US Diplomacy

Steve Bannon's 'The Movement' is an umbrella group of anti-establishment, populist parties in Europe

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steve bantou in front of a large American flag

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon speaks during a campaign event for Republican candidate for US Senate Judge Roy Moore in Fairhope, Alabama, Dec. 5, 2017.

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Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

What ever happened to Steve Bannon?

Bannon was the chief executive officer of the Trump campaign in its final months and then chief strategist at the White House for seven months.

He's seen by many on the left as perhaps the main architect of the identity politics of the Trump administration. But Bannon is also seen by many of his supporters as the champion of the "little guy."

The former head of Breitbart News has since turned his attention to Europe, establishing relationships with like-minded European political groups.

This is not just an extremist fringe. Populist, anti-establishment, anti-immigrant parties now have a measure of power in Poland, Italy and Hungary.

Bannon is in the process of setting up an umbrella group, called "The Movement," with a headquarters in Brussels to help support and coordinate these different nationalist parties.

One of the people helping him is his friend, Benjamin Harnwell.

Harnwell founded and leads the Institute for Human Dignity, a conservative Catholic group based in Rome whose mission is to help Christian politicians to defend their values in the public space.

The World sat down with Harnwell to talk about Bannon's initiative across Europe and some of the consequences. Throughout the transcript, you will find links and editor's notes to better contextualize the conversation.

The World: So it appears one theme that unites a lot of these populist movements and governments is the effort to combat immigration.

Ben Harnwell: It's a part of that for sure, but Stephen's always said that he doesn't think immigration should be front and center of what the movement is about. The movement is about fighting the European political establishments, which is exactly the same as what he's doing in United States and trying to get a better deal for the ordinary guy. That's front and center — what the movement is about — is front and center. It's front and center of what Steve Bannon is about, right down to his core. Immigration has a role to play on that because if you're allowing in a constant influx of cheap labor, that's going to hit the lowest strata of your own society worst. And Steve is out there looking out for the guy at the bottom, whom nobody else really seems interested in talking about. 

But wouldn't "the guy at the bottom" also include immigrants trying to find a better life, those seeking asylum? 

For sure. But that argument would basically open the door to anybody who wanted to come in. And there's no there's no appetite for that, Carol. 

I mean there are conditions for people claiming asylum but I ask as well just because ... 

Oh sure, Carol. But hang on. Hang on. There are conditions. But what we're seeing at the moment, the current reason we have a crisis is because the laws that the various European countries have aren't being obeyed. All of the European countries have legal mechanisms for people outside to come in. They're scrutinized and some people get the "yes" and some people get the "no." What we have here are traffickers bringing people in from the shore of North Africa to the southern coast of the European countries. That's not anybody's idea of acceptable and it's not what you were just referring to when you said that "all countries allow people in." In fact, that's the very opposite, that's not managed immigration at all — that's just chaos. 

But I think there's a certain, really strong perception that if Bannon is working with people like Viktor Orban in Hungary — who is extremely tough on immigrants — that there is a strongly anti-immigrant component in Bannon's ideology. 

Look, as I say, Steve Bannon's about the ordinary working guy, right? Now, you've made a very good point. Don't immigrants need someone to speak up for them as well? And that's true but as I said, either you're going to have open immigration and let everybody come in or you're going to have controlled immigration and then you'll apply the law. Right? Because the people who aren't there legally need to get back out again or you have nobody coming in, right? And Steve's never said zero. So it's always managed and controlled. 

(Editor's note: Following the widespread criticism of the Trump Administration's family separation policy — which Bannon played a role in crafting — ABC News asked Bannon how he continued to justify the policy that separated children from their parents. Bannon replied, "It's a zero-tolerance. I don't think you have to justify it.")  

Now, while you say that, there are some here in the States who argue that support for Steve Bannon in creating an organization in Europe that includes anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, makes him — and you, by extension — an apologist for white supremacy and intolerance. How do you respond to that? 

That's just ridiculous. Listen, Carol, I'm glad you asked that question because I always relish the opportunity to say that that suggestion is ridiculous. If you look at Steve Bannon's speech that he gave in the Vatican in 2014, right? That this is a year before Donald Trump even declared his candidature, right? A year before. So there's no political posturing in it. This is what the guy actually thought when he was back at Breitbart. He was asked a question about these far-right elements and he was asked the question that, you know, if you're doing something basically to the right of the right — right of the Republican Party — you're going to have a lot of, you know, you have the racist elements latching onto that. They're going to be the nearest thing. He said, "Don't worry about it because it will all get washed out." That was his expression. It will all get all the racist stuff, right, that will all get washed out. 

(Editor's note: During Bannon's speech in 2014, he said that "the Judeo-Christian West is in a crisis" as the result of "Islamic fascists.")

It's not really getting washed out though. There are far-right, white supremacists who find Bannon's views appealing. How do you deal with that? 

Yeah, well look, he has said these guys are jokers. He says it again and again and again. The only reason these people have any play in the popular imagination whatsoever is because you guys — the mainstream media — you give them the attention they crave. In Charlottesville, there are a couple of jokers there. This is his argument, right? His argument. The world media floods there because it's so desperate to make the Trump administration look as if it's supported by racists. We have a couple of guys there with pillowcases on their heads. And you say "look." You point and say "this, this is all the proof we needed."

Steve Bannon has said again and again and again, David Duke and all the rest of them, he doesn't want their endorsement, not interested in it. He said these guys are jokers, right? Again and again and again and for him, that's the end of it. 

Editor's note: At the "Unite the Right" rally, white nationalists carried Nazi flags and chanted "Jews will not replace us." One demonstrator, James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car into counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 others. Afterward, Trump said, "You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.")

Related: What it was like that day in Charlottesville

So, how does Steve Bannon's movement and your organization police that? I mean, police that kind of far-right appeal to your message ... 

Say you're doing something on the left, right? The mainstream media would never say, "How do you police yourselves so that you don't get communists joining you?" What you've got to do, you've got to spread this story, you've got it. This is what we're doing. This is what we believe in, what and why we're doing it. And if people want to join that, fantastic. Even better if the Trump campaign demonstrated, you have your huge sways of support coming to you from the center which is how Trump found himself in the White House. It wasn't through appealing to fascists or to the Klan or anything like that. He appealed and made a perfect pitch to the political center of the country. 

How would society be different under the vision of Bannon's movement or your own? What does society not have that you want? 

It doesn't have any viable status quo. 

What do you mean by that? 

On every single metric we have, we're failing. We have accumulating debt, we have an aging population. We cannot go on as we're going at the moment. What Steve is trying to do, this is why — as you pointed out — the DHI [dignitatis humanae or Institute for Human Dignity] is very family oriented. It's what Matteo Salvini is doing here in Italy: promoting the family. What we're trying to do is to get the state back out of people's lives and give people back their own responsibility. Because the state as big as it is, is just making a mess of things. I mean, that's what we're talking about. 

I want to go back to the immigration issue because it's a huge one in Europe. You mentioned Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister of Italy, head of the League. He is the face of anti-immigration in Italy.

Mhm. Mhm.

So, that is a huge piece of that government and that's what they're putting out — a sort of xenophobia. So, how do you square that? I mean, do you support this approach? 

Well, I am a foreigner in this country since 2010. I can tell you, Carol, in recent years you go to any bar, you go to any restaurant, you talk to the Italians — it's the first thing they're going to tell you — that there's a problem here getting out of control. The political establishment didn't want to deal with the crisis, didn't want to acknowledge that there was widespread public anger about it. Matteo Salvini saw it and we responded to it. You had better ask if there anything wrong with that. I don't think this is demagoguery. I think it's perfectly legitimate because immigration here is a big problem. 

(Editor's note: In July, on Benito Mussolini's birthday, Salvini cited the dictator when he said, "more enemies, more honor." Matteo Salvini, who is leading Italy's far-right League party, also famously called for the deportation of more than half a million undocumented immigrants and made Trump-esque “Italy first” speeches.)

It is a big problem but I think anti-immigrant rhetoric can also stray into xenophobia and racism.

Nobody wants that. But here's a challenge to you, Carol, when you're out interviewing people, you should be saying — if that is your theory, I can acknowledge that it is the theory of a number of people — you should be asking your "centrist politicians" why on Earth they let this problem get out of hand? Because they could have dealt with this at any point over the last few years. 

But the other issue is in every population, there are xenophobic, kind of tribal, nativist people and I think there's a strong argument that anti-immigrant rhetoric stokes that. That's happened here in the US and it's happening in Europe. I mean, that's something that political leaders, you know, they have a lot of power and by encouraging that, they're really sowing division. I mean, why is that a good approach? 

Look, I'm not American so with the deal of respect that I should show to another country, I don't want to enter too much into thorny, politically domestic issues. But I'd like to point this observation out to you: Had it not been for the Hispanic vote, Mitt Romney would have won. And that's an illustration. Whether you think immigration is fine in the States, whether it could be tinkered with, bandaged or whatever you think it is, you cannot deny that it is having a political consequence on the country. And I think given that reality, it is reasonable for people to say, "Is this the direction that we want to go in?"

(Editor's note: Romney likely lost the Hispanic vote due to his embracing of controversial immigration laws. During the race, he sought advice from Kansas' conservative Secretary of State — and current Trump supporter — Kris Kobach. Romney publicly supported Kobach's philosophy of "self-deportation," the idea of making life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they'd rather return to their home country. Harnwell also failed to mention that the Hispanic voters he is referring to are American citizens.)

I mean, what are you trying to say? That the Hispanics determining the election is a bad thing? 

I'm just trying to say that there is a consequence. Immigration, I would suggest, needs to be handled with prudence. That is to say, you need to bring in people according to your jobs need.

But it sounds like you're suggesting that somehow bringing in Hispanics was a bad thing. I mean, of course immigrants are going to have an impact on elections. What's wrong with that? 

What I'm saying is, if you bring in a certain demographic that can change the results of the presidential election, there ought to be a conversation about that. It's not illegitimate to be having a national conversation about that. 

I think what you're saying, it sort of sounds racist that somehow you know if somebody is going to have an impact on an election, you shouldn't let them in.

Not at all. 

What's wrong with having Hispanics come in as immigrants? 

There's nothing wrong with that at all. If it's managed, if it's legal. 

You know, mainstream politicians in Europe, some of them are pushing back pretty hard at Steve Bannon and his approach to kind of working with conservative governments. You know, there's a German minister recently denounced the movement's "hatred and lies." How do you respond to that response to Steve Bannon's efforts in Europe? 

It's a beautiful thing about a democracy. If everyone sets out their stall and says what they think and people can decide for themselves who they want to listen to.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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