Steve Bannon’s Dream Comes True as Italians Vote for Populism at Any Cost

Italians voted Sunday after a campaign that included shootings, stabbings, one politician calling another a laxative—and that was all before Steve Bannon showed up.


ROME—Votes are still being counted in Italy, but all signs point to a raucous victory by Italy's populist parties. The maverick Five Star Movement, founded by Beppe Grillo, which initially built its base with vaffanculo (fuck off) rallies, will easily win the most votes for any single party by as much 15 percent. But Five Star has vowed not to join a coalition, preferring instead to be a majority opposition to any ruling party.

The second largest vote looks set to be a close tie between the far-right League (formerly known as Northern League) led by Matteo Salvini, who promised to expel hundreds of thousands of African migrants from the country in his first year in office, and the center-left Democratic Party, the clear loser in this race.

Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party underperformed, tarnishing his Midas touch, even though he may yet prove the de facto kingmaker. 

All this bodes well for global populism and, more specifically for Steve Bannon, the former right-hand man of U.S. President Donald Trump who came to Italy to support populist politics of the kind peddled by Salvini and Grillo. The campaign rhetoric focused on mass expulsions of African migrants while casting a malocchio (evil eye) on the European Union.

Bannon might remember that Italy embraced the populist sentiments that dominated American elections in 2016 long before Trump ever entered the fray. More important in the present, this election will likely end as another exercise in unresolved democracy in a country that is quite accustomed to such chaotic indecision. Italians were voting under a complicated new electoral law—the 12th such logistical voting change in the last 50 years—which may lead to a high number of spoiled ballots. And it’s important to remember that Italy has cycled through three prime ministers since the last election in 2013, none of whom were chosen by popular ballot, but by intra-coalition maneuvering.

The campaign was bizarre at best, often marred by violence, including the shooting of six African migrants by a self-described fascist who was formerly a local candidate for the Northern League. Several campaign workers have been stabbed, as well. Twice, Italians took to the streets to protest the rise of fascist parties, but marches supporting fascist ideology have been held, too.

Politicians and pundits have been slinging more than mud at each other. Vittorio Sgarbi, a popular politician and television commentator who has been all over the political spectrum, but now aligns himself with the Forza Italia party of flamboyant former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, produced a bizarre YouTube video in which he sits, pants down, on a toilet and describes the candidate of the Five Star movement, Luigi Di Maio, as a human laxative. “You want a good shit? Use Di Maio.”

I feel the same pre-Trump climate right here in Italy.
Steve Bannon in Rome last week

It seems unclear just what Bannon hopes to learn from such chaos, or precisely how he expects to contribute to it. He was pushing a similar line going into the French elections last year, when his preferred candidate, and Trump’s, was Marine Le Pen. She suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of centrist upstart Emmanuel Macron.

Perhaps Bannon is here to enjoy the anti-immigration sentiment that has swept the nation. More than 600,000 mosty African migrants have arrived in Italy since the last elections, and all the leading parties are campaigning to kick them out. Bannon told The Daily Telegraph that the Italian election is “the most important thing happening politically in the world right now.”

“That’s nothing short of remarkable. Italy is, more than anywhere else in the world right now, even more than Brexit, even more than the Trump revolution in the U.S., the cutting edge of the sovereignty movement, of people saying we’ve tried to play by the rules, we’ve voted in centre-Left governments and centre-Right governments, and none of that has worked,” he said. “So now people are looking at another alternative. What they want is power back to the people in a populist revolt.”

This year, the mood has shifted right. But while the last polls pointed to a victory by the center-right-leaning coalition led by Berlusconi and backed by Salvini and several neo-fascist parties, more than 40 percent of the electorate claim to be undecided. And even if the center-right coalition wins, it is a marriage of convenience, not of substance. As such, it will be dominated by the megalomania of party leaders rather than concern for the good of the country.

Bannon will have likely left Italy before any real conclusion to this election plays out. He’s pushing his populist agenda on a speaking tour that starts in Switzerland on Tuesday. He says he has recruited an army of a least 10 million American supporters to “spread the gospel of populism,” he says, and hopes to bring it to Europe.

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“I’m collecting top thinkers to weaponize those ideas so that people understand what we stand for,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “What I’m trying to do is build a grass-roots army in the United States. Maybe over time it would go global.”

Of all the outcomes after the Italian ballots are counted, stability seems the least likely. Just moments after Berlusconi cast his ballot, a topless protester from the Ukrainian group Femen jumped onto the table behind the ballot box and yelled, “Berlusconi, you have expired.”

Berlusconi just smiled and said, “No comment.”

Comedian John Oliver did his best to provide comic relief to American audiences by laying out the absurdity of the electoral playing field, ending a long riff dedicated to the bizarre nature of Italian politics by throwing his own name in the hat. “Yes, Italy, my candidacy for prime minister may be a complete and total farce,” he said. “But to be honest, incredibly, I am far from your worst option."