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Nationalists of the world, unite? Steve Bannon's populist path proves rocky.

Why We Wrote This

Populism's global resurgence has alarmed many, as has former Trump advisor Steve Bannon's effort to empower populism's international proponents. But Mr. Bannon's task is far more difficult than it seems.

Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon speaks during the Red Tide Rising Rally supporting Republican candidates on Oct. 24 in Elma, NY.

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Former White House strategist Steve Bannon has become something of an evangelist for populist politics in the West. Though no longer in the good graces of the GOP or the Trump administration, Mr. Bannon has gone on the road both in the Americas and Europe in an effort to create a global platform for populists spanning from Brussels to Brazil. The most concrete work he hopes to accomplish is creating The Movement, a political vehicle meant to serve as a campaign center ahead of Europe’s crucial parliamentary elections next May, to build bridges among populist parties that rail against immigration and the European Union. But Bannon is finding that easier said than done. The populist parties of Europe have distinct aims, based on whether they are indebted to or must bail out other members, whether they have a large influx of migrants or don’t. And those aims are often in direct conflict with each other. “There’s never been a phrase, ‘Nationalists of the world, unite,’ and for good reason,” says Ian Bremmer, founder of risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group in New York. “It just doesn’t work.”

“Be it resolved, the future of Western politics is populist, not liberal.”

That’s the case that former White House strategist Steve Bannon is making as a guest in Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall tonight as part of the prestigious semi-annual Munk Debates. It’s the perfect venue for the former Trump official to reaffirm his international ambitions – to create a global platform for populists spanning from Brussels to Brazil.

His appearance comes when the global liberal order is under assault, with a clear rise of nationalists at the polls and authoritarian leaders nipping at the institutions and norms in place since World War II. Mr. Bannon’s world tour heightens insecurities and anxieties, as no one knows whether something more ominous will emerge to replace or redefine the current order. And his Toronto visit has touched off a firestorm over whether giving him a platform promotes hate or serves as an exercise in free speech.

Yet overshadowed by the protest over democratic principles lie doubts about whether his ideas stand any chance of coalescing – if populists and their followers have any need or capacity to band together, particularly under an American umbrella.

In Europe, where he’s gone the farthest with a group called The Movement, a meeting point for populists that is to officially launch in January, Bannon has been met with mixed reviews. There are some leaders, like Matteo Salvini in Italy, who are seizing on the cachet of a person behind the rise of Trump. But others see him as an outsider, attempting to pull right-wing populists together where so many at the European level have failed.

“A lot of these nationalists in Europe are fairly anti-American. The last thing they need is an American busybody trying to organize them,” says Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels who focuses on relations between the EU and member states. “I think what is true is you have rise of populist parties, in North America, in many parts of Europe, in other parts of the world. This has to do with globalization, the responses to it, migration, and other other issues.

“You do have a rise of populism,” Mr. Lehne says. “What you do not have is a populist movement.”

Nationalism on the march

Bannon’s emergence on the international stage is impeccable in timing, just when mainstream parties from the Americas to Asia are losing voter support. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor and a linchpin of the European Union, said this week she will step down as party leader amid disastrous electoral results for her Christian Democratic party.

Ian Bremmer, founder of risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group in New York, calls it a period of “geopolitical recession” that has been exacerbated by President Trump, but began before he took office, with the rise of China, the failure to align Russia with the West, and voter disillusionment in the West amid economic and cultural change.

“Clearly right now the momentum in democracies around the world is with the nationalists, and not with the globalists or the pro-globalization forces,” says Mr. Bremmer.

The shift in politics comes amid polarization that has deepened divisions and, at its worst, turned deadly – most recently at a Pittsburgh synagogue. It also comes as anxieties are heightened about the repercussions of hateful rhetoric, after pipe bombs were sent via mail to Democratic leaders and supporters in the US.

Bannon has become an outcast in many circles in the US. Recent events ahead of the US midterm elections have seen him pull in attendance in the low double digits. But his former position in the Trump inner circle has given him clout internationally.

Cynthia Levine-Rasky, a board member of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations in Toronto, says Bannon’s invitation to this city should have been rescinded because it undermines democratic principles and flames white nationalist violence – and also has global ramifications.

“Often when we think of Bannon we only think of his role in the White House and role before that at Breitbart News,” she says. “But he has broadened his purview, his influence, his interactions, his ambitions globally. So I think it’s essential to remember not just what he did but what he is currently doing, which is in some some ways far more onerous and far more descriptive and revealing of his real danger,” she says.

Nationalists, not internationalists

The most concrete work he hopes to accomplish is in Europe, with The Movement, which he wants to serve as a campaign center ahead of Europe’s crucial parliamentary elections next May, to build bridges among populist parties that rail against immigration and the EU.

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon delivers a speech at the 'Atreju 2018' meeting organized by the Brothers of Italy party in Rome on Sept. 22.

Mr. Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right Northern League, has welcomed Bannon to the European front. But the reception has been lukewarm elsewhere. The populist parties of Europe have distinct aims, based on whether they are indebted to or must bail out other members, whether they have a large influx of migrants or don’t. Salvini, for example, wants fewer migrants by way of forcing other EU members to take them in. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary wants no migrants, and refuses a European migrant quota system flat out.

Bannon has talked about a global populist platform from Singapore to Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right, authoritarian politician who said on the campaign trail that a “good criminal is a dead criminal,” was just elected the next president.

But like elsewhere, the Brazilian electorate voted on domestic issues – recession, corruption, and crime. “Brazil’s turn has much more to do with domestic factors than with a narrative around a global front,” says Robert Muggah, co-founder and research director for the Igarapé Institute, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro.

And Brazil, like so much of the world, has a complicated relationship with the US, where distrust is always just below the surface. Mr. Muggah says he sees no signs that Mr. Bolsonaro wants to lead a US-allied, right-wing axis in the region, despite having cozied up to Trump.

And that is a limitation Bannon will face globally, says Bremmer, whether in the EU or Latin America or Asia. “There’s never been a phrase, ‘Nationalists of the world, unite,’ and for good reason. It just doesn’t work,” he says.

But many say the populist ambition needs to be recognized, and for those who want to thwart it, it must be done with abundant debates and solutions for the disillusionment with the system.

Canada has been far more immune to divisive politics than other countries, but Ontario this year elected populist Doug Ford as its new premier. And fringe groups on the far right could be susceptible to Bannon’s messaging. Still, Michael Taube, a political commentator in Canada and a former speech writer for Stephen Harper, the former Conservative prime minister, says censoring Bannon would be far more dangerous to democracy.

“To bring these ideas out in the open is much healthier and much better for democratic society to operate in,” Mr. Taube says. “If we all want to live in an echo chamber, it’s very easy to create.”

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