It reads like the outline of a Dan Brown novel. A secretive training school for far-right “culture warriors” set up by the eminence grisly of the alt-right Steve Bannon, Trump’s ideological Svengali. “The Academy for the Judeo-Christian West”, housed in a remote medieval Italian former monastery has the stated aim of becoming a “gladiator school” to train the “next generation of nationalist and populist leaders”. The idea is for them to link up and spread their hate-filled, nativist nationalist ideology across the world.
Except this isn’t yet another daft global conspiracy theory about mad monks, the illuminati or the lizard people impersonating the British royal family. It’s quite real. Fanciful, perhaps, in its ambitions, but certainly it is going about its work, and in a country that has already succumbed to a modern version of fascism under Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister who is given to quoting Benito Mussolini.
Almost exactly a century after the last rise of the far right in Europe, the fascists are returning. They are on the march again, setting to their unpleasant work with all the zeal of their forebears. These days they may wear sharp suits, or bomber jackets (not literally, yet), check shirts and jeans, but they are nonetheless the pure-blooded descendants of the blackshirts and the brownshirts of the past.
Obscure as this academy is, this particular “code” is not especially difficult to decipher.
Bannon wrote the curriculum and picked its rather exclusivist name, and it is run by a think tank by the name of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI). The DHI took on the abbey’s lease in January this year and it has some links to the British Conservative party dating back years. Bizarrely it has the plodding Conservative MEP Nirj Deva as its honorary president. To be fair to Deva, he states that his role “has largely been to promote awareness of the institute with my fellow MEPs”, particularly with regard to “to stopping abortion on demand and euthanasia”.
He added: “I don’t sit on the board or have any decision-making authority.” More appositely, Boris Johnson is said to have had some below-the-radar discussions with Bannon about the future of politics (i.e. the future of Boris), which inspired some of Boris’ more politically incorrect journalism. During his reckless phase he did have a bit of the Trump tweet about him.
If “The Academy for the Judeo-Christian West” and the DHI are at the centre of a conspiracy, it is pretty open one. Interviewed by the New York Times last year, Bannon was frank, this being their account of a meeting with this bashful man in Milan: “Stephen K. Bannon leaned back in an armchair opposite a copy of a painting by an Italian old master and explained his modest efforts to build a vast network of European populists to demolish the Continent’s political establishment.
“All I’m trying to be,” he said, “is the infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement.”
The irony, of course, is that they hardly need such infrastructure. Sure, it’s nice to have a think tank and a retreat in the hills of Lazio to meet up and chat, relax over dinner and swap stories, Davos or Bilderberg style. They can do a little plotting if they want. But in reality the leaders of the “global populist movement” – a euphemism for the far right, the neo fascists and the modern nationalists of today – know each other perfectly well.
They watch each other and learn from the experience. They hide in plain sight. Nigel Farage goes off to see Trump and has his picture taken outside a gilded lift. He speaks at his rallies. Trump tries to get him made British ambassador the US. Trump hosts Viktor Orban of Hungary, a like-minded rightist authoritarian, at the White House and declares him “a respected man” who has “done the right thing, according to many people on immigration”.
Orban, in turn, has spoken about creating a European “axis” – a word that has ugly historical connotations – against immigration which would operate within European Union institutions. Salvini is already at work on one, with a powerful echo of Bannon in its motivations. On a visit to Warsaw in January he said this: "The Europe that will be born in June will have a different pace compared to the one of today, which is guided by bureaucrats”.
"In Europe, one has always spoken about a French-German axis. We are preparing for a new equilibrium and a new energy in Europe. And Poland and Italy will be the protagonists of this new European spring, of this rebirth of true European values." He added that some EU leaders tried to deny Europe's "Judeo-Christian origins.”
Thus was the Rome-Warsaw axis born. Indeed we may even see a new Rome-Berlin Axis one day if the Alternative für Deutschland ever get to join in the fun. When this collection of fruitcakes and closet racists turn up in the European Parliament they will certainly cause trouble – and Nigel Farage's Brexit party will presumably be in the vanguard of their fresh assault on the EU.
And if any Conservatives do manage to get elected, they will not be sitting alongside Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, but in the same group as the anti-Islam Danish People’s Party, and the post-fascist Brothers of Italy, having left the European mainstream conservative group because it was too pro-EU. (Someone called David Cameron was behind that – it the one and only pledge he made during his party leadership campaign back in 2005).
It’s quite entertaining to imagine a Bannon-sponsored global get together of the world's authoritarian nationalists. Farage would be there, doing cabaret, kicking off with a few jokes, followed by Geert Wilders singing his song of freedom. Salvini would be hosting, with only the finest wines and Italian cuisine. Modi of India and Putin of Russia could share a little joke or two about the fool Trump, who would be out with the secret service detail trying to find a golf course, or a burger, or chasing skirt with Boris Johnson. Orban and Erdogan could offer a few tips on winning “free” elections to Marine le Pen and Alexander Gauland of the AfD.
Far right politicians from Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and Austria and could join symposia about how to distort conventional political structures when mainstream parties refuse to do business with them, or try to side-line them if they are invited into a junior role in government. They might invite Netanyahu and Bolsonaro for a wider perspective; maybe even Xi. Bin Salman and Duterte, too, who make the rest of the gang look like Benedictine monks.
It would be quite a get together. But the trouble – and the hope – about populist nationalism is that it is just that, the opposite of internationalism and co-operation.
Trump and Xi might respect each other, after a fashion, but their interests clash, as we see today on trade and tariffs. Salvini might love the Russians, but his Polish allies are less enthusiastic. MBS and Erdogan are not exactly aligned either. And while the AfD and the French National Rally (formerly National Front) might detest the EU’s pretensions, they have no interest in sending yet more of their taxpayers’ money south to Salvini’s bankrupted Italy. The latent anti-semitism and blatant Islamophobia in some will anger Bibi and Erdogan.
So the cosy dinner parties, seminars and policy sessions will turn to acrimony. The far right always ends up splintering. The gladiators will turn on each other. The axis will snap. You’d hope so anyway.
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