Wearing his trademark double shirt ensemble, Steve Bannon triumphantly declared Hungary’s recently re-elected prime minister Viktor Orban the “Trump before Trump”.
At a conference on the banks of Budapest’s River Danube, barely 18 months after the election of US President Donald Trump, the alt-right movement that powered him into office are laying the groundwork for an assault on Europe and Mr Bannon is leading the charge.
It’s not difficult to see why. A swathe of populist and far-right movements have ascended across the continent in recent years – in Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party recently took seats in parliament for the first time. Last week Italy’s Lega Nord. a regionalist party, entered government. Some even point to the UK’s Brexit vote as indicative of Europe as a fertile yard for Mr Bannon’s populist message.
“What matters is the of survival of the Judeo-Christian West,” he told a crowd filled with government delegates and officials from Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “The West does not have to decline. This is not a law of physics. It can be reversed”.
Comparing Mr Orban to the US leader, Mr Bannon said: “He’s [Orban] got the scars to prove it. Look how viciously they came after him, for what? Building a border? Defending his country? Saving his people? Are these high-crimes and misdemeanours?”
Mr Orban has been heavily criticised for the country’s treatment of refugees crossing Europe and hardening right-wing stance in recent years.
The Budapest stopover is not Mr Bannon’s first trip to Europe since leaving the White House in August 2017. In March, he stole the show at the French Front National’s annual conference when he stood alongside its leader Marine Le Pen and let rip. “Let them call you racist,” he said. “Wear it as a badge of honour”.
“Bannon comes to Europe to sell himself as the revolutionary, but in Hungary, he’s welcomed by, not just by the far-right, but the government too,” said Peter Kreko, the director of Political Capital, a policy research institute based in Budapest.
“It’s not a movement, it’s a top-down deal to create support for the Hungarian government, there isn’t any kind of popular support. Here the alt-right is being led from above.
“Mr Orban has been successful in creating a movement around him, this is a continuation of that. It’s about making his movement sexier, catchier and more up to date”.
Andras Toth-Czifra, a fellow at the European Stability Initiative, said Mr Orban's friendships should put question marks around his place among mainstream European conservatives.
“In 2017, Orban's government financially supported the organisation of the far-right World Congress of Families in Budapest,” he said.
In the past, Mr Toth-Czifra says the Hungarian leader relied on an element of “plausible deniability,” aware of the risk of upsetting partners in European People’s Party (EPP) grouping to which his FIdesz party belongs in the European parliament.
He has done this even as figures such as Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders and former leader of the UK’s far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin – both shunned as extremists in their home countries – were welcomed.
But Mr Orban is nothing if not inconsistent. Mr. Griffin was initially welcomed to the country after losing his European parliament seat in 2014 and went so far as declaring his plans to move to Hungary full time. But he soon fell afoul of Mr Orban, and last year was declared persona non-grata and a threat to national security.
Another British far-right figure, James Dowson, was similarly ejected for providing support to vigilante groups attempting to stop refugees crossing Hungary’s borders.
This did not appear to deter Mr Bannon, who has touted launching a Hungarian language version of Breitbart, the right-wing news website site he ran before ascending to The White House. An idea he resuscitated during this speech. “Hopefully it will happen, Europe needs it”.
But in the conference hall of Castle Bazaar, a neo-Renaissance fort that was almost destroyed in World War II, Mr Bannon was not greeted with the enthusiastic applause and hoots from hipster conservatives and the disenfranchised working-class, that came to define the mass rallies of the alt-right’s path to The White House.
Instead, delegates from the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, anti-establishment academics and trusted journalists from state media dominated the guest list – with most international media denied accreditation on the grounds the event was “overbooked”.
The audience make-up showed at times, there was muted applause as he declared: “The elites are the greediest, most incompetent group that’s ever had control of a society”.
Annastiina Kallius, a PhD researcher into the far-right in Hungary, said: “Your average Hungarian doesn’t even know the term alt-right”.
She continued: “I’m not even sure how you would translate it into Hungarian”.