Two years ago, many in America would have deemed it unthinkable to read the title “Alt-right founder questions if Jews are people” on national television. Today, there’s that and more: White supremacists march openly with tiki torches; the president of the United States has claimed that there are “very fine people” among neo-Nazis; and in a clumsy attempt to demonstrate the banality of evil, the New York Times has published an article about how Ohio’s “Nazis next door” enjoy the sitcom Seinfeld.
As the United States grapples with the growth of far-right and hate-based extremism, mainstream US institutions are beginning a dangerous process of normalization. This subtle process makes unspeakable ideas speakable, then acceptable, and ultimately relatable. For an example of how that slow creep happens, consider the example of Italy, where fascism has spread back into the national political landscape 70 years after Benito Mussolini’s reviled fascist dictatorship was defeated by a popular uprising.
Fascism ruled Italy for two decades. In 1945, resistance fighters and allies defeated Italy’s fascist army, and the country made anti-fascism the cornerstone of its new democracy. The creation of fascist political parties was outlawed in the constitution, and a subsequent law (link in Italian) made the memorial and promotion of fascist values illegal, too.
As Giacomo Matteotti, an anti-fascist politician killed by Mussolini’s regime in 1924, famously said, banning fascism was not a violation of freedom of opinion “because Fascism isn’t an idea, it’s a crime.”
Then things changed. Today, political parties with fascist sympathies are growing fixtures (paywall) in Italian politics, and a number of publicly fascist actions have troubled Italian society: During a soccer match last month (Oct. 22), a group of football fans gave out stickers of Anne Frank dressed in their arch-rival’s jersey. Earlier in the year, an Italians-only beach decorated with fascist symbols and paraphernalia had opened near Venice. Near Rome, a town mayor erected a statue to a fascist general.
Fascism’s rebirth and insidious spread in Italy is the result of a political process that has progressively whitewashed extremism, assisted by the confluence of recent historical factors: By the early 1990s, new generations had grown disconnected from the country’s history of resistance against fascism, as partisans and victims of racial laws aged and died. The fall of the USSR and the dissolution of the Italian communist party also meant a drop in funding to some of the country’s main anti-fascist educational organizations.
More importantly, something happened in the right at the same time. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of Italian history at New York University, calls it the rise of “fuppies,” or fascist yuppies. “Fuppies” were typically members of, or politically aligned with, Alleanza Nazionale (AN), a rightwing party that publicly rejected antisemitism and other fascist principles, such as violence.
“Fuppies” used articulate, tolerant language and showed respect for democratic institutions. Founded in 1994, AN was led by Gianfranco Fini, who entered politics with the belief that deposed fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was “the greatest statesman of the 1900s,” the Fuppies positioned themselves as modern, successful conservatives. The party’s newspaper, Il Secolo d’Italia, describes AN as aiming to (Italian) move “from the ghetto to the governing right, become ‘presentable,’ scrap nostalgias, acquire moderates who are no longer scared of neofascism.”
Publicly, AN rejected and condemned the fascist past, while its core messages—nationalism, traditional family values, law and order imposed through strength—were still aligned to fascist priorities (“god, homeland, family,” as the fascist motto had it.) Tellingly, only a year after AN’s founding, it absorbed Italy’s old-school Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), a party formed by veterans who had fought on the fascist side of the civil war. To date, AN’s symbol features the tricolor flame, a fascist symbol.
With time, AN’s sanitized version of fascism earned a place in the democratic debate. A reliable ally of Silvio Berlusconi’s rightwing party Forza Italia, AN joined all of the governmental coalitions that had Berlusconi as prime minister. Through that political legitimation, says Ben-Ghiat, “the people in the fringe became the center, [in] a mainstreaming of the right.” AN’s mainstreaming was also enabled by a tolerant public and media, that shifted to accept the presence of known former fascists in government.
There were always fascists in Italy, but since the republic’s founding, they had never been an open part of government, either. After AN, high-profile politicians with fascist pasts began embracing the ideology again. During a parliament debate on penalizing fascist apologism, a former minister performed the fascist-era Roman salute. More explicit and violent fascist groups, such as Casa Pound, have replaced AN and MSI on the fringe.
Berlusconi didn’t need to be a fascist to help normalize Italy’s neo-fascism: It was a simple exchange of AN’s political support for exposure and government appointments. Indeed, at the end of the 2000s, AN itself became part of Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (People of Freedom) party federation. The same political process of legitimation could develop in America now, as US president Donald Trump publicly accepts and encourages the support of white supremacists. Giving extremists a place in the base can be a successful way to win votes. But as the resurgence of hate crimes in Italy shows, it’s a dangerous gamble.