ROME—The weekend before voting in European Parliament elections began, Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon held court with a string of journalists in his $9,000-a-night suite at Le Bristol Paris. There on the ultra-chic Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, he railed against the globalists, the elite and those filthy rich barons who want to “skin the little guy.”
Bannon lamented to several journalists that he couldn’t be in Milan for Matteo Salvini’s piazza-palooza rally. The Italian far-right leader was sharing the stage with France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders to bolster support for their attempt to change Europe by infiltrating the very establishment that they want to tear down. But Bannon, who shares that ambition, had to stay in Paris to negotiate a reported multi-million dollar deal to sell off one of his many assets to a French bank, according to press reports. Damn those banks, it seems—unless they are paying.
Bannon’s particular brand of posh populism is funded by strategic investments and facilitated by private jet travel. He and like-minded spenders have come to redefine populism not as a vehicle to give power to the powerless but as a way to give those with power even more. He has tried to guide the momentum he created in helping Trump get elected in the U.S. in Europe by puffing up Salvini, France's Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the U.K.'s Nigel Farage, among others.
Susi Dennison, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says European politics today are changing. She has been working on an “emotional map” survey in 14 European states to track the feelings most people associate with the current politics–and those feelings are not exactly congruent. She has found that the overriding words people use to describe how they feel about the way things are going are fear, stress and optimism. She believes that the rise in populism is a product of those mixed emotions.
“Politics is as much now about feelings as it is about the actual substance of what you are promising,” Dennison told The Daily Beast. “And these people know how to tap into it.”
Dennison says voters used to believe they had to just pay their taxes, take care of their own families and the rest would sort itself out. But in the U.S. Trump was able to win against what seemed like all odds because he recognized that people were fed up with the status quo. She says the Trump model has worked well here in Europe, too.
“Populism is about saying the system doesn't listen to you or people like you, and it is a way to bring the excitement back to politics,” Dennison told The Daily Beast. “The rally mechanism has worked well for Trump in the U.S., and Salvini is using it here [in Italy]. It gives the sense of being part of something big, being part of a movement.”
In that sense, she adds, when it comes to posh populist leaders, “It doesn't matter who they are but the fact that they are showing interest.”
Europe’s original populist everyman was Beppe Grillo, the Ferrari-driving founder of the Five Star Movement, which now shares power with Salvini’s far-right Lega in Italy's first populist government.
Grillo, who is no longer the head of the party he founded, is hardly the poster child of the humble anti-globalist, anti-elite set. His lavish home in Genoa is serviced by women in French maid uniforms and his foyer wall is adorned with a massive painting of himself that would make Trump proud, as would the lavish yacht that he recently sold to avoid a tax fraud scandal.
Grillo used to travel the country in a beat-up old camper that was meant to appeal to poor Italians who were looking for someone to represent them. Never mind that he often parked it in the private garages of five-star hotels.
Grillo might be the original pseudo-populist but he is hardly the only one.
While neither of Austria's far-right populist leaders are in power after resigning last week in a Russian orgy-and-bribe scandal, they represent a movement that has gained momentum and is still polling strong.
Austria's now ex-Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on surveillance tapes at a lavish villa in Ibiza trying to get a woman he thought was a Russian billionaire heiress to donate millions to the populist movement he hoped would lure Austria’s working class to the polls. On the tape, he can be heard making fun of those who follow his dream of pay equity, and promising he could out his coalition partner in an orgy scandal that would soon make Strache the only leader. In short, he wanted her to bet on him as the winner of the populist sweepstakes.
Strache could also be heard bragging that the real people behind him are rich like she is. “There are a few very affluent people who are contributing between €500,000 and €2 million euros," he can be heard saying. “Our donors usually are idealists,” he claimed, naming a few that are impossible to actually trace as donors.
For their part, Salvini and Le Pen, who are part of the same Europe of Nations and Freedom umbrella group in European elections, are also under scrutiny after an investigative reporter uncovered a bill for some €13,500 ($15,000) for a Christmas dinner in Paris for populist strategists last year that included 230 bottles of Champagne and fresh lobster flown in especially for the occasion.
The investigation has led to calls for the group to pay back the European Parliament funds that are allocated for so-called operating costs.
The European Parliamentary committee is now investigating other extravagant expenses, including a meal at the Pavillon Ledoyen in Paris hosted by Salvini and Le Pen, which Italian papers say Bannon may have attended, that rang up bills of at least €400 ($446) a head. They are also looking into another dinner at Paris’ L’Ambroisie where they paid €450 ($500)— all in the name of sticking up for the little guy against the elite.
Nigel Farage, the former British UKIP politician who recently launched the Brexit Party, which he says he designed after Italy's Five Star Movement, is consistently listed as one of Britain's highest-earning politicians—even as he describes himself as a "skint," which is British slang for being broke. His new party is taking part in the European Parliament elections, but is currently under investigation by a European Parliament commission over a sum of $570,000 he is accused of failing to declare. The money, which he says came in just as he was leaving UKIP but before he created his Brexit Party, is being used to defray costs incurred in his populist campaign, according to a Channel 4 investigation which led to the European investigation. The expenses might include dry cleaning, since the leader is the latest far-right campaigner to be pelted with a milkshake on the campaign trail.
The European ballot opened Thursday in some of the 28 member countries and will close on Sunday afternoon. Opinion polls have been showing the far-right populist parties will do well, but there also have been signs of late that voters are growing disenchanted, and may have second thoughts when they actually cast ballots. In Spain’s recent municipal elections, for instance, the far-right Vox party way underperformed.
Certainly the populists are not expected to win a majority in the European Parliament, and Dennison believes that they wouldn't know what to do if they did.
The European Parliament is the soapbox of the European Union, while most of the power resides in the European Commission. Those who win seats don’t have as much authority as those who are appointed to the commission, but they often get bigger play, which makes these elections the perfect venue for disruption.
Still, those who win will be held accountable to their constituents, which almost always proves impossible for populists who win by bucking the system they then become part of.
Grillo, in Italy, stepped off the political stage at the height of his party's success because he did not want to be part of the establishment. “These techniques that we are seeing are proving to be effective campaign techniques,” Dennison says. “The challenge for them is once you get into government then you become the status quo. And these populists don’t really agree on anything below the headlines. If they win, delivery is going to be their biggest problem.”
Oh wait. There is something else they agree on: Champagne, lobster, and five-star hotels.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Raheem Kassam is no longer working for Steve Bannon.