ROME—Steve Bannon descended onto Rome’s Tiber Island on Saturday night like a Roman deity, albeit one in dark blue cargo pants and three layers of of black shirts under a loose-fitting blazer. The strategist behind Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency and former senior White House aide was flanked by an impressive entourage that included buff bodyguards, armed Italian police, and nervous hangers-on, including several Brexiteers.
For fringe far-right movements like the Brothers of Italy, there seems to be no better get than Bannon, who has been traveling Europe ahead of key European parliamentary elections to rally like-minded thinkers to his Brussels-based foundation he has simply named “The Movement,” because he believes it easily translates into different languages.
And so here he was this weekend navigating a faux staircase built over the ancient travertine steps on the arm of Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the group, the country’s farthest-leaning political party of merit. “He is an ally,” Meloni told The Daily Beast shortly before Bannon spoke. “He is here because we share ideals. We need to hear what he says.”
Meloni invited Bannon to her party’s annual affair in part to bolster her own credibility and in part to cement his as a fixture on Europe’s changing political scene with his new foundation, which he plans to use to bolster Europe’s right-leaning parties like Meloni’s.
The event, held in big tents under the shadow of Rome’s Jewish Synagogue, is called “Arteju” after a character in German fiction writer Michael Ende’s “Neverending Story.” It is in its 18th year, but the biggest headliners to date have been Marine Le Pen and a host of Mussolini grandchildren.
Meloni called Bannon’s appearance the most important in the festival’s history. The far-right political event is geared toward young politically-minded supporters, and Bannon had this message for them: “Millennials, please understand one thing,” he said. “You’re better fed, better educated, in better shape, you’re more culturally aware than 19th-century Russian serfs, but you are nothing but serfs.”
“You don’t own anything and you’re not going to own anything,” he continued. “You are just going to be on the continual wheel of the gig economy, two paychecks away from financial ruin.”
It was clear the strategist knew his audience. He spoke in glowing terms about the importance of his family—a topic dear to Italians—describing his 97-year-old father, a former phone lineman for AT&T who still lives in the same house he bought for around $6,000 in 1955. He mentioned his daughters, and how proud he was of Maureen, a West Point graduate who is now an U.S. Army captain.
The crowd ate it up, clapping with a minute or two delay as the simultaneous translation reached their headsets. His speech was followed by a carefully curated Q&A session in which he answered softball questions about populist movements, the elite and his plans for The Movement, which includes logistical and strategic support including “developing media surrogates” and campaign war rooms.
He is cagey about how much money he will lend to struggling right wing and populist parties, but he says he will help with polling, data analytics and messaging including through social media. Bannon, who had deep ties to Cambridge Analytica until he sold his stake in April 2017, knows a thing or two about how to manipulate media to reach undecided voters.
His message is by now very familiar in Italy, where Bannon has become somewhat of a fixture supporting the new populist government. His message is a rant against the elite, the so-called party of Davos and globalists. The night before, he entertained a string of international and local journalists in one-on-one, off-the-record background chats at the ritzy Hotel de Russie, one of the most expensive hotels in Rome.
Taking the stage in Rome on Saturday night, he was at once a preacher and a pundit, warning about the threat against Judeo-Christian roots. “They call us racist, xenophobic, nativist,” he said. “While the Financial Times and The Economist and The Times of London and The New York Times and The Washington Post and CNN and BBC, all of them, are in Italy everyday looking for hate crimes by [Matteo] Salvini and the rest of the officials that are trying to bring order to Italy.”
He then promised them that he was there for another reason. “We are about the economic hate crimes that have been foisted upon you,” he said to raucous cheers. “The new elite in this populist movement are the patriots.”
Bannon is a special friend of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new interior minister and leader of the often xenophobic League party who spoke earlier in the day. Bannon has supported Salvini from the start, and remains a strong proponent of Italy’s populist coalition that has married two unlikely political parties, Salvini’s League and Beppe Grillo’s maverick anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Despite growing fractures in the coalition, Bannon says what’s happening in Italy is the most important political experiment anywhere in the world.
“You are not alone. In Brexit and Trump, and what you voted for in March of 2018, is all of a piece, it’s a rejection of the way things are,” Bannon told the crowd. “It’s the little guy saying we have a better idea.”
Meloni’s far-right party, which is often referred to as fascist because of its links to Benito Mussolini’s ideals, was sidelined by Salvini in early June when he joined the ruling coalition with the Five Star, and she remains in opposition to the current populist government despite retaining close ties to Salvini, Bannon and her mentor Silvio Berlusconi. “Of course I don’t agree with everything Steve says about the current government,” she said in a small press conference after Bannon’s talk. “But we do share many of the same experiences and ideals so we just focus on that.”