At first glance Letizia Roccasecca seems an improbable figure to encounter on the front line of the push back against the global alt-right. The 64-year-old housewife and grandmother of four lives in a two-storey farmhouse in Anagni, 40 miles south of Rome, better known as the birthplace of four popes.
The house used to be in the countryside but, over her lifetime, it has been swallowed up by urban sprawl. She shares it with her husband, five dogs and an insouciant trio of goats, from whom she zealously guards the hot chillies she grows on her small plot.
But appearances can be deceptive. For a decade, Roccasecca has battled powerful interests as she campaigned against the dumping of toxic industrial waste in the nearby Sacco river. The disposal of toxins in this valley is alleged to be the cause of rising rates of tumours, including among Roccasecca’s neighbours, and, she believes, contributed to her sister’s death from cancer. Now she has a new adversary: Steve Bannon.
One of the most influential figures in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Bannon spent four years before that election running Breitbart News, turning it into a single platform for the disparate rightwing elements of modern America, from pro-lifers and climate-change deniers to white supremacists.
Since being ousted from his position as White House chief strategist in 2017, he has shifted his attention to Europe, helping launch the Brussels-based The Movement, a rightwing think-tank to support nationalist, anti-establishment groups.
With European Parliament elections to be held later this month, Bannon is attempting to reinvent himself as Europe’s high priest of populism, uniting nationalist parties in shared opposition to immigration, progressive liberal values and the EU itself. Drawing on his expertise in polling, messaging, slogans and data targeting, he has toured European capitals touting himself as a mentor to a new breed of “strongmen” such as Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban.
While a number of Europe’s rightwing leaders have sought to keep Bannon at arm’s length, in Italy, his Christian-centric, pro-family (and vehemently anti-abortion) message has chimed with ultra-conservative Catholics. With their help, he is finalising preparations for the opening of an alt-right academy, in a monastery in the mountains above Anagni.
Bannon plans to turn this unlikely location into the centre of a European network of finishing schools for ultra-conservatives. The Academy of the Judeo-Christian West will, Bannon claims, serve as an incubator for nationalist leaders of the future.
Roccasecca is part of a motley alliance of anarchists and nonne, local civil servants and housewives, politicians and eco-warriors who hope to frustrate Bannon’s ambitions in Italy. The location of the academy in the monastery at Trisulti, a former Carthusian charterhouse buried in oak forests on a mountainous ridge, is particularly contentious, they say, given the core Christian values of compassion and love, and Pope Francis’s repeated calls for Roman Catholics to protect migrants and refugees.
With a centuries-old medicinal herb garden and pharmacy, and a library of more than 30,000 books, many relating to early medicine, the monastery represents knowledge and culture, says Roccasecca.
“For us, Trisulti is a special place, key to the cultural identity of the area,” she explains, sitting at the kitchen table where she bottles and preserves her chillies and jams, her favourite Jack Russell barking at her feet. “You have to respect the history of the place, you cannot give it to those who have the opposite ideology.”
The rebels’ goal is local — blocking Bannon’s personal European project from opening on the holy ground of the monastery — but they see themselves as foot soldiers in an ideological showdown that is playing out across the globe. “Trisulti is becoming the centre of the worldwide struggle against fascism and nationalism,” Roccasecca says. “We have already been poisoned by industry here, but this is another kind of poison, more subtle, more insidious.”
On a misty Saturday morning in March, with snow still on the mountain peaks, about 100 demonstrators gather to march on the monastery. It seems a woefully inadequate army to challenge the forces of global populism, as even the organisers acknowledge. “This is David versus Goliath,” says Daniela Bianchi, a regional councillor who works for a bank in Frosinone, the nearest large town. “We are just ordinary men and women against lobbies and powerful interests.”
The protesters set off from Collepardo, a medieval village lying four miles below the monastery, and follow the pilgrims’ trail of St Benedict, a patron saint of Europe, an irony that is not lost on the walkers. Most people in Collepardo oppose the academy, according to its mayor.
But, as a traditional community of agricultural smallholders and factory workers with an increasingly elderly population, it is hardly a hotbed of radical politics. Rosalia Rondinara, a grandmother whose townhouse overlooks the village piazza, objects to Bannon’s plans for the monastery but is not part of the march as she is suffering from a leg injury. “How could I walk miles up the mountain?” she asks, adding that she has never been on a demonstration.
Bruno Frasca, who organises the annual summer fettuccine pasta festival, is another non-marcher; he believes the battle is already lost. “They should have complained two years ago, when the tender [for the monastery] went out. What’s the point now?”
Alessandro Fattoracci, a civil servant from Frosinone, admits that “there is low political engagement” locally. He has a personal connection to the monastery: his mother was one of thousands who took shelter here when Frosinone was bombed by the Allies during the liberation of Italy at the end of the second world war. “This is a place of unity whereas Bannon’s project is one of division,” he says.
The demonstration takes place the day after the mass shooting by a rightwing extremist in the New Zealand mosque attacks, which left 50 people dead. Shortly before the attack, the gunman posted a photo online of ammunition on which he had scrawled the name of Luca Traini, an Italian who shot and wounded six African migrants in Macerata last year.
An out-of-work bike courier called Riccardo tells me that the Christchurch massacre pushed him to march. He is afraid that the divisive rhetoric favoured by Bannon and his ilk will “see a return to the dark days of the 1970s, the so-called Years of Lead, with regular political violence.”
Alberto Valleriani, a comrade of Roccasecca’s in her previous battle, looks every inch the eco-warrior with wraparound sunglasses and dreadlocks under a colourful headband. Striding up the road while rolling a cigarette with one hand, he is resolute. “When we heard about the political school, our antennae went up. Trisulti is an international scandal. This battle is symbolic, it’s in the interests of all Europe.”
Just one MP, Nicola Fratoianni from the tiny, leftist Free and Equal party [LEU], which polled a little over 3 per cent in last year’s elections, has turned out to support the protesters. Fratoianni is from Tuscany but says he has taken this struggle to heart because “what is happening here is indicative of what is happening all over: an alliance of the dark right neo-fascists and bigoted conservatives, waging a cultural and ideological war. These people want to take us back to medieval times.”
According to Fratoianni, in seeking to radicalise Europe, Bannon and his friends want to row back on hard-won rights on abortion and gay marriage. “In the future this front will be a great danger not just for Italy but for the freedom and rights of all.” Since a populist coalition made up of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the rightwing League took power in Italy last June, there has been a palpable impact, he says. “There have been more attacks on women; the Nazi and fascist parties have raised their heads again — this is not my country.”
As they ascend the mountain, herding dogs and children, the protesters are in festive spirits. Abba plays on a large speaker and rainbow flags fly high. One banner reads “BannOff”. “Trisulti, territory of Europe”, says another. But as they near the monastery gates the mood grows more subdued. The shattered remains of centuries-old oaks lie by the roadside, victims of the recent storms that have hit Italy. As a metaphor for the unpredictable forces currently wreaking havoc in the European political establishment, the scene is hard to beat.
A week later, behind the high gates at Trisulti, Bannon tours the site, dressed down in T-shirt, khakis and workman boots, his hair slicked back. He projects a breezy confidence, waving away charges of neo-fascism. “Fascism is worship of the state. We don’t want an all-powerful state — we are the exact opposite of that . . . The state has to get out of most aspects of people’s lives, so I think we are the true anti-fascists.”
Bannon is eager to show off what he calls his “gladiator school” in the making. And for all the centuries monks lived there in peaceful contemplation, the monastery can feel more like a fortress than a holy site. It was built in the hunting grounds of the Counts of Segni by Lotario Segni, who became Pope Innocent III, the driving force behind the fourth crusade, and then gifted to the Carthusians. An imposing 8ft crucifix marks the entrance, while high boundary walls serve to create a citadel-like structure with a commanding view down the valley.
In 2017, the Italian ministry of culture agreed to lease the monastery to the religious lobbying group Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), for 19 years, at a rent of €100,000 a year. The ultra-conservative Catholic organisation seeks to bind legislators to pro-life and anti-euthanasia policies.
As well as Bannon, grandees include the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, Pope Francis’s antagonist-in-chief. Burke and Bannon first bonded in 2014 and share an opposition to Francis’s handling of the clerical abuse crisis, his support for migrants and his perceived socialist leanings.
As he walks through the terracotta portico, Bannon describes feeling “overwhelmed” when he came to Trisulti for the first time. “I had seen pictures, drawings, but when you get here and see how ancient it is and the scale of it, it blew me away.” Its location near Rome “is symbolic”, he says. “Rome along with Jerusalem and Athens has been the centre of the Judeo-Christian west . . . The reason I spend so much time here is the great experiment that’s being done with the Five Star and the League: centre-left populism and centre-right nationalism combined to form a national government. It’s the equivalent of Trump’s Deplorables with Bernie Sanders’ guys.”
In 1947, in a true-life murder mystery worthy of an Umberto Eco novel, the monastery’s prior was shot dead in his frescoed chambers. An investigation led to the monastery being disbanded and the monks scattered to the four corners of Italy. “The official reason is finance but maybe [it was] a homosexual thing,” says Bannon. “So it was quite controversial what the real reason is, but we don’t delve into that, although we are going to have an exorcism here.”
The monks were replaced by a different order, the Cistercians, but vocations plummeted and just one solitary octogenarian monk, Don Ignazio, remains. Apart from a chef-gardener, the only other inhabitant is Benjamin Harnwell, a conservative British Catholic who founded DHI in 2008. Harnwell, an enthusiastic sidekick to Bannon, is the prospective principal of the academy, while Bannon will be in charge of “vision” and fundraising, he says. Formerly chief of staff to Conservative British MEP Nirj Deva, Harnwell now prefers Ukip and voted for the UK to leave the EU. He can’t wait to get started. “We have this place for 20 years, enough time to change the world.”
Looking out over the former hunting grounds, Bannon describes his vision. “Come back here in a few years and you’ll find 100 students; 20 to 25 faculty [staff]. You’ve already had a couple of classes graduate [by then] and people are back in media, back in political campaigns, serving as junior ministers in government and starting to build a network . . . I think this academy will start to build a cadre.”
The objective is to identify and accelerate young talent earlier, he explains, pointing to Beatrix von Storch of Germany’s AfD, Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People’s Party and Marion Maréchal, firebrand granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, as the types of people he hopes the academy would produce.
“Maybe you can pull out and see a [Matteo] Salvini or Marion Maréchal earlier . . . and help them get ahead. If we see those types of people 10 years downrange we’d be an enormous success.” Could the academy produce the next Trump? He responds diplomatically. “Well, Trump is Trump. But we definitely hope to generate the next Tom Cottons, Mike Pompeos, Nikki Haleys: that next generation that follows Trump.”
It is hard to tell how much of a market there is for the academy, or how successful it will be. Harnwell claims that hundreds have already applied, “from everywhere”, including the UK. Bannon is seeking official accreditation from one of several Catholic US universities in order to offer graduates of the course an official masters qualification. He sees this as a prerequisite, he says, to be taken seriously; to justify the proposed fees of $45,000-$50,000 and to persuade students “that it’s worth taking six to nine months out from their lives”.
The first of several two-to-four-week pilot courses is due to start in this year, Bannon says. Applicants don’t need to be Catholic or religious, “but we clearly want people that support populism and economic nationalism. And I can’t imagine Marxists would want to come here.” Bannon admits he would like to roll back the clock of progress, if not to medieval times, then “to the late-19th-century Victorian era. It was a time of much more unity of family and more traditional values. People knew a moral code and tried to live to that code. It didn’t seem to be the social anarchy we see today.”
The syllabus will include a grounding in his version of world events including classical and church history, art and finance. “The tenets of Judeo-Christian western culture,” as he calls it. A second “self-empowerment” module will include public speaking and leadership, teaching “how to get things done, how to fall back on yourself”. A third segment will focus on “how media can be used to drive a narrative, practical politics and running campaigns”. Will this be Bannon’s specialist area? “I’m not really a campaign guy — I’ve only done one campaign, not a bad one. I drew an inside straight.”
The aim is not to produce neo-fascist dictatorships, he insists. “I think you can also teach the pitfalls of nationalism, of people like Mussolini and Hitler and guys like that, you gotta teach the downside. Some things started off as populist and went in other directions, all that has gotta be taught and can be taught.”
The academy will, he hopes, become part of a network, with student and faculty exchanges with existing programmes such as Marion Maréchal’s Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences, in Lyon, and the School for Political Education, in Milan, which is run by Armando Siri, MP for the League and undersecretary for transport.
Bannon’s fantasy faculty would include high-profile political figures such as Olavo de Carvalho, the supposed guru of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. The vehemently anti-communist writer and self-taught philosopher has championed some individual liberties such as the right to bear arms while vilifying everything from globalism to Islam, feminism, homosexuality and the left in general. He has expressed doubt about Darwin’s theory of evolution and has claimed that the Inquisition was a fiction invented by Protestants.
“[De Carvalho] said he would be honoured to join the faculty,” says Bannon. (De Carvalho did not respond to the FT’s requests for comment.) He also dreams of inviting political and religious authorities such as Salvini, Orbán and Cardinal Burke to coach short “immersion” courses.
Bannon says he aims to finance the project with donations from wealthy Catholics in Italy, Europe and the US but that for now it is paid for “100 per cent by Stephen K Bannon”. The German billionairess and doyenne of Rome’s conservative Catholic scene, Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, has offered her castle in Germany as a second campus, he says.
Backing from Russians is ruled out, even though, as he says, their interests might be aligned, because “with the kleptocracy and the magnates, the oligarchs, it’s just not my deal”. He says he does not expect contributions from his erstwhile backers, the Mercer family, who broke ties with him at the same time Trump did. “They are fantastic but they are more libertarian and agnostic so it’s not that they would naturally see a fit here.”
Trisulti retains much from the monks’ era: the austere cells, the refectory lined with wooden pews, the religious icons. “The spartan environment is part of the experience,” says Bannon. While some refurbishment is needed, in many ways the academy seems ready for the class of 2019, with empty desks and chairs ready. Yet not everyone takes Bannon’s ambitions seriously.
Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, believes it is unlikely that Bannon has anything meaningful to offer Europe’s wannabe populists. “I’m sceptical that there are dark arts that only Bannon knows. The Orbáns and Salvinis have been perfectly capable of obtaining and consolidating power without American geniuses of populism.”
He also questions whether the future academy would teach anything of significance. “It is not as if there is a canon of populism. Populism is not an ideology or a philosophy. [You] can say ‘We teach nationalism’, but how does that translate into policy? We need to ask, are these people selling snake oil, as opposed to governance knowledge or campaign strategy, or anything else useful?”
Duncan McDonnell, a professor of politics at Griffith University in Brisbane, agrees. “The story of Bannon as some sort of Pied Piper for Europe’s far-right parties has been overplayed. He didn’t invent the ideology of populism or the defence of the Judeo-Christian west: it has been around for decades in Europe. In Italian you would say, ‘He has invented acqua calda, hot water’.” McDonnell is also sceptical about the academy’s future. “I wouldn’t expect it to go that far, it looks very gimmicky. In five years’ time, it might still not have come to anything.”
Indeed, the obstacles in Bannon’s path appear to be multiplying. First, the mayor of Collepardo sprang a surprise tax bill of €80,000 a year on DHI. When the FT refers to this, Bannon looks momentarily rattled, then adopts a Trump-like nonchalance. “They’re adding some taxes and things like that; we will negotiate all of that out. Just write a cheque. It’s like any deal, and of course the other guy’s gonna try and throw things on to it. It’s normal course of business, right? Not anything that’s surprising or out of the ordinary.”
Then this week, an Italian investigative TV programme called Report alleged that DHI’s tender for the monastery had included irregularities. The programme alleged that Harnwell had declared DHI had legal standing to take part in the tender but, in fact, only acquired it six months after the tender was closed.
In addition, Report alleged that DHI misrepresented its experience of managing cultural assets (a requirement for the tender), by saying it had managed a local museum — in fact the museum wasn’t open to the public and had no exhibitions. Harnwell has said that what mattered was the museum existed although it only opened when booked in advance, and that DHI had managed the property itself, as required in the tender.
Harnwell told the FT “we are absolutely entitled to operate the Academy” and said he believed the opposition was “organised by a network of politically leftwing movements [as] part of a cynical strategy to maximise their own publicity”. He added: “Such accusations . . . should be seen within the context of an extremely bitterly divided contemporary political scene in Italy.”
Fratoianni, the MP, took a different view of the political scene, viewing recent large rallies around climate change and workers’ rights as tentative signs that Italians are on the cusp of a political awakening. “People are finally feeling the need to mobilise, to go to the piazzas and be the protagonists of their own fate. They are beginning to show the capacity to react. It is a sign of great hope”.
However long the legal wrangling over the tender goes on, Roccasecca and her fellow protesters are determined to continue their opposition. For those gathered on the march last month, the cause feels personal. Saverio Coppola and his wife Mirella used to visit the monastery for Sunday picnics before they were married. “We don’t want to see it become the heart of the attack on Europe,” says Saverio. “There is the danger that our home becomes a reference point for populists and for the neo-fascist wave in Europe.”
Valleriani believes that Bannon picked the wrong place for such a project. “We are used to fighting powerful interests here. It’s our day-to-day work.” The Sacco river campaign has been a good training ground, he says. “We will bring that experience to this fight. This is a difficult battle, but the more difficult, the more we like it.”