The Corner

Politics & Policy

Steve Bannon and His Friends

Steve Bannon with National Front party leader Marine Le Pen in Lille, France, in March. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

Steve Bannon is back in the news this week, triumphant in the wake of Italy’s formation of a populist government and other recent elections that brought euroskeptic parties to power.

He sat for an interview with the Spectator USA’s Nicholas Farrell in Rome, where he held forth on the state of politics on both sides of the Atlantic. His comments are typically Bannonesque:

“The Party of Davos is in total panic on Italy.”

“I have to be very careful. Nick, we’re in a global war.”

And some thoughts about France’s president that are a real hoot, though probably not appropriate to share here.

What caught my attention, though, was this:

Marine Le Pen described it perfectly. It’s no longer left versus right. That’s the old politics. What Italy shows you is that the fight now is between those who believe the nation state is an obstacle to be thrown out and those who believe it’s a jewel to be polished.

He revealed that his people are “talking to Bernie’s guys all the time.” He compared the alliance between Italy’s left-wing and right-wing populist parties to coalitions between Jeremy Corbyn and UKIP, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and he welcomes a parallel that Farrell suggests between Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

To say the least — as hypothetical and far-fetched as these partnerships seem — this thought is terrifying.

The Left–Right political divide isn’t dead, but some people have an interest in making you believe that it is. You can split them into two camps: European (and European-style) populist nationalists and neoliberal technocrats, who both have much to gain at the ballot box if voters accept this notion. While on opposite sides of the debates over the European Union and globalization, they mobilize support around arguments about newer wedge issues, casting aside the political labels of yesteryear. This was best exhibited during last spring’s presidential election in France, when the National Front’s Marine Le Pen argued that the contest was between “patriots” and globalists.

A reality check is in order: Today, French public opinion views Emmanuel Macron as right-wing, while the greatest threat to his reformist agenda — which comprises tax and entitlement cuts, labor-market liberalization, education reform, and more — comes from the pro-labor Left and its populist allies. And elsewhere, the Left–Right divide seems to hold, at least for now.

Bannon et al. aren’t wrong to intimate that they are similar in some respects to left-wing leaders, but this says more about him and his friends than about the Left, which generally views “let them call you racist” populism as unfathomable. But the inclination toward cross-partisan camaraderie, epitomized by the Italian imbroglio, shows the populist Right’s proclivity to pursue a more powerful welfare state — and here it does have plenty in common with the Jeremy Corbyns of the world.

Towards the end of the interview Bannon makes an unforced error, giving in to the same reductionist argumentation as that of American campus activists — “Look at the elites. It’s total fascism.” — depriving the term of its gravity.

That’s 2018, folks. Left is Right, populism is conservative, and everything is fascism.

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