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Peter Geoghegan is the author of “Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics” (Head of Zeus, 2020).
LONDON — Early last year, I interviewed Steve Bannon for my latest book. U.S. President Donald Trump’s onetime advisor is an unreliable narrator with a history of hyperbole, but on one point he was definitive: Europe’s populist leaders looked to the Trump White House for inspiration.
Bannon boasted that he talked to senior European political figures on a “fairly regular basis” and was “still working behind the scenes driving stuff.” He namechecked a few in particular: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán; Italy’s Matteo Salvini; France’s Marine Le Pen.
Bannon is, of course, yesterday’s man, and he’s awaiting trial charged with defrauding $1 million from a political campaign to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (He has pled not guilty.) Trump himself is limping through his final days in office, shunned even by much of the Republican establishment after the mob he goaded rampaged through Capitol Hill earlier this week in an ill-fated attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
It is comforting to imagine that the Trump era is coming to a close and that the chaotic scenes in Washington could never be repeated — at the very least not on this side of the Atlantic. Surely, a rabble waving Confederate flags and bearing QAnon insignia could only be a product of what the historian Richard J. Hofstadter identified as “the paranoid style in American politics.”
There are plenty of reasons to be less sanguine. In recent years, far-right movements in Europe have been emboldened as almost never before. We don’t need to look thousands of miles away for an example of online extremism and conspiracy theories spilling into the streets: In August,