He’s crisscrossing Europe because he believes it’s a bellwether for the United States. The scary thing is he could be right.
MILAN — Italy is a political laboratory. During the Cold War, the question was whether the United States could keep the Communists from power. Then Italy produced Silvio Berlusconi and scandal-ridden showman politics long before the United States elected Donald Trump. Now, on the eve of European Parliament elections likely to result in a rightist lurch, it has an anti-immigrant, populist government whose strongman, Matteo Salvini, known to his followers as “the Captain,” is the Continent’s most seductive exponent of the new illiberalism.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, has been close to Salvini for a while. That’s no surprise. Bannon is the foremost theorist and propagator of the global nationalist, anti-establishment backlash. He’s Trotsky to the Populist International. He sensed the disease eating at Western democracies — a globalized elite’s abandonment of the working class and the hinterland — before anyone. He spurred a revolt to make the invisible citizen visible and to save Western manufacturing jobs from what he calls the Chinese “totalitarian economic hegemon.”
Now Bannon is crisscrossing Europe ahead of the elections, held Thursday through next Sunday. He’s in Berlin one day, Paris the next. As he explained during several recent conversations and a meeting in New York, he believes that “Europe is six months to a year ahead of the United States on everything.” As with Brexit’s foreshadowing of Trump’s election, a victory for the right in Europe “will energize our base for 2020.” The notion of Wisconsin galvanized by Brussels may seem far-fetched, but then so did a President Trump.
Polls indicate that Salvini’s League party, transformed from a northern secessionist movement into the national face of the xenophobic right, will get over 30 percent of the Italian vote, up from 6.2 percent in 2014. Anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic parties look set to make the greatest gains, taking as many as 35 percent of the seats in Parliament, which influences European Union policy for more than a half-billion people. In France, Marine Le Pen’s nationalists are running neck-and-neck with President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-Europe party. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party has leapt ahead of the center-right and center-left.
Salvini, whose party formed a government a year ago with the out-with-the-old-order Five Star Movement, is a central figure in this shift. The coalition buried mainstream parties. He is, Bannon told me, “the most important guy on the stage right now — he’s charismatic, plain-spoken, and he understands the machinery of government. His rallies are as intense as Trump’s. Italy is the center of politics — a country that has embraced nationalism against globalism, shattered the stereotypes, blown past the old paradigm of left and right.”
For all the upheaval, I found Italy intact, still tempering transactional modernity with humanity, still finding in beauty consolation for dysfunction. The new right has learned from the past. It does not disappear people. It does not do mass militarization. It’s subtler.
- It scapegoats migrants,
- instills fear,
- glorifies an illusory past (what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “retrotopia”),
- exalts machismo,
- mocks do-gooder liberalism and
- turns the angry drumbeat of social media into its hypnotic minute-by-minute mass rally.
Salvini, the suave savior, is everywhere other than in his interior minister’s office at Rome’s Viminale Palace. He’s out at rallies or at the local cafe in his trademark blue “Italia” sweatshirt. He’s at village fairs and conventions. He’s posting on Facebook up to 30 times a day to his 3.7 million followers, more than any other European politician. (Macron has 2.6 million followers.) He’s burnishing the profile of the tough young pol (he’s 46) who
- keeps migrants out,
- loosens gun laws,
- brandishes a sniper rifle and
- winks at Fascism —
all leavened with Mr.-Nice-Guy images of him sipping espresso or a Barolo.
His domination of the headlines is relentless. When, during my visit, a woman was gang raped near Viterbo, his call for “chemical castration” of the perpetrators led the news cycle for 24 hours. Like Trump, he’s a master of saying the unsayable to drown out the rest.
“I find Salvini repugnant, but he seems to have an incredible grip on society,” Nathalie Tocci, the director of Italy’s Institute of International Relations, told me. No wonder then that the European far-right has chosen Milan for its big pre-election rally, bringing together Salvini, Le Pen, Jörg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany party and many other rightist figures.
A nationalist tide is still rising. “We need to mobilize,” Bannon told me. “This is not an era of persuasion, it’s an era of mobilization. People now move in tribes. Persuasion is highly overrated.”
Bannon gives the impression of a man trying vainly to keep up with the intergalactic speed of his thoughts. Ideas cascade. He offered me a snap dissection of American politics: blue-collar families were suckers: their sons and daughters went off to die in unwon wars; their equity evaporated with the 2008 meltdown, destroyed by “financial weapons of mass destruction”; their jobs migrated to China. All that was needed was somebody to adopt a new vernacular, say to heck with all that, and promise to stop “unlimited illegal immigration” and restore American greatness. His name was Trump. The rest is history.
In Europe, Bannon said, the backlash brew included several of these same factors. The “centralized government of Europe” and its austerity measures, uncontrolled immigration and the sense of people in the provinces that they were “disposable” produced the Salvini phenomenon and its look-alikes across the Continent.
“In Macron’s vision of a United States of Europe, Italy is South Carolina to France’s North Carolina,” Bannon told me. “But Italy wants to be Italy. It does not want to be South Carolina. The European Union has to be a union of nations.”
The fact is Italy is Italy, unmistakably so, with its high unemployment, stagnation, archaic public administration and chasm between the prosperous north (which Salvini’s League once wanted to turn into a secessionist state called Padania) and the southern Mezzogiorno. Salvini’s coalition has done nothing to solve these problems even as it has
- demonized immigrants,
- attacked an independent judiciary and
- extolled an “Italians first” nation.
A federal Europe remains a chimera, even if the euro crisis revealed the need for budgetary integration. Bannon’s vision of Brussels bureaucrats devouring national identity for breakfast is largely a straw-man argument, useful for making the European Union the focus of all 21st-century angst.
The union has delivered peace and stability. It’s the great miracle of the second half of the 20th century; no miracle ever marketed itself so badly. It has also suffered from ideological exhaustion, remoteness, division and the failure to agree on an effective shared immigration policy — opening the way for Salvini’s salvos to hit home in a country that is the first stop for many African migrants.
Salvini grew up in Milan in a middle-class family, dropped out of university, joined the League in its early days in the 1990s and was shaped by years working at Radio Padania where he would listen to Italians’ gripes. “What he heard was complaints about immigrants, Europe, the rich,” Emanuele Fiano, a center-left parliamentarian, told me. “He’s run with that and is now borderline dangerous.”
The danger is not exit from the European Union — the government has come to its senses over that — or some Fascist reincarnation. It’s what Fabrizio Barca, a former minister for territorial cohesion, called the “Orbanization of the country,” in a reference to Viktor Orban, the right-wing Hungarian leader. In other words, insidious domination through the evisceration of independent checks and balances, leading Salvini to the kind of stranglehold on power enjoyed by Orban (with a pat on the back from Trump) or by Vladimir Putin. “The European Union has been ineffective against Orban,” Barca noted. Worse, it has been feckless.
Another threat, as in Trump’s United States, is of moral collapse. “I am not a Fascist but. …” is a phrase increasingly heard in Italy, with some positive judgment on Mussolini to round off the sentence. Salvini, in the judgment of Claudio Gatti, whose book “The Demons of Salvini” was just published in Italian, is “post-Fascist” — he refines many of its methods for a 21st-century audience.
Barca told me the abandonment of rural areas — the closing of small hospitals, marginal train lines, high schools — lay behind Salvini’s rise. Almost 65 percent of Italian land and perhaps 25 percent of its population have been affected by these cuts. “Rural areas and the peripheries, the places where people feel like nobody, are home to the League and Five Star,” he said. To the people there, Salvini declares: I will defend you. He does not offer a dream. He offers protection — mainly against the concocted threat of migrants, whose numbers were in fact plummeting before he took office because of an agreement reached with Libya.
The great task before the parties of the center-left and center-right that will most likely be battered in this election is to reconnect. They must restore a sense of recognition to the forgotten of globalization. Pedro Sánchez, the socialist Spanish prime minister, just won an important electoral victory after pushing through a 22 percent rise in the minimum wage, the largest in Spain in 40 years. There’s a lesson there. The nationalist backlash is powerful, but pro-European liberal sentiment is still stronger. If European elections feel more important, it’s also because European identity is growing.
As for the curiously prescient Italian political laboratory, Bannon is investing in it. He’s established an “Academy for the Judeo-Christian West” in a 13th-century monastery outside Rome. Its courses, he told me, will include “history, aesthetics and just plain instruction in how to get stuff done, including facing up to pressure, mock TV interviews with someone from CNN or The Guardian ripping your face off.”
Bannon described himself as an admirer of George Soros — “his methods, not his ideology” — and the way Soros had built up “cadres” throughout Europe. The monastery is the nationalist response to Soros’s liberalism. There’s a war of ideas going on in Italy and the United States. To shun the fight is to lose it. I am firmly in the liberal camp, but to win it helps to know and strive to understand one’s adversary.
Luntz warns that “if the dynamic becomes ‘President Obama is on the side of reform and Republicans are against it,’ then the battle is lost and every word in this document is useless.’”
.. Luntz establishes a straw man argument against a non-existent health plan.
.. “Humanize your approach,” but argue that health care reform “will result in delayed and potentially even denied treatment, procedures and/or medications.” “Acknowledge the crisis” but ask your constituents “would you rather… ‘pay the costs you pay today for the quality of care you currently receive,’ OR ‘Pay less for your care, but potentially have to wait weeks for tests and months for treatments you need.”
.. “This plays into more favorable Republican territory by protecting individual care while downplays the need for a comprehensive national plan,” the memo states.
.. Readers are also instructed to conflate Obama’s fairly moderate hybrid approach to reform (i.e. building on the current private/public system of delivering health care) with “denial horror stories from Canada & Co.”
.. Republicans will provide “in a word, more: ‘more access to more treatments and more doctors…with less interference from insurance companies and Washington politicians and special interests.’”
.. pretending that the Republicans actually have some kind of health care solution (the memo instructs Republicans to focus on targeting waste, fraud and abuse).
It specifically tested the following statement of reality, which involves the conjunction of two postulates. One is that if you have a system that can be in one of two states, that at any given time it’s in one of those states. So either you’re in Oxford or you’re in Cambridge, but not both at the same time. The other is that you can find out which it is without affecting the subsequent history of the state, or in fact the previous history of the state. That’s called a non-invasive measurement. And the experiment we did showed that both of those could not, at the same time, be true.
.. So what these experiments are beginning to do is to take some of these candidate interpretations of reality, within the context of quantum theory, and make some progress in which of them you can and cannot believe.
.. So, for example, some of the experiments we’re doing now may lead to information communication technologies that use much less electricity than current technologies do. At the moment, information and communication technology uses about 5% of the world’s electricity. It’s only 5% but it’s 5% of a very big number. The carbon emissions are similar to those produced by the whole world airline industry.
.. We already know, for example, that part of photosynthesis involves quantum interference, and there’s good evidence that the avian compass—bird navigation—may sometimes use quantum processes.
.. The amazing thing about that is that unlike Deep Blue, which 20 years or so ago was programmed to play chess, AlphaGo was programmed to learn how to play Go.
.. I still am, at heart, a critical realist, but I now understand better what the problems are in thinking through that. I still think that, in practice, I do my science as if there is an objective reality to describe, but I do it with an awareness that the nature of that reality may be more subtle, and perhaps more interesting, than I’d at first thought.
.. My own motivation for the book was that as someone with a passion for science and a firm faith in God, I wanted to understand better how the science fits into the relationship. How does science fit into knowing God?
.. looking through the books you’ve chosen, the theme seems to be that the polarization of science and religion is not very helpful.
Indeed. Particularly when we get to what’s probably the most explicitly scholarly of all the books—The Territories of Science and Religion—we will see just how a very distinguished historian, Peter Harrison, has taken that to pieces.
.. ‘Suppose that nobody could have any children anymore. How then would we live? What would we live for? And what would our purpose be?’ She explores how different people would respond, and how different people would live in that situation.
.. There were very good reasons, in quantum theory, for not being able to do error correction in the way you can in a classical computer — namely that you can’t copy quantum information, you can’t have a quantum photocopier in the way you can for ordinary information. Andrew thought of a whole new way of overcoming that, which changed the field and made it feasible to have error correction.
.. Aren’t most scientists atheist? The data on American scientists seems to show that.
The scene in America is very different from the scene in Britain. There’s a very different history. In Britain we’ve got a very rich heritage of distinguished scientists who are people of strong Christian faith
.. the best surveys that have been done seem to indicate that a majority of elite scientists would describe themselves as spiritual persons. In science, there is a genuine pleasure from getting an experiment to work or developing a new technology, or solving a theoretical problem. That can be experienced by people whether or not they have a relationship with God. But I think what Andrew would say, and what I would say, is that that pleasure is hugely enriched when it’s in the context of a relationship with the Creator, whose work you’re studying.
.. Peter Harrison starts with (another) striking thought experiment, if you like. He says if a historian were to contend that he or she had discovered evidence of a hitherto unknown war that had broken out in the year 1600 between Israel and Egypt, what would your response be?
.. the 1600s, those territories didn’t exist with those designations. Of course the bits of land, the hills, the mountains existed, the topography existed, but not with those labels. What he is showing, in an immensely scholarly way, is that these labels of science and religion—although nowadays we think we know what they mean—are rather recent and no more applicable to most of intellectual and cultural history than the labels of Israel and Egypt would have been to those territories in 1600. And therefore a lot of misunderstandings arise because people are applying incorrect categories.
.. The idea of religion as a distinct body of knowledge is a surprisingly recent one,
.. In the 17th century, Rene Descartes defines scientia as the skill to solve every problem.
Religio, in the Middle Ages, was a virtue. It referred to internal acts of devotion and prayer. This interior dimension is more important than any outward expression—that’s according to Aquinas, in the 13th century. There is no sense in which religio refers to systems of proposition of beliefs, and no sense of different religions. They’re inner virtues.
.. And he wants to replace the ‘and’ with ‘of.’ He wants to talk about a theology of science.
.. the Book of Job. The book is worth it for that chapter alone. Job would have been a fantastic scientist. He didn’t have the mathematics that we have, he didn’t have the
God asks him well over 100 different questions about the material world—mainly the animal world, but not only. They’re all fabulous questions. In the context of these big ultimate questions Job is a very rich book.
.. He disagrees with probably the majority of commentators, who would say that what God says to Job out of the whirlwind does not answer Job’s questions. Tom McLeish faces that square on, he even disagrees with one of the leading scholars in the field, David Clines. But it’s not a one sentence, knockdown answer. And I don’t think these ultimate questions lend themselves to that. If you’re asking for an answer to the question, ‘Why do innocent people suffer?’ if someone said, ‘I can give you a one sentence, complete answer to that question,’ I would treat it with great scepticism. I don’t think it’s the sort of question that lends itself to a simple, formulaic answer.
.. the desire of science to maximise the benefit from the slipstream of ultimate questions, the temptation to get too close can be very strong. If the wheels do touch—by which I mean trying to make science answer religious questions or vice versa—then you can get a chute in which everyone falls over.
.. Although he was put on trial, he was never sent to jail. The issue was more about whether or not Galileo was allowed to teach these things.
.. It’s another thought experiment: What would happen if incontrovertible evidence was found of the human remains of Jesus in Jerusalem? i.e. a skeleton was found that could undoubtedly be identified as the Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified?
.. he does is to look at the responses of different individuals and different groups of people to the discovery that Jesus did not rise from the dead.
.. Deism, in this context, means a belief in a God who was responsible for the creation of the world, but has no further involvement in it. Theologians would say no revelation. The demise of deism was inherent in it, because you can’t relate to such a do-nothing god. It makes no sense to pray to him or anything like that.
.. His research career ended fairly soon after his doctorate. You won’t find many scholarly papers by him in peer reviewed international journals. But the public engagement of science is a hugely important activity and he started out his career absolutely brilliant at it.
.. If you’re going to engage in an argument with people that you disagree with—which is a healthy activity, at least at Oxford—you need to engage with the best and the strongest of their arguments and not the weakest of their arguments and still more not with a caricature of them.
.. Many people feel that his books have, as time has gone by, shouted louder and louder with weaker and weaker arguments. I don’t know of any scholar who takes the arguments in his more recent books at all seriously, except, perhaps, in one or two cases to counter them.
.. Actually my favourite answer to Richard Dawkins is by John Cornwell, who has written a lovely book entitled Darwin’s Angel: An Angelic Riposte to ‘The God Delusion.’ , in which the angel gives advice to Dawkins about how to think more clearly.