One chilly November evening, Benjamin Harnwell reclined on a thick sofa in the opulent apartment he was borrowing in the heart of Rome, Mozartâ€™s â€œCara, la Dolce Fiammaâ€ humming sweetly from rich, warm speakers. His dog, Ajax, was busy dismembering a stuffed rabbit while his two cats attempted to flee to the terrace. â€œPhilomena, no! In!â€ he squealed before Ajax, disengaging from the bunny, suddenly leapt onto his chest, big wet tongue homing in. â€œAjax, let me work,Â please.â€ He tried in vain to return to his iPad, where he was scanning Italian news for items that would inflame right-wingers.
It was another frantic day at the international bureau of the hugely popularÂ War RoomÂ podcast and its brand new Italian editionâ€”and it was rapidly approaching show time.
War Room: RomeÂ is the latest strange spawn of the long and turbulent relationship between Harnwell, a 47-year-old Catholic conservative from the English city of Leicester, and Steve Bannon, the choleric former chief strategist for former U.S. President Donald Trump. Like Bannon, Harnwell is devoutly religiousâ€”born to atheist parents, he converted to Catholicism as a young manâ€”and he honed his distinct melange of Trumpian and religious fundamentalist sympathies during a long stint in Brussels, where he worked for a prominent eurosceptic parliamentarian, promoted a Catholic take on Austrian economics, and founded the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a think tank that aims to reverse â€œradical secularismâ€ in the West. He moved to Rome in 2010 to ingratiate himself in Vatican circles, befriending a load of cardinals who hated the progressive Pope Francisâ€”when one influential cardinal was accused by other right-wingers of being a secret supporter of gay rights, HarnwellÂ personally intervenedÂ to defend his friendâ€™s impeccable record of intoleranceâ€”and thatâ€™s how he met Bannon.
Harnwell has since devoted himself to the one-time Trump whisperer, whom he views as an unparalleled genius, a virtuosic facilitator of complex media psychological operations and geopolitical intrigue. In September 2022, Bannon grew enthralled by the electoral victory of Italyâ€™s far-right Brothers of Italy party, and he offered to finance a Rome edition of his flagship live podcast,Â War Room, which Harnwell was then producing. The spinoff would serve Bannonâ€™s continued, quixotic ambitions to foment populist revolts across Europe; Harnwell eagerly agreed to be showrunner.
â€œItaly is only the third-biggest economy in the EU, but it has a huge cultural pull,â€ Harnwell toldÂ Foreign Policy. â€œIt is also, as Steve pointed out,Â long before anyone else, an extremely important laboratory for populist nationalist policies. If weâ€™re going to destroyâ€”no,Â torpedoâ€”the rules-based order so beloved ofÂ Foreign PolicyÂ readers, what happens in Italy is going to be fundamental to that battle.â€
Harnwell looked again at his iPad, glancing over the news. Every weekday evening, the show runs a breakdown of what he considers to be the most overlooked stories in Italian politics. â€œI pick the most substantial, important stories, not the most headline-grabbing stories,â€ he said, scanning the progressive paperÂ La Repubblica. â€œWhatâ€™s going on with the European Central Bank, for instance, whoâ€™s paying cash electronically.â€ The whole thing, he said, is supposed to come off as credibly dull and respectable.
â€œItâ€™s a measure of Steveâ€™s seriousness that he said, â€˜This has to be in Italian,â€™â€ Harnwell said while fending off his pets. The point of the show was to convey Bannonâ€™s nationalist, populist ideas in the native language of a target audience and establish a deeper presence that would â€œpenetrate into the Italian political debate,â€ he explained. Itâ€™s a strategy similar to what has been attempted elsewhere by Bannon and his acolytes, most recently in Brazil, where former Trump ally Jason Miller helped spark an eerily familiar storming of the countryâ€™s National Congress.
The last time Bannon and Harnwell had attempted to â€œpenetrateâ€ Italian politics, it had involved the intensely right-wing Academy for the Judeo-Christian West, a would-be â€œgladiator schoolâ€ in the mountains of central Italy whose goal had been to train a new generation of far-right thinkers and politicians. The academy had been hosted, with Bannonâ€™s financial support, in an ancient monastery called Trisulti, which looms from wooded slopes over the tiny town of Collepardo.
Harnwell, funded largely by Bannon, had lived in Trisulti for almost three years in a kind of serene semi-isolation, with only a doorman, cook, two cats, and his aggressive young Belgian Shepherd for company. He fell in love with the place and spent his days wandering through its lonely cloisters, failing to read Jordan Petersonâ€™sÂ 12 Rules for Life, and outlining a curriculum.
Many of the courses he planned focused on a kind of media training, involving talking points designed to soft-pedal right-wing arguments that could be infiltrated into the mainstream media. (One example: â€œWomen have the right to choose, but they also have the right to choose life.â€) The aim was to avoid â€œcharacter assassinationâ€ by left-controlled newspapers, he said.
Soon, however, Harnwell became the subject of a number of protests as well as legal challenges from the Italian government, which said he lied about having previous experience running a museum so he could obtain the Trisulti lease. Desperate, he fortified himself in the monastery until he was literally forced to leave, driven out by a phalanx of Carabinieri. His allies on the right, which included former ministers and cardinals, largely abandoned him. Like Bannon, recently indicted for contempt of court, he felt victimized, and his troubles have since followed him to Rome, where he continues to face multiple criminal charges involving his leasing of the monastery.
Harnwell, along with many on the right, perceives powerful leftist conspiracies arrayed against him wherever he looks, and the collapse of the academy only fed his suspicions that a cabal of bad faith actorsâ€”including politicians, the courts, and journalists (whom he always records)â€”was out to get him. The accusations, along with obscure incidents of injustice from the depths of childhood, seem to have seriously shaken him, and he told FP, earnestly, that short of vindication in this life, he seeks it in the next. â€œI canâ€™t wait till Iâ€™m in heaven and they play the tapes, and it shows I saidÂ thisÂ and notÂ that,â€ he said. He hopesÂ War Room: RomeÂ might fare a little betterâ€”and, in time, win back his friends on the newly ascendant Italian right.
See FULL STORY at Foreign Affairs.