In Italy, an old video has been making the rounds. It shows a beautiful young woman saying things that are not so beautiful. Donning 1990s fashion, her body turned to the back from the front seat of a car, she answers questions for a French television reporter in good if accented French. “For me, Mussolini was a good politician,” she says. “Everything he did, he did for Italy, and that is something that is not found in the politicians we have had in the last fifty years.”
She will most likely be elected Italy’s prime minister next Sunday.
Georgia Meloni is no longer 19 years old, and she no longer speaks so openly of her admiration for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, but she has never forgotten which political tradition she belongs to. Because fascism was never formally expelled from Italian public life after the second world war. In Germany, the allies imposed a rigorous program that permanently excluded ex-Nazis from power. In Italy, however, fascists were allowed to regroup under a new party, the “Italian Social Movement.”
That’s what it was still called in 1992, when Giorgia Meloni, then only 15 years old, joined its youth wing. Since then, the party has changed names several times. But let’s be clear: Fratelli d’Italia, the party Giorgia Meloni leads, is the successor party to the successor party to the party founded by Benito Mussolini. It has never renounced Il Duce’s legacy.
Does this mean that Italy is returning to fascism?
The fact that Giorgia Meloni is on the brink of power has less to do with her neo-fascism and more to do with how easily Italian voters are seduced by anti-establishment candidates. Meloni is just the latest in a long string of radical and populist outsiders that have been growing in popularity in Italy since the 1990s. In fact, Meloni’s junior coalition partners include the leaders of two of the last three anti-politics waves in Italy: the now elderly Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, leader of Lega (the League), yet another far-right anti-establishment party.
American and European leaders tend to take comfort in the thought that Italian prime ministers don’t last. The country has had 69 of them since the second world war
To have managed to outflank a figure as extreme as Salvini on the right shows Giorgia Meloni’s political chops. But it also reveals the Italian public’s propensity to vote for those unsullied by governing experience. Meloni – whose only government stint was as minister for youth under Berlusconi from 2008 and 2011 –skipped the grueling internecine warfare of the unstable coalition government over the past five years. With her outsider credentials thus kept safe, she stands to gain from Italians’ chronic disgust for those who govern them.
We are, of course, in 2022, and these things no longer surprise anyone. With the far right reaching power even in Sweden and radical anti-establishment parties stalking power across the West, Meloni is no longer an exception. Like Marine Le Pen in France, she has been able to cast traditional far-right themes, such as xenophobia and staunch nationalism, in more palatable terms.
It all started with Silvio Berlusconi, who came to power in 1994 riding a wave of anti-politics sentiment very similar to the one lifting Meloni now. It was Berlusconi who demonstrated the ongoing power of populism in today’s Europe. It was he who made polarization a central part of his political strategy, and whose sprawling television and print empire set the tone for creating a post-truth alternative reality. I call this the politics of the 3Ps: populism, polarization and post-truth.
But even if Berlusconi was the pioneer, each successive generation of anti-establishment radicals in Italy has done its bit to deepen the 3Ps. That is why Italy has become the European poster child for anti-politics, a trend that was always bound to reach its logical conclusion: fascism.
What is interesting is that Washington and Brussels do not seem particularly alarmed that Italy could soon become a source of instability in the heart of Europe. American and European leaders tend to take comfort in the thought that Italian prime ministers don’t last. The country has had 69 of them since the second world war.
The world is used to thinking that Italian leaders – good and bad – will see their ambitions frustrated by a constitutional system that delays everything, complicates everything and blocks everything. Few believe that Meloni will last long, or that she can succeed in making lasting change.
But what if they’re wrong? What if 1996 Giorgia Meloni said out loud what present day Giorgia Meloni thinks but doesn’t say?
It is a question that should interest the world. The old consolidated democracies of Europe are neither so old nor so consolidated that they’re immune to assault from forces that secretly, or not-so-secretly, seek to destroy them.