Look to Italy to understand the dangers of Trump’s racist tweets

The face of Europe’s far-right.
The face of Europe’s far-right.
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Russian operatives seeking to influence the world’s elections appear to have a new beneficiary: Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister.

A damning recording released by Buzzfeed suggests Salvini aids plotted with Russians to funnel money into the campaign of his right-wing party, Lega, ahead of European Parliament Elections.

“He is […] the European Trump, because he has now become the head of all the ultra right [in Europe],” one of the Russians in the meeting says of Salvini.

It seems somewhat misleading to frame Salvini as Europe’s Trump. The 46-year-old Lega leader is far less powerful than the American president—not only because Italy has less influence than the US, but because Italy’s elected leaders have less power under their country’s constitution than their American counterparts.

Yet the comparison is reductive, too. In the US, Trump is facing a public uproar after tweeting that a group of progressive Democratic congresswomen of color should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

Salvini, who is also Italy’s interior minister, is ideologically more extreme, and his racism and ethnic discrimination far more unfiltered. In a country where casual racism is the norm and prejudice against other cultures is deeply rooted, his xenophobic rhetoric doesn’t raise as many eyebrows.

No diversity, no problem

A lifelong politician who joined the ranks of Lega (then called Lega Nord) in 1990, Salvini has spent his first year in office promoting tough anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies. He has refused to allow search and rescue teams to help migrants crossing the Mediterranean, and has fostered a xenophobic climate. He has, for instance, blamed immigrants for increasing crime, even though statistics show it has actually gone down (link in Italian) as immigration has gone up. He has supported making firearms easier to purchase, alleging people need them to protect themselves against criminals. He often shares news of crimes committed by immigrants on social media, yet hardly dwelled on news of an illegal arsenal (including a missile) in the hands of far-right militants.

This all is pretty Trump-like. But unlike the US president, whose audience is extremely diverse, Salvini is speaking to a much more homogenous population that overwhelmingly identifies as white and Christian. There is no official data on Italians’ ethnic breakdown, but it’s fair to assume that much of the country’s diversity is a result of immigration, a relatively recent phenomenon. First or second generation nonwhite Italians are still a small minority.

This allows Lega leader’s message to be far more open in its racist and white supremacist tones, without fear of alienating voters or experiencing widespread pushback. Political opponents and outside parties, such as the UN, have called out Salvini on the government’s responsibility in creating a culture of racism—primarily against black and Roma people. Even the Italian secret services have found the country’s minorities to be at high risk of racist attacks. But Salvini has ample support among Italians. Unlike Trump, whose approval rating has never gone above 45%, Salvini’s popularity has reached peaks of 60% (Italian), and averages around 50% at any given moment.

Meanwhile, episodes of violence with ethnic motivation have skyrocketed since Salvini’s ascent, as his aggressive messages find a large population ready to translate them into racist action. The leading party rarely condemns them. In fact, local Lega administrations have resorted to measures such as creating “immigrant-free” areas in the towns they run.

The power of sovranismo

The more controversial Salvini’s actions, the more Italians like him and his political philosophy, which has been labeled “sovranismo” (souverainism). It is essentially a strand of nationalism that opposes international organizations, which its adherents see as an obstacle to an individual nation’s power. Much like Trump’s, this ideology is carried forward through a hate of immigrants alongside a distrust of global institutions.

But the word sovranismo, a neologism that entered the common political discourse in the past couple of years, denotes something more radical than nationalism. It comes from the word sovrano, which means superior, as well as ruler, and speaks not just of the preservation and pride of a nation within itself, but of its superiority. Without getting into the nuances of political theory, it is easy for Italians to grasp the core notion of what sovranismo is about: the promise of Italian supremacy.

This is not new. It is similar to Benito Mussolini’s promise to return Italy to a long-lost moment of greatness and power. Bringing back the imagery and language of the Roman empire was key to the success of fascism. Even without open references to Rome, the idea that (white, Christian) Italians deserve to be superior—are superior—has a strong pull over Salvini’s many supporters.

This is a quintessentially fascist promise, which has a broader appeal in Italy than in America. In the US, the message of recovering lost political and social power resonates only with specific groups (chiefly, conservative white Americans who see their privileges threatened). In Italy, the whole country has been losing its political and economic standing for decades, and a bigger share of the population is bound to be lured by Salvini’s promise of power.

Italy first

Italy, a large economy where one in three youths is unemployed, has the largest poor population of western Europe. (Over 5 million Italians live in abject poverty). The promise of superiority is all the more appealing for a population in some form of distress.

It’s a textbook fascist strategy. In a 1995 essay in the New York Review of Books, Umberto Eco described the features of what he called “Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism,” the ideology that has propelled various totalitarian regimes of fascist imprint or inspiration throughout history. One of these features—one that is at play globally in many rightwing populist regimes—is the framing of national identity as privilege. “To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country,” Eco writes.

The progression of Lega’s success shows the irresistible appeal of linking ideas of superiority to being Italian—a white Italian at that.

In the years since it was founded in 1982, Lega has gained power by convincing progressively larger groups of Italians of their superiority. First, it was people from Lombardia and Veneto being above all other northern Italians; then all northern Italians above southern Italians; finally, all Italians above foreigners.

Contrary to what one might expect, the people who had been left outside of Lega’s circle of privilege flocked to it once they could be part of the supremacy against another enemy. Southern Italians, who only a couple of years ago were the target of Salvini’s insults, are now amongst the strongest supporters of his anti-immigration rhetoric. He has also been successful in moving the conversation to the right when it comes to border protection, with much of the opposition only timidly pushing back against the idea that the only marker of success in immigration policy is a reduced number of immigrants.

“John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” writes Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress. Similarly, Italians are susceptible to fascism and ideals of supremacy and cultural superiority because they see themselves as temporarily deposed leaders.

This would be dangerous enough if Salvini were operating in isolation, but his party sits on a continuum of far-right parties across Europe that are already copying parts of his approach and message (albeit not as successfully). Russia’s support—of which the tapes released by Buzzfeed might be a hint—would make this coalition even stronger.

The idea of having an Italian as leader of Europe’s far right is ominously familiar. After all fascism, a close relative of the brand of xenophobic, violent populism promoted by Salvini, is an Italian invention.