Steve Bannon’s Gladiator School: A View From Within

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About 50 miles south and east of Rome, high in the Apennine mountains, lies the Charterhouse of Trisulti whose isolated magnificence prompted the German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius (who stumbled upon it in the 1850’s) to write in his classic work Years of Wandering in Italy, “If a place exists where the human spirit can reach the gravest and highest meditation, this must be it, in one of the most sublime states of solitude I have ever seen.”

Here, in this huge deserted monastery founded in 1204, which has 15,000 square meters of roof, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist and the former chief executive of Breitbart News, Stephen K. Bannon, has founded what he told me will become “a gladiator school for culture warriors.”  The mission of this school, or academy to give it its formal title, is to save the West, no less, by restoring Judeo-Christian values to the heart of the political conversation.

But, I wonder, will those values be enough?  Or do they require a belief in God to give them the necessary weight?

Forced to wear sackcloth and ashes in America, after being dumped by Trump and Breitbart, Bannon decided to dispense his volatile magic in Europe instead.

Certain people achieve greatness only in exile; Dante and Machiavelli wrote their masterpieces after being banished from Florence.  What of Bannon?

The political arm of his European mission is The Movement, a Brussels-based think-tank which aims to help populist parties throughout the E.U. triumph in the May European Parliament elections.  That is not going terribly well, as far as I can tell.  The cultural—or should that be spiritual?—arm is this “gladiator school” in the middle of the Apennine nowhere.  This intrigues me more.

So, before Christmas, I went to take a look.

Bannon was in America when I was at Trisulti, but told me via email,

The Academy’s aim is to train a new generation of cultural warriors—modern day gladiators who are formed with the intellectual training and the conceptual tools necessary to defend the Judeo-Christian West against its existential enemies.  Over the last ten years, I have been working towards a global strategy for the defence of the West, and this Academy will play a major part in that strategy.  I want Trisulti to be one of the international bases coordinating this battle.

 

The most pressing challenge is to have the will to survive as a civilization and to nurture the fighting spirit it takes for victory.  This fighting spirit is what we intend to instill—not toward violence but the exact opposite, toward defeating the brainwashed mobs with superior arguments—and winning in politics, media, culture, business, academia etc.

The first thing we’re going to do is give people their real identities back.  We’re not interested in people being woke.  We’re interested in seeing them awakened.

But Bannon then added, in what is possibly the most vitriolic attack ever made against a pope by a public figure of whatever political persuasion, that Pope Francis is “beneath contempt” for his regular admonishment of political leaders such as Trump in America, Matteo Salvini in Italy, or Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who try to stop migrants crossing their borders—however illegal and unworthy of refugee status these migrants may be.

He said that the Pope—contrary to the dominant media message—in fact acts, whether intentionally or not, on the side of the global elite against the little guy.  So, according to Alt-Right Bannon, the Pope, on migrants at least, is not nearly left-wing enough.

Bannon explained:

His greatest failings outside the spiritual and theological are siding with the globalist elites against the citizens of the nations of the world.  Memo to the Pope—if you want to cultivate a media image of working man’s champion, great; but you then actually have to stand up for the little guy, and not with the rich and powerful who drive the UN and the EU in favor of their own internationalist agendas at the little guy’s expense.  His attempts to demonize the populist movement in Europe and the United States are beneath contempt.

So should the Pope be replaced?  Bannon replied:

The Pope is the Vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth.  The Catholic Church is historically a pillar of Western Civilization.  We’re not trying to destroy the Pope, but call him back to his responsibilities to speak for the little guy rather than acting as spokesman for the globalist elites—who by the way are no fans of the Catholic faith.

For most of its eight centuries, the Charterhouse of Trisulti was the home of Carthusian monks and then, from 1947, Cistercian monks.  Once upon a time there were 60 monks here and as many staff, but last year the three remaining monks left.

The monastery is owned by the Italian state, and the government several years ago put the lease out to public tender.  A Rome-based Catholic charity, the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI)—whose illustrious patrons include the Pope’s most vociferous conservative critic inside the Vatican, Raymond Cardinal Burke, plus loads of cardinals, plus Bannon—put in a bid and won.

The monastery costs €100,000 per year in rent, but each euro spent on its restoration is deducted.  So if the institute spends €100,000 on restoration in a single year, it pays nothing in rent.

Trisulti made me think of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the Harry Potter books.  And I wondered: What will Bannon’s trainee magicians be given instead of wands and potions?

I was there to meet its British director, Ben Harnwell, 43, a university chemistry graduate, who is the son of a fireman and a local government accountant.

The monastery has hundreds of rooms, but for the moment Harnwell lives there utterly alone—apart from the last Cistercian prior, Don Ignazio, and his cook.

This story begins in 2004, when Harnwell was in Brussels working for a British conservative Euro MP and he completely lost faith in the E.U. project in which he had been such an ardent believer.  He came to see it as the problem, not the solution—indeed, a force for evil.

He had become an Anglican only in his early 20’s but now converted to Catholicism, and in 2008 set up the DHI in Brussels in order—as he put it— to “protect Christian politicians in the public square from being no-platformed and sacked for their Christian views.”  And in 2010, he moved the institute to Rome and an office 100 yards from the Vatican.

It was in Rome, four years later, that by chance he met Bannon, who was, at the time, still an unknown, more or less.  This encounter would change Harnwell’s life forever, for thus was born the idea of the “gladiator school for culture warriors” to save the West.

Wearing an unseasonable panama hat combined with, of all things, a cardigan, Harnwell picked me up in a rattling Fiat Punto at the nearest station, 20 miles away from the monastery.  “The radiator’s got a problem,” he said.  Announcing that he had only just got his licence and wanted to “test things to the limit,” he drove along the narrow and winding mountain roads to the monastery at speeds that could win the Almighty a few more converts.

The Charterhouse of Trisulti is most definitely a suitable place for anyone whose mission in life is to save Western Civilization—or indeed to destroy it, for that matter, in the style of a James Bond villain.  Founded by Pope Innocent III, who used it as his summer residence, it is a vast Baroque citadel built mainly in the 17th century, set amid densely wooded mountains that touch the clouds.  Famous in its heyday as the Harvard University of herbal science, its perfectly preserved pharmacy with its fabulous murals must surely be one of the finest monastic pharmacies in Christendom.

To be the first nonmonk in charge of such an extraordinary place—in all its 800 years—whose cloister was based on a drawing by Michelangelo and is as grand as any quad or court at an Oxford or a Cambridge college is, to put it mildly, quite a coup.  Harnwell defines it as “a shining city on a hill.”

What destroyed his faith in the European Project, he says, was the negative reaction of Euro MPs to the nomination of the conservative Italian politician and philosophy professor Rocco Buttiglione as E.U. commissioner in 2004.  Buttiglione had made the fatal error of agreeing with the Christian view that homosexual sex is “a sin” and saying that the family “exists in order to allow women to have children and to have the protection of a male who takes care of them.”  When it became clear as a result that Euro MPs would refuse to endorse his candidacy, he withdraw himself from consideration.  “If he had been a Muslim, despite Islam being far more hostile to homosexuality, no one would have batted an eyelid,” insists Harnwell.  “Rocco Buttiglione isn’t a medieval fascist,” he continues.  “He’s a perfectly reasonable and very well respected philosopher exercising a Catholic point of view.”  It is Buttiglione’s numerous and frantic left-liberal (and invariably secular) critics who behaved as fascists, says Harnwell, by shutting Buttig lione down.  Buttiglione, to be clear, is the founding patron of DHI.

To understand the attitude of the dominant group-think in Brussels at that time—which has of course become ever more, not less, pervasive—it is enough to know that those drafting the E.U. constitution that same year refused to include the words “Christian roots” in their definition of Europe.

The Buttiglione episode so angered Harnwell that it prompted him to found the DHI, whose mission statement according to its website is “Defending the Judaeo-Christian foundations of Western Civilisation through the recognition that Man is made in the image and likeness of God.”

Along with Cardinal Burke, there are a dozen cardinals on DHI’s advisory board, but it is its very special location combined with the involvement of the much-discussed Bannon that sets Trisulti  apart from numerous other similar Catholic institutes and think tanks.

In 2014, Harnwell was somehow able to secure Bannon a meeting with Cardinal Burke at very short notice.  “Steve was impressed,” Harnwell told me.  “When he first came to Rome in those days he was not the rock star he is now with everyone queuing up to meet him.  He’d have a couple of meetings, and if he was free for lunch and/or dinner, I’d be on standby in case he didn’t have a better offer.  I swear to God I couldn’t get enough.  I’d spent my whole political life waiting for someone to come along and say things like he sees them.  Do you have any idea how that feels?”  At the time, Bannon was still executive chairman of Breitbart, in those days nicknamed “the CNN of the Tea Party” and defined by Bannon as “virulently anti-establishment.”

Few people appreciate how important Bannon’s Catholicism is to everything he does and why this, not weed, turned him into a rebel.  I have met him four times, and on the second occasion asked him point blank, “Do you believe in God?”

He answered, “Yes, of course.”

He may have had three wives (one annulment, two divorces), but he regularly attends Mass—although, let us be clear, unless he is abstaining from sex, he is barred from taking Communion.  But few people also appreciate just how left-wing he really is compared with so many of his largely left-wing liberal critics—above all, in his hostility to faceless global capitalism.

Soon after that chance 2014 meeting in Rome, Bannon agreed to give a speech to a conference organized by Harnwell at the Vatican via Skype from Los Angeles.  In this so-called Vatican Speech, Bannon told his audience that capitalism has been debased because it nowadays treats people not as human beings but as commodities.  And the reason for this was that Western Civilization had lost touch with the Judeo-Christian values that had—until the advent of militant secularism—tempered capitalism.

The West is under mortal threat not only from unbridled capitalism—Bannon added—but also from militant Islam:

We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. . . . [The West] is at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict [that will] completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years [unless] we fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity.

Bannon’s Vatican Speech passed largely unnoticed in the media as he was hardly on their radar, but it did not slip by Harnwell, who was inspired by the words of this American whom he told me was “a phenomenal genius” thanks to “his grasp of the dynamics of the issues.”

So when Harnwell heard from a monk of his acquaintance that the Charterhouse of Trisulti was available he dedicated much of the next four years of his life to putting together a winning bid, which was finally approved in February 2018.

Following his troubles in America, Bannon has traveled to Europe often, especially to Italy, which he describes as the “center of the political universe right now,” with its coalition government of two populist parties that smash the old left-right divide: the Alt-Left Five Star Movement and the radical-right Lega.

When I last met Bannon in Rome in June 2018 just after the formation of this populist government, he told me, “We’re going to have to take over the Catholic Church.”  I assumed this was a joke—but was it?

I asked Harnwell what Bannon had meant.  “I’ll tell you exactly what Steve meant by that, and he’s absolutely right,” he replied.  “If we’re going to save Western Civilization the Catholic Church needs to be part of that equation and on the right side of the equals sign.  That’s one of the reasons Steve is so fired up about bringing the Catholic Church back on track.”

Fine, but what puzzles me is whether a belief in Judeo-Christian values alone will be enough to save the West, or whether this civilization-salvation will require in addition the belief in God that gave birth to those values and gives them their force.  But if the latter is the case, and given that fewer and fewer people believe in the Judeo-Christian God, aren’t he and Bannon wasting their time?

Harnwell replied: “Brilliant question.  There’s no Judeo-Christian religion.  There’s Judaism, and there’s Christianity.  We’re specifically talking about the cultural values rather than the religious values that underpin the cultural values.  So we absolutely want to build an alliance between the core who believe in God and the outer circles who believe if not in God then in Christian values.”

This seemed to fudge the issue, so I asked him to be more specific, and he replied: “Jesus Christ never said that actual believers needed to be a numerical majority in order to transform society.  In fact, He said the very opposite—we are to be the yeast that makes the rest of the bread rise.  However, even bread still needs a minimum amount of yeast.  The question isn’t whether we can save Western Civilization without actually believing in God . . . [S]uch an attempt would be like trying to save a body after the soul had already departed.”

What of the plans for the gladiator school itself?  Of its backers, Harnwell would say only that they are “private individuals mainly in the U.K. and the States.”  Catholics?  “We have some Jews.”  So, playing agent provocateur, I trotted out one of the constant accusations from the liberal left against Bannon, which I am convinced is unfounded: But isn’t Bannon supposed to be antisemitic?

“Yes, that’s what they say isn’t it?  It’s all bullshit!  Please print that.  I challenge anyone to show me one thing Bannon has ever said—and I’ve read every single interview and speech he’s ever given—that is either antisemitic, fascist, or racist.”

Over a frugal kitchen supper—spaghetti with evil-looking little slithery black mushrooms called chiodi (nails) gathered in the woods that afternoon by the cook—with me and the prior, Don Ignazio, Harnwell mentioned that he is planning to buy a gun, in case of burglars.  “He who shoots another,” said Don Ignazio, who has otherwise remained silent, “shoots himself.”

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