For one who once claimed: “I am not a white nationalist”, it looked, smelled and sounded like just that. In crumpled jeans and a scruffy jacket, Steve Bannon stood on a stage at the Front National’s annual party conference and declared: “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour.” Donald Trump’s former chief strategist’s alliance with France’s far right came at the tail end of a European grand tour of racism, which this month has seen him visiting Italy, where the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic Five Star Movement and Lega secured the majority of seats in parliamentary elections, and Zurich, where he met the leaders of Germany’s right-wing, anti-Islamic Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party.
It would be easy to dismiss Mr Bannon’s rhetoric as the ramblings of an irrelevant, desperate outcast, shared by a niche audience; he was, if you were, preaching to the converted. And yet. The more doyens of white nationalism like Mr Bannon, like Marine Le Pen, like Alice Weidel and like M5S’s Luigi di Maio, peddle their narrow views of how the world should look, the more risk there is of such views becoming mainstream. Racism is no longer a dirty word. It is to be worn like a medal, according to this increasingly vocal tribe, who are in danger of no longer being a minority. In Italy, they are already securing parliamentary seats. In France, the FN is contemplating how to regroup and “de-demonise” the far right after Ms Le Pen’s crushing electoral defeat last year. While Ms Le Pen’s star appears to be fading, there is, naturally, another Le Pen waiting in the wings to scoop glory, this time her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen. “History is on our side,” he proclaimed. “You’re part of a worldwide movement bigger than France, bigger than Italy.”
Where once it was unacceptable to express openly bigoted views, there is a domino effect of decency and dignity towards fellow human beings being sacrificed at the altar of hate-mongering. It happens when those in power lace their rhetoric with poison, while reassuring their audience they are among friends in expressing such opinions. There is an argument for not giving the likes of Mr Bannon the platform he craves. But there is also a certain logic in being able to see and call out racism for what it is – hate-fuelled, toxic and masquerading as national pride when it is the exact opposite.