Giorgia Meloni and the return of fascism: how Italy got here RS News

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The rise of far-right politician Giorgia Meloni has left many outside Italy asking how her brand of fascism can achieve such prominence in a country that has experienced life under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. The answer can be traced back to a recent normalization in reactionary politics.

In fact the existence of a far right government in Italy is not entirely without precedent in the post-war period. Between 1994 and 2011 a specifically labeled “centre-right” alliance – including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI), various versions of a small Christian democratic or centrist wing, Umberto Bossi’s Northern League (LN) and Gianfranco Fini’s National League (AN). – ruled Italy four times. The National League was the party that preceded Meloni’s Brother’s of Italy

Berlusconi takes a retrospective look at Mussolini’s role in Italian history. He believed he was one of Italy’s “greatest statesmen” and essentially an “innocent dictator” who had “done good things for Italy”. This provided a counter-narrative that contradicted the reality of the anti-fascist foundations of the Italian republic. That, in turn, was exploited by the far right.

The Northern League first emerged as a series of parties seeking greater autonomy for the prosperous northern regions of Italy. And the National League was the latest iteration of a neo-fascist tradition rooted in the Italian Social Movement (MSI) founded by veterans of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic in 1946.

Both sides helped bring far-right and reactionary policies into the mainstream as coalition partners in Berlusconi-led administrations.

The balance of power in this alliance shifted decisively between 2013 and 2017 when Matteo Salvini took over the Northern League. He gradually abandoned regionalism for nationalism and appealed to the extreme right, adopting the slogan “Italians First”, previously used by the neo-fascist party Casa Pound. The Alliance (now renamed) partnered with the Five Star Movement to govern as what is euphemistically called a “populist” coalition between 2018 and 2019.

Extreme views packaged as ‘common sense’

This was a period that saw, among other reactionary policies, a “security ruling” that tightened immigration regulations, restricted the right to asylum and made it easier to deport migrants and revoke citizenship. The decree was eventually overturned in 2020 but by then it had already served as a symbolic victory for Salvini.

Back in 2017, Salvini promised Italian voters a “common sense revolution” – a trope that soon became central to his party’s political messaging. The idea was to bring far-right ideology into the mainstream by portraying extreme racist policies as “normal” ideas based on opinions shared by “ordinary Italians”.

Like many far-right politicians, he thrived on the idea that he was saying out loud what “everyone was really thinking”. Salvini claimed that she gave “Italian first” – although it means white, Catholic, straight Italians from “traditional” (read mom and dad) families. It also promoted the closing of borders and clearing migrant camps.

Salvini’s common-sense image, though deeply flawed, was initially a successful electoral tactic. But by 2019 he began to lose control of the narrative, mainly due to a series of miscalculations. The first of these was his unfortunate decision to pull the plug on the government he had formed in coalition with the Five Star Movement in 2018. Fueled by hubris fueled by strong polling figures and in the hope of provoking elections, Salvini withdrew support from the Government. But his gamble did not pay off. Instead, he sent his party to the opposition benches.

Salvini’s tactics have opened up space for Meloni to flourish.

Meloni profits from Salvini’s tactics

Salvini’s losses have been Meloni’s gains and the balance of power on Italy’s political right has once again shifted away from the Alliance. With Salvini having spent the last two years giving his parliamentary support to the government, Meloni has been able to position himself as having been “alone in the opposition” – and therefore as being more in touch with “real Italians”.

Meanwhile, she has capitalized on his success in bringing far-right and reactionary ideas further into the mainstream.

A key element of Salvini’s “common sense” strategy was to downplay the threat of fascism and argue that calls for law and order or stronger borders not fascist. This has created the perfect conditions for neo-fascists to flourish. Meloni has been free to claim that her party has shaken off its fascist past even as it espouses clearly inflexible views. What could be called a post-fascist strategy is developing. Meloni can inflame the public by making fascist assertions while claiming that fascism no longer exists. Importantly, those who warn of the return of fascism are dismissed as irrational.

All this can be seen in the dog-whistle references to Mussolini that have characterized the 2022 election campaign. Both the League and the Brothers of Italy have used campaign slogans first used in the fascist era. The latter has even retained the tricolor flame logo used by its predecessors, the neo-fascist MSI.

Meloni opposes same-sex marriage, for putting significant curbs on access to abortion to address the “crisis” of Italy’s declining birth rate and has specifically referred to Europe’s “judeo-christian” origins. The latter is a common Islamophobic trope that has long been a key part of European far-right ideology. His racism is also evident in a depiction of immigration as an invasion – through calls for a naval blockade and a portrayal of “undocumented migration” as a conspiracy by the United Nations. This willfully plays on “great replacement” racial narratives.

Meloni’s success may come as a shock, but it shouldn’t. She is a crazy social media operator and expert strategist but her path has been cleared by many figures who came before her. Salvini is now following her example but his work to remove the Overtyn window has made her the politician she is today. That was a process that took years and developed before our eyes.


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