Photo Gallery: Searching for Old Glory in Europe

Foto: Moritz Hager/ REUTERS

The Stephen Bannon Project Searching in Europe for Glory Days Gone By

It used to be that Europeans would head to the New World on the search for a new start. Former White House strategist Stephen Bannon, though, has made the journey in reverse. Contrary to his grand plans, however, he's not making much progress.

Early in the morning, before he grabs for his three cell phones, Stephen Bannon sits in a brown, leather armchair in his bedroom and meditates. Twenty minutes of silence followed by an examination of what lies ahead for the day - and then a bit of what he calls divine reading. Currently, he is focusing on the history of the Catholic Church. He says the routine helps him avoid going completely crazy. Or, in Bannon's own voice: "Without meditating I would go fucking insane."

He sinks into the armchair next to the bed like a tired gorilla. Gray stubble, stringy hair, red nose, gaping pores. At first glance, one might think that he had a bit too much Rioja the night before, but his only visitors were a couple of people from the White House who stayed late. He slept two, three hours, then an idea, a message, a thought jerked him out of bed, as is so often the case. Bannon doesn't drink alcohol, only water, coffee and Red Bull.

His bedroom is that of someone who views his life in the context of history, someone who is obsessed with battles and fights, and who surrounds himself with violence, death, adrenaline, importance. On his bedside table are books about Adolf Hitler and World War II, next to the bleached jawbone of an alligator an acquaintance sent him from Florida. The room is a re-creation of Abraham Lincoln's bedroom in the White House. "Only much brighter and twice the size," says Bannon. The shelves next to the bed are packed with war literature.

"I am fascinated by figures like Genghis Khan, Napoleon or Lord Nelson," he says. "Now that I'm involved, I feel in history you can see individuals have a big impact. The thing that always amazed me about Hitler is how a guy like him, a bum from Vienna who was so out of the loop, could rise to power in Germany."

Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler. Such are the characters who dominate the Bannonian world. Indeed, one hardly even needs to leave this bedroom to explain the man.

Bannon has two turbulent years behind him. In August 2016, Trump appointed him campaign manager before then hiring him as chief White House strategist. Newspapers described him as a combination of Mephisto, a nihilist and a rogue -- and as someone who waged ugly battles with Trump's favorite daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband Jared Kushner. In August of last year, Bannon left the government after Chief of Staff John Kelly grew tired of Bannon's provocations.

History Is Much Bigger

It could have been a new beginning, but Bannon didn't want to accept his loss of power. He returned to Breitbart News, which he called "my killing machine," as executive chairman. But that wasn't enough. He wanted to be in the fray. Earlier this year, Michael Wolff quoted Bannon in his book "Fire and Fury" as saying that Ivanka is "dumb as a brick" and that Donald Trump Jr. was "treacherous."

After that, his conservative financial backers -- hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah -- withdrew their support. Ultimately, Bannon also lost Breitbart. Suddenly, he was alone, without money, without friends, without power and without his killing machine. Trump called him "sloppy Steve." Everyone laughed.

He lifts himself out of his leather armchair. In five hours, his flight leaves for London, where he will be making an appearance at an event organized by Bloomberg, the media conglomerate. Then he will meet with Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing party formerly known as Front National (now called Rassemblement National, or National Rally) in Paris. He talks about the United Kingdom's exit from the EU, about 19th-century Russian serfs and the rightward lurch in Europe.

His new project is the European Union parliamentary election in May 2019. In late July, he introduced a foundation called The Movement that is to provide logistical help for right-wing parties on the Continent, things like polling, data, analysis and campaign training. Bannon says he wants to use his experience from the Trump years, but this is about more than Europe. History is much bigger. It is about Stephen Bannon, about whether a warrior can win one more battle.

It was mid-August when he extended the invitation to visit him at his home, which he calls the "Embassy," located in Washington D.C.'s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Visitors are initially led into an apartment on the ground floor with a low ceiling, stuffy air and Fox News on the TV. This is where Bannon's crew sits. Filmmaker Daniel Fleuette is busy packing his suitcase for his next trip. Bannon's nephew Sean, who handles the stream of visitors, is zipping around. A man hacks away on his laptop while a woman named Elaine says she is just helping out. A Brit named Raheem Kassam, who used to be an adviser to Brexiteer Nigel Farage, occasionally stops by.

Not Entirely Forgotten

Working for Bannon isn't easy. The boss might spontaneously decide to travel to Texas and order them to come along. Fleuette draws deeply on an e-cigarette, engulfing himself in a cloud of smoke. "I bike to work every morning, 20 minutes, that's all the workout I get these days," he says. On the table are several notepads from hotels Bannon has stayed in, covered in chaotic notes. In the basement, keyboards are clacking, cell phones are vibrating.

The air is a bit better upstairs. Bannon walks into the living room from the kitchen, clearly in a good mood. His Europe plans have triggered a gratifying amount of panic and fear. He asks how long the article about him in DER SPIEGEL will be. "Will I be on the cover?"

Washington in August is busy talking about the book by Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former Trump employee who accused the president of racism. One day earlier, Bannon told friends, the White House had called asking if he would go on a Sunday talk show to defend Trump. Bannon said he would happily do so, but only if Ivanka went on before him. Trump's favorite daughter is Bannon's archenemy. He is still happy about this nasty anecdote, partly because it shows that he hasn't entirely been forgotten at the center of power.

Bannon says that there is radio silence between him and Trump and that they only communicate via their lawyers. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is still investigating whether Trump's election team in 2016 cooperated with the Russians and Bannon had to testify. He needs to be careful, he says.

We sit down at the dining room table and he picks up a book, a biography of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. "That's my guy," Bannon says. Heidegger, he says, had some good ideas on the subject of being, which fascinates him. This is what conversations with him are like: He jumps from the depths of politics to the heights of philosophy, from the swamp to Heidegger in five seconds. What sets us apart from animals or rocks, Bannon asks? What does it mean to be human? How far should digital progress go?

And regarding Germany? He admires Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's documentary filmmaker. As a person, he says, she may have had her flaws, the whole Nazi thing. But, he says, she was "one of the top five directors of all time."

His nephew Sean announces the next visitor. "Get some water," said Bannon. On the walk to the door, he points to a photo on the mantlepiece showing his oldest daughter Maureen six years ago in Iraq. Maureen was a soldier in the 101st airborne division of the U.S. Army. In the photo, she has an assault rifle in her lap. "She's sitting on Saddam's throne," he says, smiling.

Lots of Talk, Little Action

He likes this aura of being an insurgent, an angry, disheveled guerilla stirring up the establishment. He says he is planning a press conference in Brussels before attending the premiere of a right-wing propaganda film in New York and then a campaign appearance for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) ahead of the state elections in Bavaria. He says he is impressed by the politicians of the AfD -- especially the two women at the top, Alice Weidel and Beatrix von Storch. He squints as he tries to pronounce their names. "Alishweidl? Bietrishshtorsh?"

The thing is, he will only actually end up doing very little of what he says he will. Neither the press conference in Brussels, nor the premiere in New York nor the campaign appearance in Bavaria come to pass. Bannon is adept at feeding journalists breadcrumbs. Often, though, nothing ultimately happens.

Bannon's vision of Germany is, like his entire worldview, shaped by what he sees as an impending apocalypse. He says German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision in 2015 to take in refugees fleeing the war in Syria will tear apart the society, and claims the government is knowingly walking into the disaster. "Merkel and her gang want to destroy Germany," he says, adding that the chancellor is dangerous. "That bitch."

Like Trump, he thinks the United States were taken advantage of by Europe for decades. He says Germany's rise after World War II was only possible because American soldiers provided security at the risk of their own lives and with the support of American taxpayers.

The best way to understand Bannon is to picture him as a travelling salesman peddling ideas that he hopes might take root. Trump, Bannon once said, was an "imperfect vessel" for his revolution: personally flawed, ideologically flexible, but great on TV. Bannon needs vessels, he needs incendiaries. He will only be satisfied when the flames are blazing around him.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 43/2018 (October 20th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.

It's a Saturday in late September as he walks onto a stage in Rome. The right-wing splinter party Brothers of Italy invited him to their party convention and by chance, Bannon had a bit of free time. Behind him, Darren -- a former British infantryman who is in charge of security for Bannon -- has his arms crossed in front of his chest. Bannon speaks without a script. His talk begins with the low birthrate in Italy, touches on microchips and genetic design, and ends with the extermination of humankind.

'Destruction of the Human Race!'

If we allow the elites to hold onto power in London, Paris, New York and Silicon Valley, Bannon says, they will completely redefine homo sapiens in 25 years. "The ultimate destruction of the human race!" he yells. Then he climbs into his limousine and drives back to his five-star hotel on the Piazza del Popolo.

He originally intended to travel from Rome across Europe, a tour through a half-dozen countries. That, at least, is what he told Bloomberg. But that, too, has been cancelled.

Instead, he charters a private jet and flies to Prague for a half-day visit with Czech President Milos Zeman. AfD lawmaker Petr Bystron, who comes from the Czech Republic, is there as well. Speaking by Skype from Berlin, Bystron says the atmosphere in Prague was relaxed: "Zeman's spokesman came in sneakers." He says there was coffee and cake, they complained about the European Union and the president listened as Bannon described his project. The next stop: Budapest, for a meeting with people close to the country's right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban.

Bystron says that "Bannon is being welcomed in Eastern Europe like the representative of God on earth."

Three days after his trip through Eastern Europe, God's representative is sitting in his suite in Rome. There are croissants and coffee on the table and Bannon is wearing a hoodie with the words "US Army" on the front. Raheem Kassam, the former adviser to Farage, is busy hammering out emails on his laptop. Bannon says he was happy to learn the previous evening that Merkel's preferred candidate for her party's parliamentary floor leader had lost. He sees it as confirmation that the Berlin establishment is approaching the end. The apocalypse is on the horizon. "We're on the right side of history," he says.

Bannon has been involved in Europe during two decisive phases of its history. Once in the 1980s, when he made deals for Goldman Sachs in Paris and London. The second time was in the 2010s, during the crisis.

Big Plans, Not Much Follow Through

Ahead of the 2014 European Parliament elections, he travelled through the British countryside with Nigel Farage, who was head of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) at the time. Back then, Bannon didn't know European elections existed. What surprised him even more: that a largely unknown person like Nigel Farage was able to get 24 seats in European Parliament. "Suddenly, he had political power," Bannon says.

The Englishman showed Bannon what Europe, in his view, actually was: a pile of bureaucrats who are destroying England. On the phone, Farage says it was fun going to the pubs with Bannon. "We did what most politicians don't do anymore. We went to see ordinary folks."

Is it true that Bannon wants to hire him as a paid advisor? "Nothing has been signed yet," Farage says.

Dreams of Destroying the State

In the afternoon, Raheem Kassam steps out into the inner courtyard and takes a deep drag from his American Spirit. He seems exhausted. He is only 32, but Europe is his third battle, following Brexit and Breitbart, whose London office he led. His home is in Washington, but he essentially lives on an airplane. Bannon wants Kassam to be present at most conversations, but earlier, Kassam had excused himself and collapsed onto his hotel bed, his head whirring. He lay there for a mere 15 minutes before a text message from his boss jolted him awake.

"All the right-wing guys in Europe want is to get control of the state. That's the main difference to us in the U.S.," Bannon says. "Their statism is so imbued into the public consciousness. Salvini and these guys in Italy want to win elections in order to get their hands on the control of the Italian state and then bend it to their will." He says the same is true of the AfD and of the Rassemblement National. Unfortunately, he says, nobody has come up with the idea of destroying the state itself.

He continues his search for vessels, but it isn't easy. He wants war, and nobody is biting. In an interview in July, Jörg Meuthen of the AfD said his party doesn't need any "coaching from outside the EU." In early October, Marine Le Pen felt it necessary to distance herself from Bannon, together with Italian right-wing populist Matteo Salvini. Only Europeans, she said, should save Europe.

Not all right-wing populists like it when an American tells them what to do. They are currently working on uniting the right-wing parties in European Parliament into a single parliamentary group. The last thing they need is an incendiary from Washington to meddle in their plans. Bannon says he needs to sit down for a coffee with Meuthen.

The AfD, by contrast, appears to have no such qualms. Sven von Storch, husband of Beatrix von Storch, a prominent German parliamentarian from the AfD, travelled to Rome in September to meet with Bannon. The American firebrand also regularly speaks with AfD co-leader Weidel. The previous week he once again flew to Paris to meet Le Pen. They agreed on a compromise: Bannon affirmed that he would stay out of the European Parliament election, but that he would offer the populists "technical help," which, according to a leading member of the Rassemblement National, they would naturally accept.

For the moment, it seems as though Bannon is destroying things more than he is building them.

There are, though, also people sitting not so far from the center of Europe who still worship Bannon. Mischaël Modrikamen's home is located on a hill outside Brussels, surrounded by chestnut and beech trees. An iron gate opens and Rudi, the chauffeur, can be seen in the driveway with a vacuum, cleaning the Mercedes. A moment later, the man of the house enters the entry hall, dressed in a blazer and tie, with a blue pocket square.

A Club, Nothing More

"Breakfast?" Modrikamen asks.

It's a pleasant place to talk about the right-wing revolution. Outside, the sun glints on the pool while inside, the maid busies herself putting out bowls with carefully cut apple and banana slices. Modrikamen was born to a Jewish mechanic in Poland, studied law, obtained huge settlements for small savers and became wealthy. He rose through the ranks, becoming part of his country's elite and decided to try his hand at politics. But he was laughed at by the establishment and ignored -- before suddenly seeing a very similar type of man make it into the White House.

In January 2017, shortly before the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, Modrikamen launched a foundation in Brussels called "The Movement." Its goal is to unite the European rightwing. "It is to be a club, nothing more," says Modrikamen in his French accent.

Modrikamen spent a long time trying to catch Bannon's eye, and it was Nigel Farage who ultimately helped him secure a meeting in July. Bannon said he would become involved if he could be the boss and Modrikamen couldn't believe his luck. "Steve and I understand each other blindly. We think alike. I can finish his sentences for him."

These days, Modrikamen answers questions almost daily from foreign media. The previous day, it was a film crew from VICE waiting for him at the airport. The Belgian tells most journalists the same story: That because he is a part of the establishment he knows how corrupt it is. That is why he is now fighting for the common folk. Essentially, though, he and Bannon are fighting for the exact same thing: themselves.

Modrikamen says his club wants to offer services to members in advance of the European election: a forum for exchanges, polls and experts as well as a situation center that responds to events, sends out position statements and places right-wing talking heads on talk shows. "We don't have to teach Salvini or Orban how to win elections," he says. "But smaller parties will be happy to have the support."

He climbs the stairs to the top floor. His right-wing nationalist Parti Populaire party is headquartered directly above his bedroom. A secretary, a financial expert and three political strategists are there, along with three stocky men staring into their computers -- the IT department. They all work in the 200-square-meter (2000-square-foot) space. There is even a billiards room. He says he plans to modify two or three offices for The Movement. He runs his fingers along the billiards table. It might soon have to go -- to make room for Bannon.

It's not clear where the money for the club is coming from. Modrikamen says the staffing costs for the 10 to 12 employees are negligible, with the only real expensive part being the surveys and the analysts needed to interpret them. He himself won't invest a penny, he says, adding that he has already put plenty of time into the project.

When asked about it later, Bannon says: "Money isn't an issue." There are several billionaires in Europe who are willing to provide their support, he insists. But he declines to name any names.

Next Target: The Vatican

It's late September and Bannon is sitting in British Airways business class. He has agreed to fly from Rome to Los Angeles for a 10-minute appearance on a TV show. Bannon said, "I'll probably get my teeth kicked in, but whatever. Sharpens the blade."

From L.A., he flies back to Washington for a dinner he has organized at his home, The Embassy, for conservative Catholics. Think-tank employees show up along with former Trump advisors, TV host Laura Ingraham, bankers, the German socialite and conservative activist Gloria Princess of Thurn und Taxis as well as Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the former bishop of Regensburg. Müller served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for five years until Pope Francis replaced him. Another man who was spit out, like Bannon, Farage, Modrikamen and all the rest.

Bannon says he intends to establish a right-wing populist think tank south of Rome in an old convent. But because the convent requires renovations, he stumbled across St. Emmeram's Abbey in Regensburg on the search for a temporary home. The abbey belongs to the Thurn und Taxis family. "We could start with seminars in spring next year. I want to talk about media," Bannon says.

In early October, he walks out of a TV studio in New York, where he was working on a film series about the consequences of digitalization. It's focus was the downfall of humanity; it's only the big issues for Bannon. An SUV the size of a small tank is waiting outside, having been organized by his nephew. "Do we get the SPIEGEL cover?" Sean asks.

Bannon climbs into the open rear door. While the driver snakes through New York's afternoon traffic, Bannon ponders the future of the Catholic church. Like many other institutions, he says, the Vatican has been infiltrated by the left in recent decades. Bannon wants to bring the church back to its beginnings, ideally back to the Middle Ages. He would like to tear down the Vatican just as he wants to do with the modern administrative state.

When asked how he reconciles his Catholic faith with his three divorces, he says: "According to the church I was never married. My first marriage was annulled. Then I was married twice outside the church and got civil divorces -- so this doesn't count."

Almost Like Trump

Maybe there's not much else to say. Bannon has been sidelined, as he well knows himself -- like a director trying to recreate his greatest hit. He doesn't care if he is causing confusion in Europe. What's important, he says, is the "camaraderie" among like-minded people. His favorite quote comes from the 17th century poem "Paradise Lost" by John Milton: "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."

His plan to push Europe to the right remains vague. He talks a lot and does little. The movement is currently made up of Bannon's exhausted staff and Modrikamen's billiard room. For the most part, he has financed his revolution with his own money -- the flights, the hotels, the assistants and Darren, the British bodyguard. "One-and-a-half-million dollars, or two million." That, he says, is how much it has cost so far. But he is using that money to buy himself an important good: attention.

In an email, Thurn und Taxis describes Bannon's plan as "brave." She writes: "I welcome anything that makes election campaigns, especially the EU elections campaign, more colorful and exciting." Nevertheless, she declines to allow Bannon the use of her castle for his think tank. "St. Emmeram is certainly not available."

Bannon, though, seems to have long since found his next mission. The Vatican. He says he is impressed by Cardinal Müller. A heavy-set man, around 180 centimeters (6 feet) tall, good charisma, strong presence. "Would be a fantastic pope," Bannon says. He looks out the window. Central Park rushes by outside. Yes, he says, Müller is telegenic. Almost like Trump.

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