Legal Fight Brewing Over Steve Bannon’s Academy in Italian Monastery

Steve Bannon wants to run an academy for Western, Judaeo-Christian “culture warriors” at the 13th century Trisulti Charterhouse monastery in the hills south of Rome. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

TRISULTI CHARTERHOUSE, Italy (CN) – When Steve Bannon comes to Italy, he likes to make his way to this walled monastery hidden away from the world in the mountains south of Rome. Bannon, the globetrotting advocate of right-wing nationalism and former chief strategist for candidate and then President Donald Trump, has ambitions for this magnificent relic of medieval monastic life: He sees the old abbey one day functioning as his “Academy for the Judeo-Christian West,” a place where he can mold cultural and political “gladiators” to carry out his fight against liberal elites, Islam and socialists.

Think of it as a cauldron from which mini-Bannons and mini-Trumps might be released onto the world with a seal of approval to lead nationalist causes.

Bannon’s project is moving ahead despite the Italian culture minister’s move in May to revoke a license to operate the monastery for 19 years. The license was awarded to a conservative religious think tank tied to Bannon. Now a legal fight appears set to take place.

“The ministry has no grounds whatsoever to revoke the license or to annul the lease,” said Benjamin Harnwell, director of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, the think tank that runs the monastery.

Harnwell called Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli’s actions “politically motivated.” Bonisoli is a member of the 5-Star Movement, an anti-establishment party with left-wing tendencies.

“I am looking forward to clearing our name and fighting as forcefully as possible when this gets to court,” Harnwell said inside the monastery in an interview with Courthouse News. He expected any legal fight to take a long time, possibly years, considering Italy’s complicated legal system.

The ministry charged that Harnwell’s think tank, which took possession of the monastery in January, has failed to pay rent and perform renovations as promised. Harnwell dismissed those allegations as untrue.

“If they [the ministry] don’t go to court, we will,” Harnwell said. “They’ve damaged our image.”

The ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment. As of July, Harnwell said the ministry had not formally ordered his institute to leave the premises.

In the meantime, Harnwell said Bannon’s visions for a nationalist academy are moving forward. He said his institute will provide more information about the academy’s courses, curriculum and degrees this autumn.

Benjamin Harnwell makes a point during a wide-ranging discussion inside the Trisulti Charterhouse monastery. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

It’s not hard to imagine Bannon’s academy taking shape inside the cloister, churches, courtyards and nooks and crannies of the Trisulti Charterhouse, a 13th-century monastery.

In recent years as the monastery’s remaining monks died, the Italian government sought a new purpose for the charterhouse, which is owned by the Italian state and open to the public. The monks here tended to a prodigious collection of medicinal herbs and concocted sambuca, a sweet anise-flavored liqueur.

“For many years now it had lost its religious function,” said Giorgio Liberatori, an architect in the nearby town of Collepardo. “It was inevitable that it had to change hands.”

Liberatori said he and others in Collepardo are not opposed to Bannon’s academy taking up quarters in the monastery. He said no one else had showed much interest in the charterhouse. As for Bannon and his radical ideas, he said time would tell how having his academy close to Collepardo might affect the town. But he added: “The average citizen doesn’t care.”

Harnwell said Bannon’s academy will be housed in the former cloister, a secluded area where monks once lived in simple rooms, engrossed in prayer and silence.

Harnwell said about 1,500 people have applied, but there is space now for only about 25 students. In time, though, there could be room for as many 350 students, he said.

“Like the old monastic orders — the religious orders — would form a person into a monk, Steve wants to form someone who comes here and turn them into a gladiator,” Harnwell said. “Steve’s expression is that this is a gladiator school for culture warriors.”

These prospective “culture warriors” would be people who feel intuitively that Judeo-Christian ideas are under attack,” Harnwell said.

In a broad-ranging interview, Harnwell — a 43-year-old Englishman of working-class roots who’s worked as a Conservative Party political aide in the House of Commons and the European Parliament — went into depth about Bannon’s self-defines populist nationalist worldview, and his own views, which he characterized as libertarian and “anarcho-capitalist.”

This remote Italian monastery, where the occasional chime of bells breaks the silence, is an unlikely setting for an instruction into the thinking not only of Bannon but of Trump, who adheres to Bannon’s theories.

Harnwell denounced Islam, calling it a dangerous militant religion bent on imposing its will on others. He praised far-right leaders Britain’s Nigel Farage, who championed Brexit, and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister. Salvini, he said, was Italy’s “savior.”

He called global warming a fairy tale. On government, he said it needs to be stripped away to allow capitalism to flourish. On wealth, he said there was too much envy of the rich and called policies to redistribute wealth a disaster.

An unabashed admirer of Bannon, Harnwell called him “the smartest guy” he’d ever met “without anyone being a close second.”

He said Bannon’s fundamental insight is to see politics not in a “pure left and right paradigm” but “a vertical paradigm” where “the ordinary working guy [is] being shafted by the working elites.”

“I would say that Steve’s view basically is that the little guy should have a seat at the table,” Harnwell said.

He said Trump was “the first person to win election explicitly on the Bannon paradigm” rather than a left-right paradigm. “That’s Steve’s genius,” he said.

Bannon aims to make government work for the ordinary person, Harnwell said. That, according to Bannon, is done by “deconstructing” an “administrative state” that benefits only so-called elites: politicians, financiers, intellectuals, contractors, university professors and others who gain their wealth through government policies designed to benefit the elite class.

“The state exists not to help the ordinary working guy but to help first and foremost, to benefit, the people who comprise of it and work for it,” Harnwell said. “It’s immoral.

A monk’s spare bedroom inside the Trisulti Charterhouse. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

“The elites have made themselves rich at your expense,” he said. “That’s not a Marxist paradigm here. It’s an argument that government has become too big and exists to promote the welfare of the people who work for it and the people who run it rather than the citizens.”

Harnwell said Bannon wants government to get out of people’s lives.

“Before the First World War, the only relationship most people had with the federal government was when they posted a letter,” he said. “Now it is omnipresent.”

He said the United States has “a unique role to play on the world stage” because it promotes liberty.

“So it is imperative, if you believe in liberty as I do, that that American experiment succeeds, that liberty can long endure on the face of the earth,” he said.

Harnwell said left-wing parties have abandoned their principle of “representing the ordinary worker.” For example, he said left-wing politicians now support immigrants over workers in their own countries. By doing that, he said, left-wing politicians are supporting people who will show up in a country and undercut that country’s manual workers.

“That’s not a left-wing party,” he said. He charged “the professional leftist party” doesn’t care about workers.

He argued that societies based around left-wing ideas are failures.

“All countries that are founded explicitly on social justice, economic justice principles are basket cases, empirically,” he said, and cited the example of Venezuela.

Yet he sees socialism on the rise in the West.

“Since the Second World War, I think society and the West has been shifting one degree to the left every generation,” he said.

“Here’s the irony, it’s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is the global visible failure of communism in practice as a means of managing an economy, that those ideas then, basically unopposed, via, I think, national educating system enter the bloodstream of the culture,” he said.

“So most young people, say anyone who is under 25, will hold communist views, unless for some reason they have explicitly taken a position to avoiding that.”

Harnwell dismissed criticisms that Bannon is promoting racist and Fascist views.

“Steve points out Fascists worship the state,” he said. By contrast, he said Bannon wants the state to be curtailed. Yet at the same time, Harnwell said, Bannon wants the state “to be strong enough to protect its national integrity.”

In this view, a country “has the right and the duty” to stop “people coming in on a large scale and being trafficked in” across borders. he said. “The [U.S.] border is too porous.”

He said it was proper and moral to stop immigrants. “I don’t believe that’s against the principles of the Judeo-Christian West to do so.”

On Africa and its deep problems, which prompt so many people to look for refuge in Europe, he said the continent needs to adopt the Western model.

“We know in the West how to take people out of poverty. It’s not through socialist world distribution, it’s through promoting societies built on the rule of law, having independent judiciaries, having solid property rights as the bedrock of your society, of having an entrepreneurial society,” he said. “Africa is incredibly resource-rich. What it needs to do is imitate the West if it wants to move out of poverty. You can make that transformation in one or two generations if you embrace the right principles.”

He said many African nations suffer from “a strong element of cultural Marxism” that “blended into the bloodstream during the anti-colonial period.”

Benjamin Harnwell enters a dining hall at the Trisulti Charterhouse. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

Harnwell, like Bannon, sees Islam as a major threat to the West.

He said the Prophet Muhammad was militant and anything but moderate. “Islam was on the attack for centuries from day one,” he said. “It’s clear that Islam has designs on Christendom.

“All major world religions, all of them apart from the Muslim religion, have a variation of the Golden Rule in them,” he said. “There is not a variation for the Golden Rule in the Muslim religion.

“Does Islam believe that the penalty for apostasy is death and does it believe that because that is what Muhammad said? Well, the answer is yes and yes,” he said. “It doesn’t sound so moderate to me.”

He added: “The majority of Muslims are moderate. But they are moderate because they choose not to implement certain key elements of their own religion in their personal lives.”

Asked about other threats he sees, Harnwell cited “militant secularism” because it “does not tolerate any discussion of Christian god in the political space.” He said humanity needs “Christian faith” to be able to “survive and indeed thrive.”

He then called “out-of-control” immigration an “existential threat.” He said that low birth rates in the West and increased immigration pose a “demographic challenge” that he sees as “an existential threat.”

He called the “debt structure” and “welfare commitments” of Western societies existential threats too.

“This form of capitalism which isn’t capitalism, that benefits the elites to the detriment of the ordinary worker, that is also an existential threat,” he said.

What about climate change?

“I would put anthropological climate change in the same category as I would put the tooth fairy and unicorns and Father Christmas and the abominable snowman,” he said.

He denied that science has proved climate change is happening.

“I would cite the data as the suggestion that anthropological climate change hasn’t been proven,” he said.

He said most scientists are supporting the idea of climate change out of financial interests.

They “get their money one way or another through government, and government loves the idea of climate change because it can put its tentacles into every aspect of society,” he said. “The government can get everywhere on the back of this.”

What about environmental degradation more generally?

His solution was putting more of the earth into private hands.

“Again, property rights,” he said. “What we tend to see is what we know in philosophy as the tragedy of the commons. It’s those resources which have no ownership, probably for ideological reasons, that are then exploited. People tend to care about the property they own.”

He dismissed concerns about growing inequality.

“This is why the socialists screw up on everything, because they see the economic pie as a given,” he said. “And therefore if you want poor people to have more, you’ve got to take more money from the rich and give it to the poor as a straight transfer. All that is going to do over the long term is take wealth out of the hands of people who know how to create it and give it to people who will only consume it. That’s not going make your economic territory richer.”

He said the notion that the economic pie cannot grow is mistaken.

“It doesn’t really matter, the inequality between say the top decimal and the poorest decimal,” he said. “The issue is: Do the poor have enough money to meet their needs and to improve their living condition generation by generation?

“Can you please tell me what the injustice is of letting some people who happen to be wealth creators keep more of their own property? Why is that considered morally wrong?”

He said that his views, and Bannon’s, are not far-right but echo longstanding centrist and conservative ideas. He said they are viewed as far right and extreme right because the media has demonized conservative ideas.

“What 50 years ago would have been considered centrist is now considered to be right wing, if not far right,” he said. “I don’t believe there is any great coalescence around extreme-right or far-right politics. I think it’s basically where most people would have been around the 1950s.”

He shrugged off accusations that Bannon, Trump and he are promoting racist ideas.

“Racist, anti-Semite, Fascist – Nazi, I’ve been called as well, publicly,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I learned it from Steve: Don’t give a shit about what people say about you. Just get on with what you have to do.”

He then set off for a tour of the monastery — kneeling as he went before altars inside the monastery.

All the while, he praised Bannon.

“It’s a school which is designed in his image and likeness,” he said.

The bells rang and the hour of lunch had arrived.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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