Outside influence on the Euro-sceptic Populists

In this contribution, Yves de Rosee describes the climbing of Bannon’s populist vision of society in Europe and how liberalism is the antidote 

The Populists

As for any word in “…ism”, there is no single definition or interpretation for “Populism”. The word obviously comes from “people”. It is not a political philosophy, as populists can come from the left or the right of the political spectrum. What unites the populists is that they seek to appeal by playing on the fears of people, their anxiety or anger, and propose simplistic solutions to complex problems. Today’s populism is best described as a political approach that poses ‘the people’ as a group against their ‘elites’ or ‘establishment’ in the areas of culture, justice, business, economics, politics and media. The elites are viewed and portrayed as placing their own interests above the interests of the people, thus becoming enemies of the people. The elites are supposed to be active behind the scene, as a ‘deep state’ entrenched in a ‘swamp’ that need to be ‘drained’ so that the ‘will of the people’ can be implemented. This has become the common vocabulary of populists.

A society that feels threatened or insecure in its identity, culture, economic development is quick to conclude that their elected representatives do not serve its people, and need to be removed or replaced by others, who will establish a new order, outside the prevailing norms. Existing or would-be politicians with a good ear for this anger of the people are as quick to respond with easy solutions. The archetype of these opportunists in recent times is Donald Trump. But Trump could not have reached the Presidency of the United States without an intellectual mentor able to articulate the grief of the people, and the easy road to reach the new order. The name of this mentor is Steve Bannon, a well-known figure in all populist parties across the globe, and who has set his sight on the EU, and its next Parliament.

It is thus worth looking deeper at the Trump-Bannon duo.

Trump and Steve Bannon

Trump is not a thinker – by his own admission, he is not even a reader, just a “dealer”. He has never been faithful in his party affiliations. As he said: “You’d be shocked if I said that in many cases I probably identify more as a Democrat” … “Look, I’m a Republican. I’m a very conservative guy in many respects—I guess in most respects” …  “I’ve actually been an activist Democrat and Republican.”

Trump invented or at least popularized the now famous expression ‘fake news’ that he accuses everyone in sight of using against him. However, it is Trump himself who is the King of Fake News: according to the Washington Post Fact Checker database, barely two years after becoming President, Trump has made 8,158 false or misleading claims! He averaged nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day in his first year in office. But he hit nearly 16.5 a day in his second year, almost triple the pace!

Trump, who started his electoral campaign with less than 5% of the possible votes became a successful populist candidate under the guidance of Steve Bannon. His messages, methods and tactics are being copied in Europe.

Steve Bannon was born in 1953 to a Catholic, pro-Democrat family. He has 3 university degrees, of which one is an MBA from Harvard. He was a US Naval Officer; an investment banker at Goldman Sachs; a researcher in the Biosphere 2 project; the founder of the Government Accountability Institute; the producer and director of 18 films and documentaries; the CEO of Breitbart News, an online right-wing media website. Most noteworthy, Breitbart was financed by the US billionaire Robert Mercer, a computer scientist and early developer in artificial intelligence and co-CEO of  the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, as well as majority shareholder of Cambridge Analytica, the big data consulting firm, which illegally supported Nigel Farage and the Brexit side of the UK referendum on EU membership. Bannon was thus very well connected with money, power and the old and new media.

Bannon met Trump early in the Republican primaries in 2015 at the Breitbart talk show he was hosting. He joined the campaign of Trump after leaving that of the better-known candidate Texas Senator Ted Cruz because he thought Trump was more radically different from all other Republican candidates to implement his vision for changing society. Trump quickly made him the CEO of his campaign, which ended in a surprise victory.

Bannon’s vision of society

Bannon’s vision of American and Western society is anchored in the generational theory of two American historians (William Strauss and Neil Howe), known also as the Fourth Turning. According to the theory (dismissed by many scholars), world events unfold in predictable cycles of roughly 80 years each that can be divided into four chapters, or turnings: growth, maturation, entropy (degeneration) and destruction.  As the theory goes, western societies have experienced the same patterns for centuries, as naturally and necessarily as the four seasons.

Bannon believes that western societies are currently in the degeneration phase, in a period of momentous crisis, when the identity of the nation is at stake, and that radical change must take place, that includes, in his own words, the “destruction of the administrative state”.

According to Bannon, western societies faces three major threats for their survival: (i) Judeo-Christianity is threatened by Islam; (ii) national identity is threatened by immigration; (iii) capitalism is threatened as undermined by government regulations and social policies. Those threats and their radical remedies are all encapsulated in the Inaugural Address of Trump at his inauguration as President on 20 January 2017. The address itself – spelling out Bannon’s vision – is radical in its tone and historical perspective, as the future is presented as having no continuity with the past; instead there is clean break between two eras, the before- and after-Trump eras. Here are a few relevant excerpts: “January 20 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again… This American carnage stops right here and stops right now… From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

Bannon as icon for European populists – His rise and fall

Bannon’s career reached its peak when Trump made him his Chief Strategist and elevated him to the National Security Council. He became all-powerful and legendary when he was photographed in his office in the White House with a white board on which his political agenda was translated into a bullet point for each policy goal. He also became an inspirational leader for right-wingers across the world when he was featured on the cover of TIME magazine in February 2017, with the sole title ‘the Great Manipulator’.

That particular TIME issue was also the undoing of Bannon in Trump’s orbit, as the President could not tolerate in his inner circle someone who enjoyed being compared to Trump, or even viewed as the “real” president.

After being fired by Trump in August 2017, Bannon continued his crusade for a new order at the international level, especially in Europe, intent on disrupting the EU from within – starting with Brexit and throwing his support behind Nigel Farage and other Leavers. Returning to Breitbart, he reinforced its office in London, but failed to open offices in Paris and Germany.

The “Movement” in Brussels

Bannon had this idea of creating a super-group of “like-minded” Eurosceptics or right-wing parties that he would actively support with central source of polling, messaging advice, data targeting and think tank research. It has not yet materialised as there is an inherent contradiction in the promotion of nationalism through an international alliance. Nationalist parties are not “like-minded” at all in critical areas, such as the role of the state in general, social policy, economic policy, data protection, etc. Bannon is not withdrawing from this dream, but scaling it back. Along with Mischael Modrikamen (Head of the People Party in Belgium) and Matteo Salvini (Head of La Ligua in Italy), he created ‘The Movement’ – a populist bloc aiming to win at the next election for the European Parliament as many seats as possible in order to shift the balance of power towards the implementation of the bloc’s new, but limited, European dream of sealing Europe’s frontiers.

If over 20 right wing parties have indicated an interest in joining The Movement, only three have done so, demonstrating the waning influence of Bannon as an international populist leader. However, his original message of a post-global liberal order based on intolerance and closed societies is being sustained by the deep well of discontent across many European countries, as demonstrated by the gilets jaunes in France, which Bannon compares to the Tea Party movement in the US around 2008.

Liberalism as the antidote

Liberalism was defined by The Economist in its issue of 15 September 2018 as “a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform”.

That should be the best antidote to the current populism. It is not a given. We should all work for it.

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