Steve Bannon’s Man in Italy Has Big Plans

The Roman franchise of “War Room” is trying to go legitimate.

By , a journalist covering finance and Italian politics.
In this photograph taken on May 2, 2019, Benjamin Harnwell poses at the Trisulti Monastery Certosa di Trisulti in Collepardo, Italy.
In this photograph taken on May 2, 2019, Benjamin Harnwell poses at the Trisulti Monastery Certosa di Trisulti in Collepardo, Italy.
In this photograph taken on May 2, 2019, Benjamin Harnwell poses at the Trisulti Monastery Certosa di Trisulti in Collepardo, Italy.

One chilly November evening, Benjamin Harnwell reclined on a thick sofa in the opulent apartment he was borrowing in the heart of Rome, Mozart’s “Cara, la Dolce Fiamma” 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. “Philomena, no! In!” he squealed before Ajax, disengaging from the bunny, suddenly leapt onto his chest, big wet tongue homing in. “Ajax, let me work, please.” 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 popular War Room podcast and its brand new Italian edition—and it was rapidly approaching show time.

War Room: Rome 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 religious—born to atheist parents, he converted to Catholicism as a young man—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 “radical secularism” 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 Francis—when one influential cardinal was accused by other right-wingers of being a secret supporter of gay rights, Harnwell personally intervened to defend his friend’s impeccable record of intolerance—and that’s how he met Bannon.

One chilly November evening, Benjamin Harnwell reclined on a thick sofa in the opulent apartment he was borrowing in the heart of Rome, Mozart’s “Cara, la Dolce Fiamma” 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. “Philomena, no! In!” he squealed before Ajax, disengaging from the bunny, suddenly leapt onto his chest, big wet tongue homing in. “Ajax, let me work, please.” 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 popular War Room podcast and its brand new Italian edition—and it was rapidly approaching show time.

War Room: Rome 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 religious—born to atheist parents, he converted to Catholicism as a young man—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 “radical secularism” 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 Francis—when one influential cardinal was accused by other right-wingers of being a secret supporter of gay rights, Harnwell personally intervened to defend his friend’s impeccable record of intolerance—and that’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 Italy’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, and he offered to finance a Rome edition of his flagship live podcast, War Room, which Harnwell was then producing. The spinoff would serve Bannon’s continued, quixotic ambitions to foment populist revolts across Europe; Harnwell eagerly agreed to be showrunner.

“Italy is only the third-biggest economy in the EU, but it has a huge cultural pull,” Harnwell told Foreign Policy. “It is also, as Steve pointed out, long before anyone else, an extremely important laboratory for populist nationalist policies. If we’re going to destroy—no, torpedo—the rules-based order so beloved of Foreign Policy readers, what happens in Italy is going to be fundamental to that battle.”

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. “I pick the most substantial, important stories, not the most headline-grabbing stories,” he said, scanning the progressive paper La Repubblica. “What’s going on with the European Central Bank, for instance, who’s paying cash electronically.” The whole thing, he said, is supposed to come off as credibly dull and respectable.

“It’s a measure of Steve’s seriousness that he said, ‘This has to be in Italian,’” Harnwell said while fending off his pets. The point of the show was to convey Bannon’s nationalist, populist ideas in the native language of a target audience and establish a deeper presence that would “penetrate into the Italian political debate,” he explained.

The last time Bannon and Harnwell had attempted to “penetrate” Italian politics, it had involved the intensely right-wing Academy for the Judeo-Christian West, a would-be “gladiator school” 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 Bannon’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 Peterson’s 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: “Women have the right to choose, but they also have the right to choose life.”) The aim was to avoid “character assassination” 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 actors—including politicians, the courts, and journalists (whom he always records)—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. “I can’t wait till I’m in heaven and they play the tapes, and it shows I said this and not that,” he said. He hopes War Room: Rome might fare a little better—and, in time, win back his friends on the newly ascendant Italian right.

It was already a little after 6 p.m. A cold northern wind whistled through the ruins of Rome’s center. Harnwell wrapped up his prep, slid into a sharp suit, and groomed the tiny smudge of hair below his lower lip. Setting up his recording equipment, he sat up straight in the middle of his sofa and conferred briefly with his remote guests, politician Piero De Luca and author Alessandro Nardone. He bashed a key on his iPad, and the show commenced.

All things told, it was pretty mild stuff. Along with his guests, Harnwell—speaking in his slightly reedy, Leicestershire variety of Italian—riffed about Italian work habits and the lack of the American “can-do attitude” (“something we can learn from them”). He waxed about Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s U-turn on relaxing limits on cash transactions, and he discussed for a few minutes some new political appointment related to the Italian intelligence services.

This was not the usual full-bore, right-wing bloviating about stories of drag queens in schools and Antifa militants on the streets; the choices were instead calibrated to conjure an image of cool-headed, analytical sobriety. He believes his willingness to also criticize his own side differentiates him from the dishonest, hysterical atheists who run the mainstream media. (That’s why he insists the only secular thinker he even vaguely respects is philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche “because he looked his foundational principles in the eye and didn’t blink—then went mad.”)

The episode ended at 20 minutes and 27 seconds. Because it is new, the show is only pulling in a few hundred followers per episode, but Harnwell expects thousands of people to listen once it picks up, similar to the numbers on the flagship show. Still, Harnwell has already made a name for himself as something of a Meloni whisperer, retailing his reactionary take on Italian politics in the pages of outlets as progressive as Newsweek and NPR.

“Thank you for your presence,” Harnwell said to his colleagues as they wrapped up—“and to our dear listeners. Give us your feedback on our Gettr account, and see you tomorrow!”

After the episode ended, the co-hosts discussed some technical issues, and then went into details for the next show. Harnwell mentioned Aboubakar Soumahoro, an Ivorian-Italian Green parliamentarian and advocate of migrant rights whose mother-in-law had recently been alleged to have defrauded a migrant center. The story was catnip to an Italian right desperate for reasons to discredit pro-immigration policies, and Harnwell was no less thrilled.

“It’s always funny,” he said to his colleagues. “It’s a story that gives and gives and gives. It has all the ingredients. … It’s emblematic.”

He wound down the call and turned to me, still stirred by thoughts of the embattled Soumahoro.

“The reason I like that story is that the people behind it are on the Italian left,” he said. Soumahoro ally Nicola Fratoianni, he explained, “was one of the deputies who led the two parliamentary inquests into Trisulti that resulted in the annulling of my lease. It’s poetic justice.”

As usual, it all came back to Trisulti and Harnwell’s sense of having been the victim of a leftist plot. He appeared, indeed, to become invigorated by these thoughts and heaved himself off the couch to stand up and pace the room. “That’s what I think Italians don’t understand about Trisulti, when they say I fraudulently participated in the tender,” he said, going back over the granularities of the criminal trial. Most people who get accused of this kind of crime get rich off it, he said. “With us, we never took a penny.”

His voice rising, he added: “They made out I was some kind of mafioso. But all the people who were most visible in drumming me out of Trisulti? They’ve had worse scandals, and they go on and get selected, and no one cares!”

Suddenly, he was standing—imperiously—in the center of the room, in full flow, legs akimbo, a font of indignation about the wretched hypocrisy of his many, many enemies. He launched into a rollcall of leftists, liberal ministers, and government officials who were involved in the academy’s downfall—all of whom, he said, had subsequently become embroiled in scandals themselves. There was Nicola Zingaretti, the Democratic Party boss who was indicted for embezzlement; some regional councilor who blasted Harnwell and later got found for corruption; Soumahoro and his mother-in-law, not directly involved, sure, but of the same damnable cut; and others he was sure existed but couldn’t quite think of at that moment.

And then, just as he reached his peak, he appeared to slump and slow down.

“I’ve had my life destroyed,” he said, standing limp. “I spent my life working on that project and I’ve had my dream shattered, and not once have I been convicted of any crime.”

“These people, they’re the delinquents,” he added with disgust. “The left—they can get away with anything.”

Update, Jan. 18, 2023: A section of this article concerning the events of Jan. 8 in Brazil has been removed.

Ben Munster is a journalist covering finance and Italian politics. He has written for the New Yorker, the Financial Times, and Private Eye, and is the semi-regular author of the “Zero Knowledge” column at Decrypt, a cryptocurrency news site. He lives in Rome.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.