Donald Trump’s former Svengali is palling around the Continent with a far-right Hungarian prime minister. How does this end?
By Ivan Krastev
“If there’s an explosion or fire somewhere, Steve is probably nearby with some matches,” one of Steve Bannon’s former Breitbart News employees once said (admiringly). So it shouldn’t be surprising that Mr. Bannon, who was Donald Trump’s chief strategist, has arrived in Europe.
In late July, Mr. Bannon, the American political operative, announced his plan to establish The Movement, a foundation that he hopes will unite Europe’s far-right parties ahead of the May 2019 European parliamentary elections. Will he have the impact that he wants?
As Joshua Green writes in his book on Mr. Bannon, “Devil’s Bargain,” Mr. Bannon sincerely believed that right-wing Tea Party-style populism was a global phenomenon. What’s more, as he said at a conference in Budapest in May, “Brexit was a foreshadow of the 2016 Trump victory, and the populist nationalist revolt is about a year ahead in Europe than in the United States.”
But why Mr. Bannon has decided to pivot to Europe is less consequential than who his major ally on the Continent is: Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. If you’ve been closely following Mr. Bannon’s speeches in recent months (as I have), it’s easy to conclude that it is the far-right Hungarian leader whom the American populist provocateur not only admires but also seeks to help. Mr. Bannon has called Mr. Orban “Trump before Trump.” Mr. Orban, for his part, is looking to be as transformative and disruptive as the American president, and he hopes that the 2019 European election will help him build a majority in the European Parliament to, as he puts it, “wave goodbye not only to liberal democracy and the liberal nondemocratic system that has been built on its foundations, but also to the entire elite of ’68.”
Mr. Bannon’s new foundation pledges to provide policy, polling and strategic support for euroskeptic parties across the Continent. This is precisely what Mr. Orban has assumed responsibility for in recent years. Since 2015, the Hungarian government has been conducting regular opinion polls in a dozen European countries, and Mr. Orban has actively campaigned (with mixed success) for his right-wing allies in places like Slovenia and Macedonia.
There are many similarities between the American consultant-turned-ideologue and the Hungarian liberal-turned-ultraconservative. Both have a missionary mind-set; both are interested in ideas; both are obsessed with what they perceive as the spiritual crisis of the West; neither lacks in self-confidence and ambition.
What really brings Mr. Bannon and Mr. Orban together is not just that they envision the European Union as an enemy to be destroyed, but also that they also believe that the populist revolt can and should be a cultural revolution. A week after Mr. Bannon announced his plans for The Movement, Mr. Orban declared that voters have given him a “mandate to build a new era” and that “an era is a special and characteristic cultural reality.” Mr. Bannon’s political mentor, the far-right publisher Andrew Breitbart, similarly insisted that “politics is downstream from culture.”
While ideological affinity and mutual admiration are important, they not enough to explain this American-Hungarian axis. There are also purely tactical reasons. From Mr. Orban’s perspective, Mr. Bannon has a lot to offer:
First, Mr. Bannon can help Mr. Orban convince Western European populists that there is nothing wrong with the prime minister of a small East European nation becoming the informal leader of their movement. Mr. Bannon’s support can crown Mr. Orban as Mr. Trump’s man in Europe.
Second, Mr. Bannon’s presence can shield the European far right from the suspicion that euroskeptics are simply Vladimir Putin’s puppets and an instrument in the Kremlin’s designs to destroy the European Union. Isn’t it better for the European far right to be associated with an American radical than with the Russian president?
Third, Mr. Bannon’s campaigning talent and his experience of waging war on the so-called mainstream media could be very useful. According to a recent Pew survey, mistrust of the mainstream media is the distinctive feature of Europe’s populist voter. No one knows as well as Mr. Bannon how to deepen this mistrust.
Finally, Mr. Orban intends to make the 2019 European parliamentary elections a referendum on migration and Islam — two topics that animate many conservative voters. But that might not be so easy. In the past year, the flow of migrants into Europe has drastically declined, and most of the mainstream parties on the right — and even some on the left — have adopted a soft version of closed-borders politics sought by Central Europeans. So Mr. Orban needs Mr. Bannon to tell Europeans that only the far right understands immigration.
Will any of this work?
Uniting Europe’s far right could turn out to be an impossible job. Although anti-establishment parties across the Continent share similar sentiments on issues like immigration, the European Union or gay marriage, these nationalists are tough to unite when it comes down to policy details.
What’s more, Mr. Bannon’s European initiative is already creating disunity rather than unity on the far right. Jérôme Rivière, a leader of France’s National Rally Party, expressed the surprise and displeasure of many Western European far-right leaders. “We reject any supranational entity and are not participating in the creation of anything with Bannon,” he said. Alexander Gauland, the leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany, is likewise skeptical. “I do not see any great opportunities for cooperation,” Mr. Gauland said. “We are not in America.” Part of the problem may be that President Trump is wildly unpopular in Europe, and so even many on the nationalist right are loath to be associated with him.
The two allies are also wrong in their assessment that the European parliamentary elections could be the breaking point for the European project. Although euroskeptics have overperformed in previous European elections, recent polls indicate that in many countries the rise of populism has led to a pro-Europe mobilization. For once, supporters of the European Union rather than its opponents are more likely next to come to the polls.
If Mr. Orban is staking his future on the Bannon strategy, he’d be well advised to remember that Mr. Bannon doesn’t always win. In Alabama’s 2017 special Senate election, Mr. Bannon backed the far-right candidate Roy Moore — who lost one of the safest Republican seats imaginable. And presumably Mr. Bannon understands even less the contours of politics in Europe than he does those in the Deep South. Oddly enough, pro-Europeans have good reasons to welcome Mr. Bannon on the European continent.
Ivan Krastev is a contributing opinion writer, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the author, most recently, of “After Europe.”