The rise of far right politician Giorgia Meloni has left many outside Italy asking how her brand of what many argue is 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 normalisation of reactionary politics.
In truth the existence of a far-right government in Italy is not entirely without precedent in the post-war era. Between 1994 and 2011 a speciously labelled “centre-right” alliance – consisting of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI), various iterations of a small Christian democratic or centrist wing, Umberto Bossi’s Northern League (LN) and Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance (AN) – governed Italy four times. The National Alliance was the predecessor party to Meloni’s Brother’s of Italy
Berlusconi takes a revisionist view of Mussolini’s role in Italian history. He believed him to be one of Italy’s “greatest statesmen” and an essentially “benign dictator” who had “done good things for Italy”. This provided a counter-narrative that contradicted the reality of the Italian republic’s anti-fascist foundations. That, in turn, was exploited by the far right.
The Northern League first emerged as a series of parties seeking greater autonomy for Italy’s prosperous northern regions. And the National Alliance was the latest iteration of a neo-fascist tradition which has roots in the Italian Social Movement (MSI) established by veterans of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic in 1946.
Both parties 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 the reins of the Northern League. He gradually abandoned regionalism for nationalism and appealed to the far and extreme right, adopting the slogan “Italians First”, which was previously used by the neo-fascist party Casa Pound. The (now renamed) League partnered with the Five Star Movement to govern as what was euphemistically termed a “populist” coalition between 2018 and 2019.
Extreme views packaged as ‘common sense’
This was a period which saw, among other reactionary policies, a “security decree” which tightened immigration regulations, limited the right to asylum and made the expulsion of migrants and revocation of citizenship easier. The decree was ultimately overturned in 2020 but by that time it had already served as a symbolic victory for Salvini.
Back in 2017, Salvini promised Italian voters a “common sense revolution” – a trope which 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 views shared by “ordinary Italians”.
Like many populist far-right politicians, he thrived on the idea that he was saying out loud what “everyone was really thinking”. Salvini claimed to be putting “Italians first” – although he really meant white, Catholic, straight Italians from “traditional” (read mother and father) families. He also promoted closing borders and clearing migrant camps.
Salvini’s common sense image, while deeply flawed, initially proved a successful electoral tactic. But by 2019 he started to lose control of the narrative, largely thanks to a series of miscalculations.
The first of these was his ill-fated decision to pull the plug on the government he had formed in coalition with the Five Star Movement in 2018. Fuelled by hubris induced by strong polling figures and in the hope of triggering elections, Salvini withdrew support for the government. But his gamble did not pay off. He instead consigned his party to the opposition benches.
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 League. With Salvini spending the past two years lending his parliamentary support to the government, Meloni has been able to position herself as having been “alone in opposition” – and therefore as being more in touch with “real Italians”.
Meanwhile, she has capitalised on his success at bringing far-right and reactionary ideas further into the mainstream.
A key element of Salvini’s “common sense” strategy was downplaying the threat of fascism and arguing that calling for law and order or stronger borders is not fascistic. This has created the perfect conditions for neo-fascists to thrive.
Meloni can gaslight the public by making fascist assertions while claiming fascism no longer exists. Importantly, those who warn that fascism is making a comeback are derided as irrational.
This is all exemplified in the dog whistle references to Mussolini that have characterised the 2022 election campaign. Both the League and Brothers of Italy have deployed campaign slogans first used in the fascist era. The latter have even kept the tricolour flame logo used by its predecessors, the neo-fascist MSI.
Meloni opposes same-sex marriage, wants to put significant curbs on access to abortion to address the “emergency” of Italy’s declining birth rate and has made explicit references Europe’s supposed “Judeo-Christian” roots. The latter is a common Islamophobic trope that has long formed a key part of European far-right ideology.
Her racism is also evident in a depiction of immigration as an invasion – via calls for a naval blockade and portrayal of “undocumented migration” as a UN plot. This plays willingly on racist “great replacement” narratives.
Meloni’s success may shock, but it should not surprise. She is a canny social media operator and expert strategist but her path has been cleared by many figures that came before her. Salvini now follows her lead but his work to shift the Overton window of what is mainstream in politics has made her the politician she is today. That was a process that took years and unfolded in front of our very eyes.