By ERIC REGULY
Tuesday, April 23, 2019
COLLEPARDO, ITALY -- In the early 13th century, when the reclusive Carthusian monks chose to build a monastery on the Italian peninsula, they went big and they went remote.
Their Certosa di Trisulti monastery, as it's called, is in the middle of nowhere by jam-packed Italian standards. It's plastered on a high slope - 825 metres above sea level - in central Italy's Ernici mountains, about two hours by car southeast of Rome. The nearest town, Collepardo, is a 15-minute grind down the mountain. From the monastery itself, all I could see was forest and snow-capped mountaintops.
The enormous structure, whose construction was sponsored by the formidable Pope Innocent III, was once home to about 100 monks and workers. Today, its last fulltime residents are a chef-gardener, an 83year-old priest who still says a mass every day and a couple dozen feral cats.
Welcome to the site for Steve Bannon's new school of populism, formally called the Academy for the Judeo-Christian West.
It is here that Mr. Bannon, who was Donald Trump's campaign manager and chief strategist, is building his next populist, nationalist, anti-establishment, Judeo-Christian propaganda machine.
While the school's launch was planned before populist parties formed the Italian government last year, their victory has convinced Mr. Bannon that his concept is arriving at the right place at the right time.
The school will be a key component in spreading his hoped-for populist revolution across Europe, not just now, but for decades. His effort already includes The Movement, his Brussels group that provides data and advice to populist parties ahead the European Union's parliamentary elections in May.
Mr. Bannon has found inspiration in the success of Italy's populist parties, which operate both cheaply and efficiently while garnering votes. He is hoping the Italian example can spread itself across Europe, boosting the number of staunchly conservative thinkers there.
In an interview in Rome a couple of weeks after my visit to the monastery, Mr.Bannon said the project will try to replicate what the left has done in creating institutions to promote the liberal economic and social agenda. "It's one of the reasons I so admire what the left has done," he says.
"This is the stuff that [liberal democrat billionaire] George Soros has done in his training academies. They have done a much better job than people on the right.
People of the right are so focused on immediate returns that they don't make these long-term investments."
Mr. Bannon is a regular visitor to the monastery, which is being leased from the Italian government. He spends a lot of time in Rome, is the main funder of the project and will be teaching a course when the school opens, probably in the early fall.
No doubt his course will draw a crowd, just as every one of his appearances in Europe does in the run-up to the elections, where populist parties from Poland to Italy are expected to make strong gains.
At a standing-room-only Bannon lovefest sponsored by a conservative Italian association in Rome not long after my Trisulti visit, Mr. Bannon said in his presentation that "the populist nationalist movement has great momentum" in Europe. He predicted the movement would have a "stunning victory" in late May's EU elections, with the populist and nationalist parties - such as Matteo Salvini's League in Italy, Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France and Viktor Orban's Fidesz in Hungary - taking as much as 50 per cent of the vote, far better than the 30 per cent or so predicted in recent polls (in the previous EU election, in 2014, the populist and nationalist tally was 22 per cent).
A strong showing by the populist parties in the elections - a showing greater than 30 per cent would give them blocking stakes in key votes - could change the very shape of the EU, which is still the world's biggest trading bloc, and send its integration efforts into reverse.
Generally speaking, Europe's populist parties are right-wing, anti-migrant, Euroskeptic and nationalistic. Some have been accused of blatant racism. They believe the EU and its institutions are power-mad and undemocratic. They asset the power of "the people" over the entrenched "power of the elites." They are convinced that open borders would trigger a migrant "invasion" that would threaten traditional Western values. They are not convinced that free trade benefits anyone but the wealthy and their corporations. The populists want a "Europe of Nations": that is, a loosely associated group of sovereign countries that are wary of multilateralism. Ms. Le Pen has said: "I don't want this European Soviet Union."
Mr. Bannon told me that populism is here to stay - never mind the arguments, backed by recent liberal and social democratic gains in Slovakia, that populism has peaked - and that the Trisulti school is designed to nurture a new generation of populist, nationalist, anti-elite thinkers and leaders.
He and his main associate in Italy, Benjamin Harnwell, founder and president of the conservative Catholic think tank Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI, or Institute for Human) in Rome and the school's man on the ground, agree that the vast, desolate monastery is an unlikely breeding ground for budding Bannonites.
Many of the locals in this rather poor region of Italy, which has traditionally supported the liberal Democratic Party, want to ensure it's forever unlikely; bearing "Stop Bannon" placards, they have been holding small but fairly regular protests outside the monastery. They are alarmed that the medieval pile, once famous throughout Europe as a centre of learning, tolerance and spirituality, will be turned over to a gaggle of right-wing, anti-migrant Bannon worshippers bent on destroying the EU's liberal agenda.
"Citizens are having a hard time understanding that the [monastery] is going to be a place where future politicians are going to be trained," Mauro Bussiglieri, the mayor of Collepardo (population 950), told Italy's La Stampa newspaper recently.
"They keep looking at is as a religious place, and that's it."
But Mr. Bannon says he expected protests and predicts the locals will ultimately accept his school of populism.
"I believe that once the school is up and going, people will understand that it's not a bunch of cloven-hooved devils up there," he says, arguing that the school's secluded location should not prove a disadvantage.
"We do think it's important to get people away from the daily buzz of life, where people can come and totally focus on themselves. ... This is so unique, it's original. It's a special place."
He's right about that. The monastery is a faded wonder, a hidden treasure. Or will be until Mr. Bannon's classroom inevitably turns into a mob scene. He is, after all, the man who was instrumental in getting Mr.
Trump elected - he brags that Mr. Trump owes his victory to him. He is mobbed by the media everywhere he goes in Europe as he promotes his break-the-elite crusade.
On a cool sunny Friday in March, I arrive at the monastery with a freelance photographer and videographer after a serpentine ride up the mountain in a banged-up Fiat. The first view of the monastery leaves us amazed.
Unlike the nearby and even bigger Monte Cassino monastery, which was utterly destroyed during one of the longest battles of the Second World War, the Certosa di Trisulti is in remarkably good shape.
The monastery, surrounded by massive walls, is like a medieval city in miniature.
The maze of pleasant courtyards, fountains, gardens and statues has a calming effect on visitors. Pope Innocent and his successors over the centuries spared no expense in its construction and decoration.
The highlights include a Renaissance pharmacy where the monks, who were considered the European masters in the cultivation and study of herbs, sold their herb-inspired creations. Sambuca, the famous Italian anise-flavoured liqueur, is reputed to have been invented at the monastery in the early 1800s. The pharmacy's ornate ceiling frescoes were inspired by the excavations at Pompeii.
The expansive, overgrown courtyard behind the church is bordered by the sparse monks' rooms, which will be turned into student dormitories once Mr. Bannon and Mr. Harnwell figure out how to heat the place and connect it to the internet.
The monastery also houses a state library with 36,000 volumes and a similar number of exceedingly rare and valuable ecclesiastical documents, including some of Innocent's papal bulls (the popes' public decrees).
Mr. Harnwell greets us with a bit of weariness - he had done dozens of interviews in recent weeks as the Italian and international press became captivated by the idea of Mr. Bannon setting up shop in a forgotten monastery. What was Mr. Trump's chief promoter, and the former executive chairman of Breitbart News - the conservative site that liberals routinely dismiss as racist, xenophobic, misogynist and prone to conspiracy theories - doing in Italy, let alone at an ancient monastery?
Mr. Harnwell, is 43, British, single and a former political operative in Brussels, where he worked for Nirj Deva, a conservative British member of the European Parliament (MEP), is a total Bannon disciple.
He has even adopted Mr. Bannon's slickedback hairstyle and his casual jeans-andoutdoorsy-jacket fashion sense.
"Steve Bannon is a genius," he tells me.
"He has developed a new [political] paradigm. His paradigm isn't between left and right. It's between the little guy and the global elites, the rulers and ruled."
Before he even met Mr. Bannon, Mr.Harnwell was moving into Mr. Bannon's political camp. During his five years in Brussels, until 2010, he went from staunchly pro-EU to staunchly anti-EU. In short, he thinks the EU is an anti-democratic racket and that the member states should cut themselves free, as Brexit Britain is so painfully trying to do. "The whole EU project exists for the people who work there, at the expense of the ordinary citizens who couldn't even dream of having that quality of life, the regulated working hours, the salaries, the pensions, the health benefits," he says. "It's disgraceful."
After Brussels, he moved to Rome, and concentrated on his think tank, the DHI, which, its website says, "is to protect and promote human dignity based on the anthropological truth that man is made in the image and likeness of God" and espouses the most conservative Judeo-Christian values. The DHI is no fan of Pope Francis, who both Mr. Harnell and Mr. Bannon consider a traitor to these values because, among other things, he is trying to relax church attitudes toward LGBTQ people and divorced Catholics who remarry outside the church. As if to prove the point, the honorary president of the DHI is Raymond Burke, the American cardinal who has emerged as the Vatican's voice of orthodoxy and Francis's main internal critic.
Mr. Harnwell met Mr. Bannon in 2013, when Breitbart was opening its Rome bureau. They hit it off - Mr. Bannon would later praise Mr. Harnwell as "the smartest guy in Rome" in a Breitbart interview - and Mr.
Bannon gave the keynote address at the DHI's Vatican conference in 2014, where he outlined his populist agenda, including his belief that secularization and Islamic extremism were grave threats to Western civilization. "It was the best political speech I have ever heard," Mr. Harnwell says. "I have listened to it a dozen times. About 85 per cent of the blueprint for Trump's campaign is there, a full year before Trump even declared his candidacy."
After Mr. Bannon was ousted both from the White House and Breitbart, he spent more time in Europe, where he was attracted to the rising populist parties, especially in Italy, which, in 2018, elected the first populist government in Western Europe.
Mr. Bannon was dazzled by the coalition partners - Mr. Salvini's hard-right, anti-migrant League party and the upstart, antiestablishment Five Star Movement (M5S) - which overthrew the corrupt centre-left and centre-right parties that had dominated Italian politics since the late 1940s.
Political consultant Francesco Galietti, CEO of Rome's Policy Sonar, says Mr. Bannon is as much a populism student as preacher in Italy. "The reason he is in Rome is that Italy is ahead of the populism curve in many respects," he says. "He knows that if it has worked in Italy, maybe it can be replicated elsewhere."
Indeed, Mr. Bannon thinks Italy in general and Mr. Salvini in particular are on the leading edge of the populism surge. He is impressed by the efficiency and speed of the movement, which relies a lot on the technology of polling and social media to get its message across and does so at bargain-basement prices. He notes that the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's President since January, studied the Italian populists' victory and spent less than US$1-million on his campaign. "Italy has taught people a lot about mobilization," he says. "What has been accomplished by the League and Five Star on limited resources is mind-boggling."
In 2014, Mr. Bannon and Mr. Harnwell seized upon the idea of launching a school of populism. At first, it was to be called the Breitbart Academy. But the title had to be ditched when Mr. Bannon left Breitbart in early 2018 amid rumours that he had lost the support of the site's financial patron, Rebekah Mercer.
About the same time, Mr. Harnwell learned about the Trisulti monastery through a Cistercian monk whom he knew (Trisulti went to the Cistercians after the Second World War). Early last year, Mr.
Harnwell, with Mr. Bannon's support, agreed to lease the monastery from the Italian government for 19 years at 100,000 a year. The lease excludes the state library. "The rest is Bannon land," Mr.
Mr. Bannon said the curriculum will include courses on the foundations, philosophy and economics of the Judeo-Christian West; personal motivation courses; and "the nuts and bolts of modern politics - what you need to actually mobilize people." To become a functioning school, Mr.
Bannon says the monastery will require an investment of 2-million "at least to set the place up." But Mr. Harnwell isn't rich, so where will the money come from?
Mr. Bannon is coy and refuses to tell me how much of the investment for their shining city on the hill will come from him - he's almost certainly the biggest donor so far - and how much will come from his circle of populist benefactors in the United States and Europe. "I'm not going to play 20 questions," he says. "The donors are all private."
Mr. Bannon has been associated in European press with several powerful conservative figures; he will neither confirm nor deny they have written cheques. They include Tito Tettamanti, a wealthy Swiss lawyer and politician; Christoph Blocher, a Swiss billionaire and former politician who pushes a Euroskeptic, anti-migrant agenda; Federico Arata, an Italian former Credit Suisse banker who runs a Swissbased fund that focuses on Pakistan; and Armando Siri, the Italian League party senator who is an adviser to Mr. Salvini and who recently became embroiled in a highprofile corruption investigation (Mr. Siri denies the allegations).
Mr. Bannon says the course he will be teaching at the monastery is still a secret, but you can bet it will be about political mobilization, drawing heavily on how he helped to propel Mr. Trump into the White House and how the Italian populist triumph is just the start of the populist surge.
The monastery school is a sign that Mr.Bannon's presence in Europe will not be fleeting. He seems to have found populist heaven in Europe and vows that the school will produce a "big payoff, even it's 20 years down the road."
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP
Steve Bannon has refused to divulge how much of the investment for his new school will come from him. MARCO BONOMO/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Certosa di Trisulti monastery is in central Italy's Ernici mountains, about two hours by car southeast of Rome.
The monastery, the construction of which was sponsored by the Pope Innocent III, was once home to about 100 monks and workers.
Today, the Certosa di Trisulti's last full-time residents are a chef-gardener, an 83-year-old priest and a few dozen feral cats.
The monastery also houses a state library with 36,000 volumes and a similar number of rare and valuable ecclesiastical documents.
Benjamin Harnwell, Mr. Bannon's associate in Italy, is founder and president of the conservative Catholic think tank Dignitatis Humanae Institute.
One of the monastery's highlights is a Renaissance pharmacy where the monks, who were considered masters in the cultivation and study of herbs, sold their creations.