World News

Italy’s Most Powerful Politician Joins Steve Bannon’s ‘Movement’

Posted September 7, 2018 9:11 p.m. EDT

The most powerful figure in Italy’s new populist government signed up Friday with Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, to help bring about a continentwide populist takeover during European Parliamentary elections next spring.

Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister and the leader of the anti-immigrant party the League, has joined The Movement, a group founded by Bannon, the minister’s spokeswoman confirmed.

Salvini, whose popularity has grown with his power, amounts to Bannon’s first big get, lending legitimacy to his project and making it more likely that other Euroskeptic and populist politicians will join as well.

In an interview in Rome on Friday, Bannon said he and Salvini spoke for more than an hour in Salvini’s frescoed government offices about how his new Brussels-based organization would offer a “loose association” and physical space for right-wing populist leaders to meet and get to know one another and form alliances.

They would also, he said, offer the “fundamental building blocks for winning” in the May parliamentary elections, including expertise in polling, data analytics, messaging and get-out-the-vote efforts, along with the development of media surrogates and campaign war rooms with rapid response.

The European Parliament has some legislative, budgetary and supervisory powers over the European Union, but elections of its representatives from all of the union’s members also make the body a political bellwether for the mood of the Continent.

Many political analysts doubt that a Pan-European campaign will appeal to very different voters across borders. But Bannon was confident that Europe, like the United States in 2016, was ripe for “a tectonic shift.”

Bannon said that with his help as the “connective tissue” and a common opponent in French President Emmanuel Macron, he liked his chances. His colleagues in the project, unsurprisingly, agreed.

“The fact that we have Salvini on board will clearly show that this is the place to be for the unifying of the populist movement in Europe,” said Mischaël Modrikamen, the executive director of Bannon’s new organization. He also attended the meeting with Salvini, as did Jeff Kwatinetz, Bannon’s former Hollywood business partner and a powerful talent manager.

On Friday night, Giorgia Meloni, another prominent right-wing Italian politician and the leader of the Brotherhood of Italy, said she, too, intended to join Bannon’s group. She said she had told him as much this week when they met in Venice.

Meloni said she expected to officially join when both Bannon and Salvini are expected to speak, separately, at her party’s Sept. 21-22 rally in Rome.

Salvini has emerged as a hero to populists, and a villain to liberals in Italy and Europe for his willingness to turn away migrants — often shipwrecked and destitute — from Italy’s shores.

Bannon and Modrikamen described Salvini as enthusiastic about their project and eager to work more closely with populist leaders around the Continent, whether in Hungary, Austria, Poland, Finland or Denmark.

“I asked him, ‘Do you want to join?,'” Modrikamen said. He said, ‘Yes.'”

“I asked him, ‘Could hebe present at the first event?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And I asked him if he felt we needed to get all the national movements under one tent. He said, ‘Yes.’ Three yeses.”

Last month in Milan, Salvini met with Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose crackdowns on immigration and whose championing of national sovereignty have made him a leading figure in right-wing populist politics.

“We want to change Europe’s commission,” Salvini said after the Milan meeting. “We want to protect our borders. We are going to fight pro-migrant policies supported by Macron.”

Orban added: “European elections are coming. We have to change a lot of things.”

“There are two sides at the moment in Europe,” he continued. “One is led by Macron, who is supporting migration. The other one is supported by countries who want to protect their borders. Hungary and Italy belong to the latter.” Bannon said his group’s pollsters, John McLaughlin and Pat Caddell, both of whom have worked for prominent U.S. politicians, could potentially work with Orban’s pollster in Hungary or with right-wing consultants in Poland, or wherever their assistance was needed.

Bannon said that in the meeting Friday with Salvini, he compared the way he believes the establishment in the United States sought to sabotage Trump to the way Rome’s entrenched powers had sought to stop Salvini.

He also brought up an op-ed article in The New York Times, written by an unidentified senior administration official, which acknowledged an effort by the “steady state” to restrain Trump.

Bannon told Salvini that recent investigations of the Italian interior minister showed the same dynamic at play. He also told Salvini — who has delighted of late in baiting liberal critics by echoing Mussolini — that ancient detractors sought to block or kill Julius Caesar by claiming he, too, was a danger to the stability of the state.

“He fully agreed,” said Modrikamen.

In recent weeks, Sicilian prosecutors have investigated whether Salvini committed criminal acts by refusing to let a boatload of migrants, rescued by an Italian coast guard ship in the Mediterranean Sea, disembark in Italy.

And this week, a Genoa court allowed authorities to freeze the assets of Salvini’s party as part of an investigation into the disappearance of tens of millions of euros from its accounts.

Salvini has shrugged those off as distractions. Bannon agreed, saying that by March the campaign for the European Parliament would be in full swing, with the intensity of the American presidential election in 2016, and that everyone will be talking about it “in cafes around Europe.”

“This will be the time for the populists to take over,” Bannon said.

His goal, he said, is less winning a majority of legislators than sending enough populists to gum up Parliament and block the agenda of Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and thus “command by negation.”

Modrikamen added that he envisioned Salvini and other members of The Movement meeting in Brussels to hammer out common positions and to coalesce as a “blocking power.” Bannon attracted new attention this week when The New Yorker disinvited him from its annual festival because liberal celebrities and writers had protested his inclusion. He met with Meloni this week in Venice, where he was doing publicity for the world premiere of “American Dharma,” a portrait of Bannon by the veteran documentary maker Errol Morris, at the Venice Film Festival.

Bannon brought some extra star power to the Friday meeting — Kwatinetz, a manager and television producer with links to, and feuds with, some of the most influential people in the entertainment industry.

Salvini, Bannon recounted, had said he was impressed that the producer had come “all the way from Hollywood.” Bannon said he told the Italian political leader to be careful because “he’s looking to manage you.”

After the meeting, Bannon said Kwatinetz, a political liberal, told him he was impressed with Salvini. The Italian’s charisma, his bluejeans and white sneakers, his blue blazer and white shirt convinced him “that he’s got it. Star quality.”