The polls have closed; the votes have been tallied; the election is over — Giorgia Meloni, head of the far-right Brothers of Italy Party is the country’s next prime minister. Meloni, who is the first woman to serve in the office, is a tremendously controversial right-wing figure. Her inflammatory statements and actions throughout her career have led to her being frequently compared with fascist dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini.
Meloni’s rise to power coincides with the one-hundred-year anniversary of Benito Mussolini’s ascension to the nation’s highest political office in 1922. In October of that year, Mussolini’s group of paramilitary fighters, nicknamed the Blackshirts, marched on Rome, demanding the resignation of then prime minister, Luigi Facta. Their efforts were successful and Facta was overthrown. Following this, the king handed the keys to the country to Mussolini. After seizing power, Mussolini dismantled his opposition and in 1925 proclaimed himself as the sole leader of Italy, styling himself in Italian as “Il Duce”, which translates to “The Leader”, in English.
Despite Mussolini’s open contempt for democracy, for equality and for progress, Italy’s next prime minister views the dictator quite positively, saying in 1996, that Mussolini was “a good politician” and that he was the best of the last fifty years. In addition, Meloni has promoted harmful conspiracies such as the white nationalist “great replacement” theory and spread misinformation about vaccines throughout the Coronavirus Pandemic. Disturbingly, Meloni’s bigoted politics closely mirror those of Mussolini. Her statements and actions are executed with purpose: To paint a target on perceived enemies of the Italian people, such as foreigners, Muslims, intellectuals, or the LGBTQ+ community as a means to stoke the flames of division, and to incite violence. If left unchallenged, her rhetoric will only generate more hostility between Italy’s demographic groups. The particularly despicable thing, however, is that this outcome is likely her intent; the far right habitually seizes and consolidates power during times of great unrest.
Historically, autocrats have taken and retained control through brutality, diversion, and preying upon the desperate and vulnerable. This idea, that despots take power in moments of chaos, is substantiated by Manuel Melendez-Sanchez’s writings on current events in El Salvador. Sanchez describes president-turned-dictator Nayib Bukele’s rise by explaining how Bukele “tapped into frustrations and promised Salvadorans a fresh start”. Much like El Salvador, Italy too is experiencing a time of tremendous hardship. After almost fifteen years, the Italian economy has yet to return to its 2008 levels prior to the Great Recession. Since 2008, Italy’s GDP per capita has fallen by approximately twenty five percent. The value of the Euro has plummeted by over a third in the same period. Politically, Italy has struggled to find its footing in Europe, as its neighbors and allies, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, continue to overshadow and outperform the continent’s southern peninsula. Once mockingly referred to as “the soft underbelly” of Europe by Winston Churchill during the Second World War, many Italians feel as though their nation is once again in decline. Aspiring despots feed off of a vulnerable population looking for a leader to guide them to a better future. Any competent fascist understands that as the people of a nation become lost, and their sense of hope begins to slip away, the task of convincing the country to adopt extreme positions becomes far easier. The validity of this premise is supported by historical record. In Italy, in Germany, and in Spain, fascists seized control during periods of political instability.
During the years preceding the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party, Germany was a nation left in utter ruin. Following a costly, draining, years-long war for supremacy over the European continent, and the world at large, the German Empire dissolved after suffering a crushing defeat. The nation’s people were humiliated in the aftermath of the First World War, and the nation was left economically crippled by severe reparations and territorial losses. The instability of the Weimar Republic allowed for the nation to fall into the hands of Adolf Hitler, who was elected as the nation’s chancellor in January of 1933. Within two years of coming to office, Hitler consolidated control within Germany, and became the nation’s sole source of political power, changing his title from “chancellor” to “Führer” upon the death of then President of Germany, Paul Von Hindenburg.
In the Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders, Charles Powell discusses the history of the Franco regime in Spain, and describes the events leading up to the dictator’s 1936 power grab by explaining how Spain had seen “severe dynastic disputes, frequent military uprisings, and extreme social and political polarization” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This political strife and general instability would culminate in a civil war following Franco’s partially successful coup in 1936. After three years of fighting, Franco emerged as the victor, and became the nation’s dictator in 1939. The former general, like Mussolini and Hitler before him, took advantage of the unstable political situation within his nation to become an absolutist ruler. He crowned himself as Spain’s “leader”, or “Caudillo” in Spanish and ruled over Spain for more than three decades, until his death in 1975.
The pattern is clear. Like in 1922, Italy is in an era of struggle and stagnation. Like in 1922, the people have turned to a far-right ultra-nationalist in a desperate gamble to reclaim their nation’s historical glory. And if the world is not careful, it is possible that, like in 1922, Giorgia Meloni may take advantage of the situation to tear down the pillars on which Italian democracy stands.