When Bannon visits his far-right friends in Europe

The trip brings attention to the connections that have been forming between racist, xenophobic and anti-Muslim parties.
Sunday 25/03/2018
France’s far-right party Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen (R) stands with former US president adviser Stephen Bannon after his speech at the Grand Palais in Lille, on March 10.   (AFP)
Deeper into the fringes. France’s far-right party Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen (R) stands with former US president adviser Stephen Bannon after his speech at the Grand Palais in Lille, on March 10. (AFP)

MILAN - Shortly after the Italian elections, Stephen Bannon, a former adviser to US President Donald Trump and head of the far-right news outlet Breitbart, visited Rome to level praise on Italy’s far-right candidate for prime minister, Matteo Salvini.

Bannon’s trip included stops in France and Germany. He addressed France’s nativist National Front party, saying “let them call you racist” and “wear it as a badge of honour.” He praised Hungary’s Islamophobic leader Viktor Orban as a “real patriot and a real hero.”

Bannon’s trip brings attention to the connections that have been forming between racist, xenophobic and anti-Muslim parties and figures in Europe and beyond.

Anti-EU parties have often coalesced around shared platforms. One of the prime locations they have done so is in the European Parliament.

This is the platform Salvini and his party, the League, used to attack European values. Salvini’s success in Italy’s March 4 election in Italy, where his party received 18% of the vote and surpassed Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia to become the leading party in the centre-right coalition, is largely due to rhetoric that nearly mirrored that of Bannon’s former boss Trump during the US elections in 2016.

Salvini ran a platform of “Italy first” and made grandiose promises to Italians about revitalising the economy and expelling immigrants. Salvini sees himself as a warrior against the “Islamic invasion” of Europe. In 2017, he visited and vowed to shut down a small Bangladeshi community centre in Milan.

“The League is the most dangerous, anti-democratic force in Italy right now and naturally well placed to be riding the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim wave that’s buoying the right in Europe,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian Studies at New York University.

“Salvini has capitalised on the League’s historic hatred of ‘others’ and racist ideologies of Northern superiority. Those ‘others’ used to be Southerners. Now they are the immigrants whom he accuses of being responsible for crime in Italy.”

During the US election in which Trump moved from pop-culture figure to president, candidate Trump accused Mexican immigrants of being rapists and claimed, “I think Islam hates us.”

Salvini took note of Trump’s success and tried to follow suit.

“He has repeatedly talked about ethnic cleansing and just before the election said Italy needed a ‘mass cleansing, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood’,” Ben-Ghiat said.

Salvini, like Bannon, is fond of Orban, whom he praised after the election. All three men are fond of Russia’s newly re-elected President Vladimir Putin.

While in Europe, Bannon met with Alice Weidel, leader of Alternative for Germany, a far-right party that is vehemently anti-immigration and anti-Islam. In Holland, a right-wing party of white supremacists is expected to claim electoral success in Amsterdam, a feat that the right wing, the Trump-friendly party of Geert Wilders never even attempted.

Bannon’s warm welcome in those European circles shows a coalescing around anti-Muslim and nativist sentiments over any other sort of platform. Bannon, however, also is recovering from a rather rough few months: After being jettisoned from the White House he returned to Breitbart, the platform for the alt-right, before being told he was not needed there, too.

“It seems that Bannon is mainly touring to support himself rather than the European far right,” said Cas Mudde, a scholar at the University of Georgia who focuses on political extremism and populism in Europe and the United States. “Many of the more marginalised European far right will embrace him as he is still less ostracised than they are or they think he still has a close connection to President Trump.”

Bannon’s trip to Europe probably doesn’t mean much. It’s a mutual back rub between nativist populists who want to make each other feel validated.

That, however, doesn’t mean the far right is not impactful or that the rhetoric that Bannon helped globalise via Trump has not spread. Salvini’s relative success is a partial testament to that.

“No wonder [Salvini] praised Viktor Orban just after the election and admires Putin. Both these leaders are open in their attempts to restore Europe as a white Christian space,” Ben-Ghiat said. “The League is the biggest symptom of the disease of racism that’s gotten worse in recent years.”

This racism isn’t a complete surprise. It’s been just below the surface and recent elections reinforced that sentiment.

“Regarding the latest results, we learned that the far right is still strong in Europe,” Mudde said. “Particularly in countries where it has been strong for a while, like Austria and Italy.”

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