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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Ruth Ben-Ghiat

The Return of Fascism in Italy

Lorenzo Di Cola / NurPhoto / Getty

“The election of the first woman prime minister in a country always represents a break with the past, and that is certainly a good thing,” Hillary Clinton said to an Italian journalist at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this month. She was speaking of Giorgia Meloni, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, who could make history if the Brothers of Italy party does as well as expected in Sunday’s elections.

That would be one sort of break with the past. But Meloni would also represent continuity with Italy’s darkest episode: the interwar dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. As Clinton would surely concede, this is not such a good thing.

If Meloni comes to power at the end of this month, it will be as head of a coalition whose other members—Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia—were each once the main force on Italy’s populist right. Brothers of Italy, which was polling at 23 percent earlier this month, has overtaken these more established parties and would represent the bloc’s largest component.

Brothers of Italy, which Meloni has led since 2014, has an underlying and sinister familiarity. The party formed a decade ago to carry forth the spirit and legacy of the extreme right in Italy, which dates back to the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the party that formed in place of the National Fascist Party, which was banned after World War II. Now, just weeks before the 100th anniversary of the March on Rome—the October 1922 event that put Mussolini in power—Italy may have a former MSI activist for its prime minister and a government rooted in fascism. In the words of Ignazio La Russa, Meloni’s predecessor as the head of the Brothers of Italy: “We are all heirs of Il Duce.”

Meloni in many ways sounds more like other modern national-conservative politicians such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and America’s MAGA Republicans than Il Duce. “There’s a leftist ideology, so-called globalist,” she told The Washington Post recently, “that aims to consider as an enemy everything that defined you—everything that has shaped your identity and your civilization.”

Meloni’s enemies list is familiar: “LGBT lobbies” that are out to harm women and the family by destroying “gender identity”; George Soros, an international speculator,” she has said, who finances global “mass immigration” that threatens a Great Replacement of white, native-born Italians. Meloni shows affinity for authoritarian strongmen: Like Marine Le Pen, until recently the leader of the National Rally party in France, Meloni has expressed support for Russian President Vladimir Putin—although she has muted that enthusiasm since his invasion of Ukraine.

[Read: Berlusconi was Trump before Trump]

Meloni is comparable to Le Pen in other ways. Both are examples of what political scientists call “genderwashing,” when female politicians adopt a nonthreatening image to blunt the force of their extremism. Meloni’s signature look involves flowing outfits in pastel shades. To uninformed foreigners, her ascent could look like female empowerment; she poses as a defender of women, even as her party has rolled back women’s rights. In localities it governs, Brothers of Italy has made abortion services—the procedure has been legal in Italy since 1978—harder to access. Municipal authorities in Verona, where the party has shared power with Salvini’s League, declared the city “pro-life.”

Meloni and her French counterpart diverge, however, over their respective movements’ extremist history. Le Pen pushed her father out of the leadership of the National Front (National Rally’s forerunner) because of his overt racism and Holocaust denialism. Meloni, though, has never fully disavowed her connection to Italy’s neofascist tradition even as she claims that her party is merely “conservative” and that fascism is a thing of the past.

The tricolor flame in the Brothers of Italy logo contradicts that claim: It celebrates her party’s connection with its fascist past by reviving the MSI’s emblem. The Brothers of Italy also perpetuates its forebear’s values. In particular, the natalist obsession of Il Duce’s 20-year rule, with its “Battle for Births,” has survived in the Brothers of Italy’s present-day concern about boosting the birth rate, its proposal to link social-welfare assistance to mothers and those engaged in child care, and its attempts to limit reproductive rights.

Italy never underwent a process equivalent to Germany’s de-Nazification after World War II. At the start of the Cold War, the Allies wanted to block Western Europe’s largest Communist party from power. They took a minimalist approach to purges of fascists and other punitive measures that could cause social unrest in Italy. They also looked the other way when Giorgio Almirante and other fascists who had served Il Duce founded the MSI in 1946. By the 1960s, the MSI had become the fourth-largest party, yet it remained largely on the sidelines of Italian politics because of the electoral strength of the left.

The political will of the MSI to return the far right to power never waned. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe created a new space for the right to flourish. In came the billionaire Berlusconi and his new party, Forza Italia. Berlusconi’s short-lived center-right government of 1994 also included the Northern League (the original name of Salvini’s party) and brought the MSI’s neofascists into a governing coalition for the first time in Europe since 1945.

[Yascha Mounk: The more you watch, the more you vote populist]

Their party was rebranded as the National Alliance, yet the MSI’s tricolor flame remained. The National Alliance’s leader, Gianfranco Fini, wore business suits and discouraged fascist salutes among the party faithful, but he hailed Il Duce as “the greatest statesman of the 20th century.” Meloni had joined the MSI’s youth wing in 1992, as a teenager. Four years later, as a young activist electioneering for her party, she echoed Fini’s praise for the dictator. “I think Mussolini was a good politician,” she told a TV interviewer. “Everything he did, he did for Italy.”  

The current popularity of Meloni’s party in part indicates the weakness of the Italian center-left, which has struggled to package its ideas in ways that connect with voters. Above all, it signifies an acceleration of Italy’s democratic backsliding. In many respects, Meloni’s current coalition is an updated version of the governments Berlusconi went on to form during the 2000s—which, over time, took on more and more of his neofascist partner’s politics. In 2009, the process was formalized in a merger of Forza Italia and the National Alliance to form a new party, People of Freedom. Berlusconi’s coalitions demonized immigrants and detained them, and stoked anti-communist fears (even though the Italian Communist Party had ceased to exist).

Throughout, Berlusconi played on nostalgia for fascism’s promise of law and order even as he whitewashed its violence. “Mussolini never killed anyone,” he told Britain’s Spectator magazine in 2003; “he sent people into confinement to have vacations.” The Fascist prisons on islands such as Ponza, where torture was practiced, were no holiday resorts. His statement also denied the Fascists’ mass killings in Italy and its colonies, including Libya, and ignored their participation in the Holocaust.

Meloni served as minister of youth in Berlusconi’s last government (2008–11), which proved a laboratory for policies she has made her own. In 2008, one of Berlusconi’s ministers claimed that high immigrant birth rates, together with Italy’s aging population and sluggish demographic growth, would cause Italians to disappear “in two or three generations.” Such fear-mongering finds an audience because of Italy’s historically low birth rates, yet it also foments racist attitudes about who should be having babies.

This nationalist preoccupation echoes Mussolini’s warnings. “Cradles are empty and cemeteries are expanding,” Il Duce declared in 1927. “The entire white race, the Western race, could be submerged by other races of color that multiply with a rhythm unknown to our own.” Meloni’s twist on this theme is “ethnic substitution.” Since 2017, she has tweeted repeatedly that Italian identity is being deliberately erased by globalists such as Soros and European Union officials, who have conspired to unleash “uncontrolled mass immigration.” The paranoid style in Italian politics translates into xenophobic proposals to deny citizenship to children born in Italy to foreign parents and to cut foreigners’ access to welfare benefits.

The People of Freedom merger entailed a loss of autonomy for the neofascist tradition. The breakup of Berlusconi’s coalition in 2011, when the euro-zone crisis forced his resignation, created an opportunity for its far-right partner to make a fresh start. The Brothers of Italy formed the following year.

As it has grown, Meloni has walked a double line, trading in far-right conspiracy theories at times, while claiming to be a traditional conservative at others. The approach has proved ominously successful. Ignazio La Russa is now the vice president of the Italian Senate; and last year, Mussolini’s granddaughter Rachele, who has been a Brothers of Italy politician since 2016, was reelected to Rome’s municipal council with more votes than any other candidate.

What can we expect if the first female-led far-right government comes into being after next week’s election? Meloni seems unlikely to tone down her extremism or change her alignment  with illiberal parties in Europe, such as Hungary’s Fidesz. After all, pursuing hard-line anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ policies in the name of defending white Christian civilization has worked well for them. Like Orbán, Meloni has made common cause with U.S. Republicans, attending the Conservative Political Action Conference and the National Prayer Breakfast.

[From the December 1945 issue: The last three days of Mussolini]

The political résumés of her coalition partners hardly inspire optimism that any government Meloni led would respect the rule of law. Berlusconi is a convicted criminal (on counts of tax fraud and bribery), and in 2018—not long before Salvini became minister of the interior—the League leader called for a “mass cleansing” of immigrants. A scenario in which a Meloni-led government’s rollback of civil rights might put Italy on a path to conflict with the European Union is not far-fetched. That is the situation with Hungary, which a recent European Parliament resolution said can “no longer be considered a full democracy.” Orbán’s government uses such clashes for its populist culture-warring even as it continues to take billions of euros in EU funding.

The Brothers of Italy could also try to revisit a constitutional reform that it first proposed in 2018 but was rejected by Parliament. The measure would make the president elected directly rather than by an electoral college. On its face, a head of state chosen by popular vote appears more democratic, but other things are at play here. Italy’s electoral college was introduced by the 1948 constitution, which enshrined antifascist protections against the future possibility of government takeover by a charismatic demagogue. Ostensibly, Italy’s political system is also parliamentary, which makes the prime minister accountable as the government’s chief executive; the presidency is supposed to be a figurehead role, at a remove from day-to-day partisanship. But the Brothers of Italy’s advocacy of “presidentialism,” as the idea of a more robust head of state with a popular mandate is known in Italy, has naturally put the country’s center-left parties on edge.

In her interview in Venice, Hillary Clinton also remarked on how right-wing parties can sometimes appear better at promoting women. Women like Meloni “are protected by patriarchy,” she said, “because they are often the first to support the fundamental pillars of male power and privilege.” Meloni’s party slogan—“God, Fatherland, Family”—celebrates those very pillars of power. And it came from Mussolini’s dictatorship.

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