By Duncan McDonnell
Is Steve Bannon a political mastermind leading “a populist revolution that is sweeping the world”? Or is he a Wizard of Oz figure whose amplified voice in the media makes him seem far more powerful than he actually is?
While many in the international and Australian media would have us believe the former, with tales of Mr Bannon bringing right-wing populists across Europe together for the first time in his new “Movement”, those of us who actually work on these parties tend to be far more sceptical about the extent of his influence.
Right-wing alliances existed pre-Bannon
There are a number of reasons for this: first and foremost, a fact almost entirely ignored in commentary is that most right-wing populist parties in Europe have already been allied for several years.
It was therefore surprising to hear Mr Bannon recently claim:
“We have spoken to these populist nationalist parties around Europe and one of the things they say to us is that they never get the chance to talk together. They feel alone.”
The journalist did not challenge him on it, but populist nationalist parties feeling “alone” in Europe are a thing of the past.
It is true that in previous decades they tended to keep their distance from one another because of fears that this would damage their already problematic images at home.
For example, both the Northern League from Italy and the Dutch Party for Freedom used to say they would have nothing to do with the French National Front, at the time led by the anti-Semitic firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen.
But all this has changed since his daughter, Marine Le Pen, took over in 2011 and embarked on a strategy of “de-demonising” the party (which included removing her father from it).
Today, the party has a new name, Rassemblement National (National Assembly), and since 2015 it sits alongside Matteo Salvini’s League, Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom, the Austrian Freedom Party and the Flemish Vlaams Belang in the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group in the European Parliament.
Far from “being alone” these parties have not only accepted their commonalities, but proudly display them.
They have held high-profile events around Europe each year and their leaders regularly attend one another’s conventions.
The same goes for the Nordic right-wing populist parties: although they still shun Le Pen’s party, the Sweden Democrats, the Finns Party and the Danish People’s Party all sit together in the European Conservatives and Reformists group, alongside the right-wing populist Law and Justice party from Poland (and the soon-Brexiting UK Conservatives).
So, European right-wing populist alliances do not have to be invented. They already exist.
Populists themselves have dismissed Bannon
The second reason to be sceptical about Bannon’s influence is that right-wing populists themselves have dismissed his potential role.
The Sweden Democrats have said: “We aren’t following Steve Bannon’s political work. He is of no interest to us”.
The Austrian Freedom Party and the Danish People’s Party have expressed a similar lack of enthusiasm.
It is true that the New York Times (a regular champion of the idea of Mr Bannon as “master populist puppeteer”) recently ran a long story about how Bannon had enlisted Matteo Salvini into the “Movement”.
However, again there is good reason to be doubtful about the importance of this beyond a courtesy meeting between the two.
Mr Salvini – a very frequent user of social media – has not said a word about Mr Bannon in dozens of tweets since their supposed agreement to unite.
So, if the reality of Mr Bannon’s “Movement” (which, apparently, will have a Brussels office with less staff than an average pub) is far removed from the image portrayed by him and dutifully amplified by some in the media, we might ask: why all the furore?
Steve Bannon is a great story
That answer is probably obvious: Mr Bannon is a great story – the dishevelled evil genius who propelled Donald Trump into the White House and is now going to guide a series of disparate, disorganised far right figures into power in Europe.
But, apart from being a wild exaggeration, at least based on all current evidence, this reading of events does a disservice to Europe’s right-wing populists. Whatever one thinks of their policies, these are extremely competent parties that have no need of an external Svengali (whether it be Bannon or, that other favourite global bad guy, Putin).
European right-wing populists are not amateurs like One Nation that rise and fall with the wind. They are parties that have grown electorally over decades, that have increasingly become parties of government across the continent and that are ever more united at European level.
Unlike Bannon, their voice is increasingly strong and real. We should perhaps therefore take him a bit less seriously, and them far more so.
Duncan McDonnell is professor of politics at Griffith University. His book, International Populism: The Radical Right in the European Parliament, written with Annika Werner, will be published in May 2019.