The elite reaction to the Italian elections, where the victory of a right-wing coalition looks likely to make Giorgia Meloni Italy’s first female Prime Minister, has been nothing short of hysterical. If you have read or watched coverage in the U.S. media, you have probably heard that Meloni is a “far-right” figure representing a party whose “roots” are in the “neo-fascist” Italian Social Movement founded in 1946. While refusing to actually discuss policy, the media has insisted that Meloni “hates immigrants,” is “anti-LGBT,” has an extreme “socially conservative agenda,” and “praised Mussolini.”
Nuance and context are nowhere to be found. Meloni’s comments on border security are, of course, mainstream. Her party supports same-sex civil unions. Her remark about Mussolini being “effective” as a politician was made at the age of 19 in 1996. All of this seems to have been left out by “fact checkers.”
Instead, alarmist headlines proliferate. “Giorgia Meloni claims victory to become Italy’s most far-right prime minister since Mussolini!” proclaimed CNN’s headline. The Mussolini comparisons abounded, although none offered any support for the claim. The Atlantic published a piece declaring “The Return of Fascism in Italy,” while the CBS Evening News led with direct comparisons between Meloni’s party and Mussolini’s.
This coverage demonstrates the inability of much of the American media to understand politics outside of the United States, except through a simplistic lens of domestic American politics, a subject itself on which the media’s coverage is increasingly distant from reality.
This myopia, combined with a refusal to conduct basic research, makes it hard for American observers to understand multi-party coalitions in nations with differing electoral systems, or how that can often complicate history. Instead, they seize on small details, such as how Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is the successor to the 1990s-era National Alliance, which in turn was formed by a merger of parties, including the Italian Social Movement, which was founded by many former fascists after the Second World War. The media uses this to conclude that Meloni is herself not only a fascist but a fan of Mussolini, despite her disavowal of him as an adult.
These charges are ignorant and furthermore hypocritical. For one thing, if we are playing the guilt-by-association game, Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, which came in second, was the Italian Communist party until 1991. It wasn’t just a Socialist or Social Democratic party of the common European variety–it was the official, Soviet-affiliated, Josef Stalin-endorsed, Italian Communist party. This opposition, whose victory would have been declared a victory for “Democracy,” therefore has deeper and much more recent roots in communism than Meloni’s party does in fascism. The original Italian Social Movement, while founded by former members of the National Fascist Party, had by 1950 embraced NATO membership, and in the 1990s and 2000s, the National Alliance Party, which a young Meloni joined, took part in government. Meloni herself served as Minister of Youth under Silvio Berlusconi for three years from 2008 until 2011.
Meloni, a 45-year-old mother of three, comes to power as the leader of a broad-based coalition, in which her party is far from the most right-wing or “anti-democratic” element. The Brothers of Italy are allied with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and Matteo Salvini’s Liga (League), formerly known as the Northern League, a party that began as a pressure group for voters in the rich northern regions of Italy who resented their taxes going to subsidize the poorer south, and at one point advocated secession. Berlusconi, a colorful businessman whose ownership of much of the Italian media was once described as a “threat to Italian democracy” during the 2000s, served as Prime Minister from 1994-1995, 2001-2006, and 2008-2011 without declaring himself dictator, while Salvini served as Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in coalition with the populist Five Star Movement from 2018 to 2019.
Meloni has surged not due to outflanking Salvini and Berlusconi on policy, but on principle, which is the real meaning of her revival of the phrase “God, Homeland, and Family.”
Berlusconi brandished his womanizing as blatantly as his wealth, and in recent months this backfired on him as his longtime “bromance” with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a host of Russian oligarchs with whom he publicly partied made him look increasingly out of touch. Salvini, for his part, proved an egotist, actually having supporters greet him with chants of “Il Duce,” the old salute reserved for Mussolini, which, rather than making him look threatening, ended up him making appear a buffoon.
By contrast, Meloni, whose lack of university education is betrayed by a working-class Roman accent, provided something the Italian right had lacked: someone who seemed motivated not by wealth and status (Berlusconi) or power (Salvini), but by traditional values missing from Italian politics. Her slogan “God, Homeland, and Family” was a vague mockery of her rivals on the right. Berlusconi had no respect for God, did not pay taxes in the homeland, and could not give a full account of the size of his family. Salvini thought he was a god who personified the homeland, and the invocations of Mussolini only served to underscore the stature gap involved in his own self-perception.
Nowhere were the differences between Meloni and her rivals on the right more apparent than on the issue that more than any other made her a leading force in Italian politics, and now Prime Minister: COVID.
In 2021, Italy had another of its interminable governing crises, and under EU pressure, the Italian President nominated Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, as a “unity” candidate for Prime Minister, urging all parties to support him and a government of “experts.” This expert government would “professionally” handle issues such as COVID-19 lockdowns, vaccine mandates, inflation, and the economy in line with the best “expertise” available, headed by Draghi, the ultimate technocrat. In hindsight, it is obvious that any such governing program was destined to end in disaster, but in 2021, both Berlusconi and Salvini lent their support to Draghi and his measures. Only Meloni led her Brothers of Italy, then holding around 5% of seats, into opposition.
This refusal to bow to the establishment on COVID and economics may represent “dangerous populism” to the media, but it conveyed bravery and principle to the Italian electorate. More than anything else, it defined Meloni as someone who was willing to forgo office and patronage in order to take a stand.
The policy program of Meloni and her party is in fact more defined by coherent principle than by ideology, making the charges of “fascist” extremism look absurd. When it comes to Russia, Meloni is a strong supporter of sanctions, in contrast to Berlusconi, whose call for ending sanctions is compromised by his close ties to Vladimir Putin, and Salvini, whose party reportedly took money from the Kremlin. Meloni is socially conservative, pro-life, and opposed to gender ideology in schools, but this is paired with a commitment to providing economic support to families and especially mothers, in contrast to Berlusconi’s perceived contempt for women and Salvini’s focus on taxes as giveaways from his northern base.
Meloni, in effect, succeeded in branding herself as an honest, principled figure, not a right-wing or left-wing one, and that was key to her success. By tying her integrity to traditionally conservative principles of “God, Homeland, and Family,” she ensured that they were associated not with greed, or the powerful in society, but with the selfless, the humble, and the ordinary people. The media, by suggesting that Meloni was carried into office on a wave of support for these ideological values, invert the process, missing what a key role she played in making those ideological values attractive by tying them to her personal virtues.
This appeal was evident in the results. The complex Italian system, which provides for 147 seats in the lower house to be elected by district, and 257 by proportional representation, incentivizes the formation of coalitions. But a brief look at the result for the proportional vote shows Meloni’s dominance. The Brothers of Italy won 26% of the vote, far ahead of the Democratic Party at 19%, while the Liga and Forza Italia won 9% and 8%, respectively. The combined 43.7% will likely be enough for around 230 seats out of 400 in the lower house, and 122 out of 200 in the Senate, and Meloni’s party, by winning not just more votes than all of her allies combined, but more than 60%, is in an even stronger position than was expected.
There is something that should scare the global liberal establishment in Meloni’s success. But it is not that Meloni is actually a “fascist.” Rather, it is that the left, after first defining any effort by a politician to appeal to the electorate rather than to elites as “populism” after 2016, now insists that any such efforts are “fascism.” To that extent, Meloni won an election through “fascist” means by appealing to the people rather than the establishment. But as winning elections tends to correlate with winning more votes, if appealing to the voters is defined as “fascism,” then by definition “fascism” is going to be a successful means of winning elections.
A major blind spot for the elites of both the traditional center-right and center-left over the last decade has been this habit of seeing the eschewing of elite consensus for positions actually held by the electorate as “cheating” rather than as the legitimate purpose of politics. Donald Trump, the proponents of Brexit, Viktor Orban, and now Meloni have found themselves charged with this offense, as if it makes their election somehow illegitimate. But rather than hurt the elite’s opponents, this contemptuous attitude has inflicted enormous damage on the elites themselves. Instead of reflecting on why voters turned on them in 2016 and thereafter, Democrats and Never-Trump Republicans such as the Cheneys have dug-in, turning their refusal to listen to the electorate into a virtue, where they take pride in flaunting unpopular positions.
The media coverage of the Italian results indicates that any sort of self-reflection for the global elite is likely to be in short supply. By denouncing Meloni as a “fascist,” they are saved the burden of having to explain why voters keep voting for “fascism.” In a world where being pro-life, objecting to pushing far-left ideologies on children or supporting strong border enforcement is seen as extremism, the voters are themselves being called extremists. The word loses all meaning, becoming a synonym not for bad and fringe, but for popular. Being popular, is, after all, why Meloni, won. If that is a victory for extremism, so be it.