We’ll know tomorrow but polls show that around 25% of Italian voters plan to cast their ballots for the fascist Brothers of Italy party (Fratelli d’Italia), headed by Giorgia Meloni, who joined a Mussolini-oriented fascist party (Movimento Sociale Italiano) when she was just 15. That will be enough to make her Italy’s first woman prime minister— and the first fascist prime minister since Mussolini was assassinated and hung upside down from a girder in a Milan gas station in 1945. Her anti-establishment decision to stay in opposition, refusing to be part of Mario Draghi’s center-right government– unlike her coalition allies fellow fascist Matteo Salvini and the Trump-like criminal Silvio Berlusconi– has given her street cred as an outsider. It us widely expected that she will head a coalition right-wing government that emerges after tomorrow’s voting.
This morning, the BBC reported that “voters are most concerned about spiralling energy costs. Bills are surging for homeowners and businesses alike.” There is tremendous fear in Italy— and all over Europe— that people won’t be able to afford heating costs this winter, in large part because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In fact, during an interview yesterday Berlusconi defended the Russian invasion, claiming his old friend Putin “was pushed by the Russian population, by his party, by his ministers to invent this special operation” [and that all he wanted to do was have Russian troops to enter Kyiv] “in a week to replace Zelenskyy’s government with a government of decent people.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat teaches Italian history at NYU and is the author of the book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. Yesterday The Atlantic ran an essay by her about the election, The Return Of Fascism In Italy. In which she wrote that “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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.