ROME—Not long after Europe’s first foray into true populism with the formation of a maverick Italian government by far-right League leader Matteo Salvini and anti-establishment Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio, Steve Bannon was gloating.
Bannon told The Daily Beast that the world would be watching this populist experiment. He predicted then that such a ballsy move pairing such opposites was third only to Brexit and Trump’s election in terms of experimental politics.
The man often referred to as the architect of the Trump presidency had put a fair amount of time and effort into Italy, which he saw as a great test case for his brand of disruptive populism. “If it works in Italy, it is going to work everywhere,” he said last summer. “If it works in Italy, it shows that it is going to break the backs of the globalist.”
Now, just a year into the government’s five-year mandate, Bannon’s dream has turned into a nightmare and Italy is already heading for what looks like a post-populist era with heavy overtones of old-style fascism.
Last week, on the eve of Ferragosto, this country’s most important summer holiday week, Salvini pulled the plug on the 65th government since the fall of Benito Mussolini in World War II. And Bannon, meanwhile, has bailed, telling the daily Corriere Della Sera last week that “not all marriages work.”
“I think that the marriage between Salvini and Di Maio was a noble experiment,” he said. “I’d like to see it continue—it would be great—but I understand why it might not happen.”
Now that the end is nigh, new elections could vault Salvini, a Trumpian character complete with Russian sympathies, racist vibes, and an obsessed social media following, into full power. And Europe is once again watching Italy with bated breath, wondering what post-populism will do for the Eurozone just weeks before Great Britain is set to leave the E.U.
Salvini, during his trial run as a team player in the coalition government with the Five Star Movement, cooled his long-held Euroscepticism and pretended, at least superficially, to want to work for a more perfect European Union.
But during the campaign leading up to European parliamentary elections in May, which many analysts predicted would lead to the exact power play Salvini pulled last week, he hinted that the European project needed to be fixed from the inside out or scrapped entirely.
That campaign rhetoric helped double his support from 17 percent to 34 percent, and that is troubling to many who hope the European Union can heal its fault lines after Brexit. “He has no principles,” former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta told AFP over the weekend. “One day, he can say he wants Europe, the next that he wants to leave. With Salvini, an Italian 'Brexit' is not impossible.”
If Salvini is able to pull off what even three years ago would have been an unthinkable rise to power for someone who has quoted Mussolini and worn (like the Fascists of old) a black shirt to a public rally, the other great beneficiary, after himself, will be Vladimir Putin. For one, Salvini is a staunch supporter of all things Putin, he has been photographed posing for photos in Red Square wearing his favorite Putin T-shirt, and he has led a battle cry for Europe to lift sanctions on Russia.
For months, Salvini has been embroiled in a scandal involving dirty oil and Russian money that was dominating the headlines until he pulled this power play late last week. An expose in Italian newsmagazine L'Espresso last February charged that “secret meetings, travel, email, handshakes and millionaires’ contracts” dominate the scheme. “On one side of the table one of Salvini’s loyalists, on the other precious intermediaries of the Putin establishment. In the middle: fuel.”
The next steps for Salvini, the Italian government and the future of Europe are not entirely clear, but whatever happens in the short term will almost certainly lead to new elections that, at the moment, Salvini could clinch.
Parliamentary leaders have been called back from their summer holidays where they met in Rome on Monday to lay out a basic plan forward, which will ultimately be under the stewardship of President Sergio Mattarella, who may try to fit the various puzzle pieces of the coalition together or dissolve parliament entirely.
Salvini has called for a confidence vote, which could be held as early as next Monday, which will set the crash course for the months ahead. Once the government falls, elections have to be held within 50 to 70 days, which is something many Italians are not eager to do too soon. Italians generally hold elections in the spring. The last time they held an autumn vote was in 1919, paving the way for Mussolini’s rise to power.
Bannon is ready to support a Salvini-led government, which will focus on some of the tenets of the Trump administration including migration, security and the economy.
Speaking to Corriere Della Sera from the New Mexico-Mexico border where he is part of a group called “We Build The Wall,” Bannon said he wished the best for his Italian friend who he now believes is the “best leader” Italy needs to move forward. “Salvini dresses up much better than me now,” he joked. “He looks like a Hollywood star, he’s fit.” Whether that star power will be good for Italy–or Europe for that matter–is an entirely different matter.
CORRECTION: A typographical error in an earlier version of this story misidentified the leader of the Five Star Movement who is, in fact, Luigi Di Maio.