Italy’s Right-Wing Demagogue Matteo Salvini Wins Big in the EU Elections
Matteo Salvini’s diagnosis of what ails Italy is brutally simple: migrants from across the Mediterranean, and Romany gypsies. His remedy, “sovereignism,” is sometimes interpreted as meaning nationalism, but it’s not quite the same thing. Sovereignism is more than just making a religion out of your national identity; it’s a regime in which everything and everyone within your borders must meet your ethnic and national criteria and must fall under your exclusive control. If that sounds so much like fascism that you wouldn’t think it would appeal to Italians, who actually lived under Fascism only three generations ago, you would be wrong. In the European parliamentary elections last Sunday, 34 percent of Italians voted for Salvini’s League, making it by far the largest party in Italy, well ahead of the second-place Democratic Party, at 23 percent, and crushing its once mighty government partner, the Five Star Movement (M5S), which registered only a feeble 17 percent.
Salvini is no Italian Fascist of Mussolinian memory. He’s young (46), adept at Twitter and Facebook, has a soft spot for shelter dogs, and the incipient double chin of the guy next door with a healthy appetite. He thunders against crimes—drug use, infanticide—that people are already indignant about, poses with right-wing soccer ultras, and lends tacit support to rogue far-right groups that harass and attack immigrants and Italian antifascists. One of his campaign managers seems to have ties with organized crime, the newsweekly L’Espresso reported. He recently published a book-length interview with a neofascist house (it seems to be selling very few copies). He’s a political animal deploying a somewhat adolescent array of symbols: Rosary and machine gun, selfie and teddy bear, was how political commentator Filippo Ceccarelli summed it up.
Salvini owes his media strategy to a consultant who fashioned a profile mixing irreverent comments on the issues with abundant personal news. We see Salvini “consuming Nutella, cooking tortellini, biting into an orange, looking at the sea, listening to music, relaxing in front of the TV: every day a piece of his personal life ‘shared’ with millions of Italians,” writes Italian journalist Matteo Pucciarelli in an excerpt from his book Anatomia di un populista published in the New Left Review. It’s something like Trump’s Twitter feed, without the howlers, and just as inappropriate for an interior minister, a figure up to now fairly buttoned-up.
But Salvini’s a canny politician. He did not simply govern with his coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, he cleverly gobbled them up. The hapless M5S had triumphed in the 2018 elections with 33 percent of the vote to the League’s 17; today those percentages are reversed. When Salvini took over his party, it was mired in a scandal about 49 million euros of political funding that had vanished into private pockets. As the League morphed from Northern League to just League, Salvini casually shifted its original appetite, for northern independence, to one for national power, and identified new scapegoats in foreigners rather than southern Italians. Now the “bad guys,” as Trump might say, are the migrants from east, west, and north Africa, the Middle East, and as far afield as Bangladesh and Afghanistan who embark on continental treks and end up on rickety boats crossing the Mediterranean, horrendous numbers of them dying on the journey to Europe.
Before the 2018 election, Salvini’s other scapegoat was the euro and the European Union, and indeed the government in Brussels and its austerity policy have been responsible for much grief in Italy. But he never acted on his views. Hisbase, preponderantly in Northern Italy, belongs to that region’s productive universe of small businesses who rely on European markets and appreciate the stability of the single currency. Today it would be a stretch to call Salvini a Euroskeptic. He says he wants to change the EU from within. It remains to be seen whether he and his EU partner, France’s far-right Marine Le Pen, will have any real clout in Strasbourg.
Grandstanding against the NGOs running rescue ships, clamorously barring Italian ports to migrants, threatening heavy fines against anyone who assists migrants at sea, boasting about cleansing Italian neighborhoods of Romany camps and of people legally awaiting decisions on refugee status, Salvini makes the Italian news almost every day. Last summer he ordered an Italian Coast Guard ship, which had on board 177 exhausted and ill migrants who had been rescued from drowning, not to lower its gangplank and allow the passengers to disembark. The ship sat for five days in Catania harbor before the passengers were finally let off. The case became a dilemma for the Five Star Movement when, in response to a Sicilian prosecutor’s charge that Salvini had “kidnapped” the passengers, the Senate was called upon to vote on whether to suspend the minister’s parliamentary immunity from prosecution. The M5S had long made it a principle that politicians should not have special immunity, but they ignominiously voted to protect Salvini.
When it comes to his friends, however, the interior minister is more considerate. He’s made no move to oust the squatters of Casa Pound, neofascist extremists who have abusively occupied a comfortable building in central Rome since 2003. In a recent episode that went on for several days, scores of demonstrators in Rome’s eastern outskirts organized by the same Casa Pound pushed and shoved and shouted “Italians first” and “we’re gonna rape you” at a Romany woman and her family who had been assigned public housing. Salvini did nothing to have the protest cleared.
That same week Pope Francis invited 500 Romany and Sinti to a well-publicized meeting in the Vatican and expressed solidarity with the family victimized by the protesters. Francis, who has been vocal about the Christian duty to rescue migrants fleeing war and famine, is considered a significant adversary by the right. “Pope Francis is your enemy,” arch-reactionary Steve Bannon—who would dearly love to be considered the father of European sovereignism—once explained to Salvini. Now Bannon has acquired the Charterhouse of Trisulti, a remote Benedictine abbey in the mountains of Lazio, where he says he’ll train the novices of the Movement, his grandiose project to convert the continent to the far right. He likes to think of Salvini as his first success, although Salvini himself is more noncommittal. Not everyone wants to be Steve Bannon’s pet project.
But Salvini is happy to put on a “Benedict is my pope” T-shirt, produced by conservative Catholics who insist that Francis is an interloper and prefer his doctrinal predecessor. And he has recently been sporting a rosary. At a much-publicized May 17 rally in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo with Marine Le Pen and Dutch far-right Islamophobe Geert Wilders, he did get some cheers when he attacked the pope, the rosary he was clutching in his hand glinting in the TV coverage. “Fetishistic sovereignism” sentencedFamiglia Cristiana, a Catholic magazine that has been a staunch pillar of the resistance against the interior minister.
It was raining in Piazza del Duomo that day as a lone troublemaker wearing a black Zorro mask and costume captured the attention of the entire piazza when he let drop a 5-meter-long banner with the words “Stay Human” on it from a window, and then waited for the police to climb up and make the banner disappear. Nothing like the promised crowd of 100,000 League followers showed up. Corriere della Sera counted just 20,000 supporters, while the official count by the police was nearly twice that, presumably including the thousands of anti-Salvini protesters chanting “stupid, stupid” at the stage in unison. As for the cops, the interior minister is their boss, and he expects favors. Recently it emerged that he’s been improperly using police helicopters to buzz around the country combining official duties with political rallies.
How the election results will change the political landscape will surely be Salvini’s decision. He has said he expects to maintain the Five Star/League coalition (the better to eat M5S up?), but the assumption is that he’ll want the prime minister’s job for himself, as well as other cabinet posts. He may instead choose to force new elections, striking while the iron is hot. Other, less plausible hypotheses include a right-wing government with Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia list got less than 9 percent, or with breakaway neofascist Georgia Meloni, who got 6 percent.
At his victory press conference, Salvini ostentatiously kissed the cross on his trusty new rosary. It was reminiscent of the electoral paeans that Silvio Berlusconi used to make to his mother, trying to charm women voters. Former senator Berlusconi himself was back in parliament, in Strasbourg this time, after having completed his 2013 sentence barring him from electoral office for five years following a conviction for tax fraud. He was recently released from the hospital after surgery for an intestinal occlusion. Facelifts and makeup didn’t conceal a one of his 82 years. Forza Italia’s share of the vote, moreover, was pretty scant at 8.8 percent.
The main opposition, the Democrats, buoyed by having finally chosen a new party secretary, Nicola Zingaretti, after the previous debacle with Matteo Renzi, was milking its five-and-half-point advantage over the Five Star Movement (17.1 percent) for all the attention they could get. But it wasn’t much consolation in the face of the League’s stunning win.
So how did we get here? Let me begin with an aside, from the days when I first moved to this country, then home to the largest Communist Party in Western Europe. It was 1985, as much as a third of the Italian population voted PCI, and you could feel the weight of that sturdy, steely left in the political culture. The previous year, when party secretary Enrico Berlinguer had suddenly died, more than a million people flooded into Rome’s Piazza San Giovanni for his funeral service. A week later, the PCI even edged out its perennial rival, the Christian Democrats, in European elections. The left seemed to be granite-clad.
It was anything but, of course. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) that seemed so vital to a refugee from Reagan’s America would never again win that many votes. No other PCI leader would match Berlinguer’s personal charisma. Some in the party had already noted with alarm that while their middle-class adherents were increasing, the working-class base was shrinking. With time it would become evident that the Italian working class itself was shrinking—the unionized working class of the big factories, that is. The developed West now had industrial rivals on the planet and manufacturing was beginning to happen elsewhere, in countries like India and China. Finance, too, was going global. Trying to launch progressive policies at the level of the nation was more and more futile. The European Union was becoming an important political domain.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Italians grumbled about corruption. When my son was born, in 1987, it was said you even had to pay a bribe to get a place in the queue to have the birth recorded at the registry. It didn’t happen to us, but everyone seemed prepared to believe the rumor. A picturesque tax-protest movement, the Lega Lombarda, later the Lega Nord, appeared, angrily excoriating the government in Rome and the Southerners, whom they considered the welfare queens of government assistance. Elsewhere, capitalism had apparently won the Cold War: The Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union dissolved, and “the short 20th century” of Eric Hobsbawm’s coinage dwindled to a close. In 1991 the PCI erased “communist” from its name, becoming the Democratic Party of the Left. The following year, magistrates in Milan launched a barrage of indictments against the system of personal and political corruption called Tangentopoli, or Bribesville. In short order, the Christian Democratic Party, the bulwark of every postwar government, and the Socialist Party, which had shared power with them since the 1960s, disintegrated under the accusations.
What emerged from this unpromising rubble was Silvio Berlusconi. He came forward in 1994 explicitly to prevent the “Communists” from taking power, when for a brief moment it looked like the one major party not steeped in corruption might be elected to govern. The radical-right sentiments of Berlusconi’s coalition partners—the Northern League and the neofascists of Alleanza Nazionale—were suddenly granted a legitimacy and a pulpit they hadn’t had since Fascism. As prime minister on and off until 2011, Berlusconi largely pursued his own business interests and presided over a wave of corruption that rivaled that of the old regime. The focus on his misdeeds blocked Italy from beginning to face up to deeper issues like its shifting class structure and the globalization of the economy.
Not that the Democratic Party of the Left, which combined with smaller parties to become the Left Democrats in 1998 and then merged with the progressive Catholics of the Margherita to form the Democratic Party in 2007, was very thoughtful about these matters either. Some did recognize that their challenges were not confined to the domestic political sphere, that the economic and social forces changing their world had little respect for borders. But the party failed to choose the right battles and the right arena—just as it failed to govern the endless schisms that weakened the left. It was the economic crisis of 2008 that suddenly made having an analysis essential. Italians were frustrated, hurting, resentful. When the left was unable to offer an explanation of what was wrong and what could be done, the floodgates opened to the demagoguery of the right.
For the Five Star Movement, the villains were “La Casta,” the privileged politicians living off the public purse. In a world where real inequity is the shade cast by a few immensely rich and powerful owners on the many, this was a diversion, a fairy tale. It wasn’t as cruel as the League’s toxic fairy tale about the migrants and the Romany—worthy of the Brothers Grimm—or anywhere near as manipulative and misleading. But the neophytes of M5S were naive enough to believe their own propaganda. Salvini is shrewder.
Will the Italians—or for that matter other Europeans mesmerized by similar fairy tales—eventually wake up and see they’re being fooled? It would help if the left could get its act together, but it’s at least encouraging that these European elections saw the highest turnout rates across the EU in years. Even as the British stumble toward Brexit, perhaps people are beginning to understand that Europe is now a viable theater of action. The strong showing made by European Green parties was another signal that voters are looking beyond their national borders. For what could be more global, more planetary—less parochial, less sovereignist—than the environment?