On October 22, 2022, Giorgia Meloni became the Prime Minister of Italy. For the first time since WWII, Italy elected a far-right government. Meloni is a far-right “post-fascist” who demonizes immigrants, queer people, and women’s rights, and who has given contradictory statements about her views on Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Her party, the Brothers of Italy party, is widely considered to be the ideological descendent of the Italian Social Movement party, the home for former fascist officials and followers in the post-war years. Indeed, Ms. Meloni herself was an Italian Social Movement activist in her youth. Her current party, the Brothers of Italy, even has a fascist flame on its logo.
It can be tempting to feel relief that the United States is not Italy. However, Americans would be foolish to assume that the scepter of fascist leadership is safely on the other side of the Atlantic. In reality, Italian politics are typically just 10 to 20 years ahead of United States politics, and the social and economic conditions that led to Giorgia Meloni’s rise are present here as well.
By virtue of its highly decentralized political system and incredibly fast-changing parliamentary and cabinet leadership, Italy often serves as a test bed for new ideas that spread far outside its borders. For example, between the end of the Second World War and the early 1980s, the Christian Democracy party was continuously in government, alternating between more liberal and more conservative leaders. A mix of centrist factions and Catholic voters, the Christian Democracy was surprisingly similar to the centrist political block of both Republicans and Democrats who led America for decades after WWII. The dominance of the Christian Democrats began to fade in the early 1980s and went into death throes in the late 80s and early 90s, opening the door to the rancorous partisanship that defines Italy today. During this time the New Right’s rise began to push American politics to the right. The Christian Democratic party finally collapsed in 1994, the same year as America’s Republican Revolution.
For a more recent example of American politics mimicking Italian politics, look no further than Silvio Berlusconi, a four-time Prime Minister. A man who owns his own television channel and claims to be a self-made real estate billionaire, Berlusconi secured and held on to power by attacking international institutions, government welfare programs, and immigrants. He had never held political office before becoming Prime Minister in 1994. Over his long career, he managed to attract countless controversies over corruption concerns, sexual assault charges, and derogatory comments, in particular about Black immigrants. One particularly concerning aspect of his policy was an admiration and defense of right-wing authoritarian leaders, most notably Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Berlusconi also frequently rails against judges and Italian courts, having faced trials from everything ranging from bribery to tax evasion to hiring an underage prostitute. Despite this, he holds on to a strong and fervent base of support among right-wing factions of Italian politics, especially older voters. Does any of this sound familiar?
In 2018, Italians elected Giuseppe Conte, a left-wing populist, as PM. Conte instituted massive social spending programs that angered many on the right. When his government collapsed, Mario Draghi, a well-respected centrist politician and technocrat who served as the former president of the European Central Bank, became PM. Despite hopes that Mr. Draghi would be able to cool Italy’s extreme and rancorous partisanship, his government collapsed after just 18 months, the victim of in-fighting between liberals and conservatives in his coalition. Neither sufficiently liberal for Conte’s coalition or conservative enough for the right-wing block, both parties pulled their support and forced Mr. Draghi to resign as PM. This should be a worrying precedent for the current White House. Even though the United States doesn’t follow a parliamentary system, extreme partisanship and Congressional gridlock are very present here as well.
Every step of the way, Italian politics were seemingly recreated in Washington. This is why the future of American politics suddenly seems much more terrifying. The circumstances that led to Ms. Meloni’s rise are present in the United States. To start, Italian society is more divided than ever. Regional differences persist between the wealthier, better developed North and the poorer, more rural South. The North views much of the South as a drag on Italy’s economy, filled with lazy citizens relying on free government handouts. The South resents the North as judgemental and greedy, noting the extreme lack of investment south of Rome. Such regional differences between wealthier coasts and the poorer, more economically and physically decrepit American heartland are not hard to find.
The other three issues that defined the recent Italian election are all culture-war issues here in the United States as well: immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, and the role of religion in public life, an area that Ms. Meloni capitalized on by appealing to religious conservatives. Ms. Meloni ultimately managed to win the plurality of voters (and increase the share of her party’s votes by more than sixfold) by promising to crack down on immigrants (especially illegal immigrants) and protect “traditional families,” as well as by defining herself as a Christian intent on preserving traditional gender roles and reducing abortion access.
Finally, Ms. Meloni capitalized on public dissatisfaction with the status quo, in particular rampant inflation and a bitterly stagnant economy. Italy has long experienced sluggish economic growth, and expensive gasoline and natural gas were simply more fuel in her political rise. Public anger around gas prices and the economy are driving political forces in the United States, with 49% of Americans saying that “the economy” was extremely important for their vote in the 2022 midterms in an October 31st Gallup poll.
In conclusion, the United States should be extremely cautious with how it proceeds politically. Fascism has existed in the United States before, from Madison Square Garden rallies to Charlottesville. The conditions that led to the resurgence of Italian fascism are here again in the form of social divisions and public anger at the economy. Finally, the traditional barriers between the center-right and far right are breaking down in both Italy and the United States. Italy has always had conservative factions, but the traditional center-right parties such as the Lega and Forza Italia had never openly embraced fascism before the current government. We see a similar dynamic here in the United States as well. The Republican Party leadership has long been conservative, but the open embrace of white nationalism and antisemitism, such as Trump’s dinner with Nick Fuentes, is a relatively new development. Mitt Romney was nobody’s idea of a liberal, but he did not declare white supremacists “very fine people.”
Given this grim reality of social polarization, political extremism, and a rising far-right, the only question the United States needs to be contemplating now is, “what is the future of American fascism?” Let’s hope we do better than Italy.