Washington, DC – The election victory of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni this week has been met with cheers from US Republicans, who are heaping praise on the right-wing European leader despite concerns that she heads a political party with neo-fascist roots.
The affinity for Meloni in the United States, experts say, is part of a deepening connection between conservative populists on both sides of the Atlantic, which was previously seen with Republican activists’ embrace of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Increasingly, right-wing nationalists around the world are finding common ground in a battle against shared foes: immigration, progressive views on gender and sexuality, and people they loosely label as “globalists” and “elites”.
And this is precisely the message that succeeded in getting Meloni elected, said Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
“She ran on anger at gender politics; she ran on the traditional family; she ran on things like protecting borders; she would talk about Western civilisation in precisely the same way that Orban does and much of the right-wing in this country does,” Rosenthal told Al Jazeera.
Rosenthal said the “great replacement theory”, the notion that global elites are trying to replace “native” populations in Western countries with immigrants, is at the heart of the grievances that unite these right-wing movements.
The theory is seen by many academics and social justice advocates as a conspiratorial push to stoke racial anxiety about non-white newcomers to Western countries.
“All the nationalist movements in individual countries have the same ‘other’ – that is to say that they all agree that immigrants are ‘the other’, and that’s what they’re against,” Rosenthal said. “So it’s possible to have solidarity across international lines on that score, because the enemy object is the same in all of them.”
Meloni, 45, is poised to become Italy’s next prime minister after her political party, Brothers of Italy, emerged as the biggest winner in a right-wing coalition that received the most votes in the country’s snap elections on Sunday.
Brothers of Italy – founded in 2012 – is the ideological successor of the far-right National Alliance, which emerged from the Italian Social Movement, a political party formed by former dictator Benito Mussolini’s supporters in the wake of World War II.
Meloni has denied that her party is fascist and condemned the anti-Jewish laws and suppression of democracy of the fascist era. However, a video of a young Meloni when she was an activist with the National Alliance shows her praising Mussolini as a “good politician” who acted for Italy.
Brothers of Italy’s logo – flames in the colours of the Italian flag – also mirrors that of the Italian Social Movement.
Congratulations to @GiorgiaMeloni. Italy deserves and needs strong conservative leadership. Buona Fortuna!
— Mike Pompeo (@mikepompeo) September 26, 2022
Yet despite the criticism, numerous Republicans hailed Meloni’s electoral success this week, sharing a viral video of the Italian politician arguing that national identity and the concept of family are under attack in an effort to turn people into “the perfect consumer”.
“The entire world is beginning to understand that the Woke Left does nothing but destroy,” far-right Congresswoman Lauren Boebert wrote on Twitter, suggesting that Meloni’s victory was a positive sign ahead of US midterm elections in November.
“Nov 8 is coming soon & the USA will fix our House and Senate! Let freedom reign!”
Senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also were among the Republican officials who expressed joy over Meloni’s win.
Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, one of the most influential right-wing commentators in the US, also lauded Meloni’s victory as a “revolution”, calling her “smart” and able to articulate what the majority of people are thinking.
Some experts say Meloni’s message about family, national identity and God has resonated with US conservatives because it is specifically tailored for them.
“Giorgia Meloni has invested a lot of effort into creating connections and respectability within the US-dominated ‘national conservatism’ and Christian fundamentalist networks,” Cas Mudde, an international affairs professor at the University of Georgia, told Al Jazeera in an email.
Earlier this year, Meloni delivered a speech filled with American references to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering for US right-wing politicians and activists.
“That’s exactly what they want – a right-wing on a leash, irrelevant and trained as a monkey. But you know what? We’re not monkeys. We are not even rhinos; we won’t be part of their zoo,” said Meloni, invoking “RINOs“, or “Republicans In Name Only”, a term used to describe moderate US conservatives.
So beautifully said.
Congratulations to Giorgio Meloni and to the people of Italy. https://t.co/XdM8U2mFgt
— Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene🇺🇸 (@RepMTG) September 26, 2022
‘Triumph’ for far right
In that same speech, Meloni went on to claim that “everything” conservatives stand for is under attack, and that progressives are operating globally to “destroy our identities”. She also likened refugees arriving in Italy to migrants and asylum seekers at the US southern border.
“I see unbelievable things happening on the border between [the] United States and Mexico, and I think of our own Sicily,” she said.
“Thousands of migrants allowed to enter without permission, who end up crowding out the slums of our towns and cities. And they’re capping the salaries of our own workers, and in many instances engaging in crime.”
Rosenthal said right-wing Republicans are not looking to Meloni’s message for inspiration because they have already adopted anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Rather, “it’s an occasion to celebrate the ‘triumph of our side’ – from their point of view – internationally”, he said.
Rula Jebreal, a Palestinian-born Italian journalist who is currently a visiting professor at the University of Miami, warned that Meloni’s election will embolden far-right extremists in Italy, as well as in the rest of Europe and the US.
Jebreal, who has previously debated and clashed with Meloni publicly, said she and other critics of the Italian politician have received death threats since the election on Sunday. “I think these people feel inspired, emboldened,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to right-wing “extremists”.
“This movement is a global movement, and the people are organised,” Jebreal said.
Over the past decade, there have been active efforts to connect right-wing movements around the world. Notably, Steve Bannon, a former adviser to ex-President Donald Trump, launched an unsuccessful organisation called “The Movement” in 2018 to back anti-European Union populists in European Parliament elections.
The Trump ally had put special emphasis on right-wing parties in France and Italy.
“Italy is the beating heart of modern politics,” Bannon, who is currently facing a flurry of legal challenges and criminal charges in the US, told the Daily Beast at that time. “If it works there it can work everywhere.”