, coming as it did after he had backed almost every other radical right movement or politician in the previous decade, from the Tea Party movement to Sarah Palin.
Moreover, Bannon became Trump’s campaign manager in August 2016, one month after Trump had secured the Republican nomination. While he can be credited for making the campaign truly populist, it is doubtful this had much effect on the outcome – or, rather, no greater effect than other factors such as the obsessive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails or the FBI director James Comey’s letter. In the end 2016 was, first and foremost, an ordinary election with Republicans voting Republican and Democrats voting Democrat.
When he became the White House chief strategist, Bannon was immediately painted as the real president, a man who filled the politically empty Trump with a radical right agenda. #PresidentBannon became a popular hashtag on Twitter. Leaving aside the fact that most of Trump’s positions are just radical versions of mainstream Republican policies, even the non-Republican positions, such as economic nationalism, are at least as much Trumpian as they are Bannonesque. For example, in the famous 1990 Playboy interview that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, allegedly read to prepare for her first meeting with him, Trump was already complaining about the US “being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies; ie, Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, etc”.
So, given his modest impact in the US, why would Bannon be any more successful in Europe? Why would his thinktank, grandiosely named The Movement, which wants to recruit 10 full-time staff ahead of the 2019 European elections to influence their outcome, be any match for the Open Society Foundation it aims to rival, which has an endowment of more than $18bn? How could a washed-out American achieve what skilful politicians and well-organised parties have been unable to do for decades: unite the European radical right? Obviously, he can’t, and it is as ridiculous for him to make that claim as it is for the media to publish it uncritically.
While he is ideologically close to parties like the French Rassemblement National (RN, formerly the Front National) and the Italian League, or far-right politicians like the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, Bannon is also distinctly American in his vision. For example, his moral view of capitalism as a vehicle for Judeo-Christian values does not sit well with the interventionist views of the Danish People’s party or the RN. Not to mention his US-centric foreign policy vision, which will set off alarm bells with the anti-American right in southern Europe. Few in Europe believe that “we are at war with China”. In fact, Bannon’s alleged ally Orbán sees China as one of the models for his illiberal state.
It’s not surprising, then, that most of these parties have responded unenthusiastically to Bannon’s wooing. While Bannon identified the Finns party and Sweden Democrats as “perfect casting”, the party secretary of the former said it would “probably refuse” contributions from him, and the latter said his initiative was “not interesting to us”. Similarly, the DF MEP Morten Messerschmidt said: “I think we’re doing just fine by ourselves. The Alternative for Germany party was split on the issue, with the co-leader Alice Weidel meeting Bannon and its federal spokesman, Jörg Meuthen, rejecting him. An RN spokesperson said: “We reject any supranational entity and are not participating in the creation of anything with Bannon.” In the end, only politicians from marginal parties like the Belgian Popular party and the Spanish Vox party were truly up for engagement.
As for the rumoured alliance with Johnson, it is mainly beneficial to Bannon. Since his resignation as foreign secretary, Johnson has been the bookies’ favourite to replace the embattled Theresa May. He neither needs Trump’s endorsement nor Bannon’s help to become prime minister. In short, Bannon is bandwagoning successful European leaders on the radical right in the hope of regaining political relevance.
So, does this mean that the latest slew of Bannon media hype is inconsequential? Not at all. Articles that take his grandiose plans at face value strengthen the narrative that the 2019 European elections will again be a fundamental struggle between the status quo and Eurosceptic forces. This means that the radical right continues to set the political agenda and its frames continue to dominate election campaigns.
There is now plenty of evidence as to where this leads. Mainstream parties, particularly on the centre right, move even further in that direction, copying the radicals not just in terms of issues but also policies. The new European People’s party draft programme is a good example of this effect.
But, despite some (temporary) successes, such as that of Sebastian Kurz in Austria, the centre’s adoption of a “radical right-lite” strategy does not significantly weaken its opponents. In fact, as we see from the Netherlands to Sweden, where far-right parties have made considerable gains, it strengthens them. After all, when opposition to European integration and (Muslim) immigration dominate the campaign, nativist voters will choose the original over the copy.
This is where the danger lies, not in the person of a wannabe Rasputin looking for a new tsar.
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