Fascism: hello, goodbye

Italy just elected a far-right leader. Is this the beginning of a resurgence of fascism, or the beginning of the end?

SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

The telegenic star of Europe’s far right, Giorgia Meloni, released a video last August that was designed to dispel all the fears that Europeans were voicing about the potential “return of fascism” to Italy. Meloni’s short speech was a triumph of misdirection.

Meloni’s party, the Brothers of Italy, had previously not been much of a player in Italian politics, having failed to receive more than 5 percent of the vote in any national election. But in 2019, it managed to capture 6.4 percent in European Parliament elections and, the following year, achieved even better results in local elections in regions such as Marche and Tuscany. After that, the party seemed almost unstoppable.

As I wrote here in December 2021:

The party that’s only recently surged to the top of the polls, Brothers of Italy, has its roots in a group started in the wake of World War II by diehard supporters of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It promotes an anti-vaxx “Italy first” agenda and, if elections were held today, would likely create a ruling coalition with the alt-right Lega Party and right-wing populist Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy.

So, for the last year, the same Europeans who quaked at the prospect of Marine Le Pen becoming president in France have been bracing for the impact of her sister-in-arms winning in the September elections in Italy. And indeed, that worst-case scenario has come to pass, with the Brothers of Italy coming out on top last month with 26 percent of the vote. A coalition government with Lega and Forward Italy is in the offing.

One of the reasons for this electoral victory was surely Meloni’s strategic pivot to the center. In her video message, a six-minute speech released on August 10, she demonstrated her cosmopolitan credentials by moving seamlessly from French to English to Spanish. The content was consistently, almost defiantly, center-right rather than far right. Meloni refuted as “absolutely absurd” the notion that she and her party posed any danger to Italy or threatened the stability of the EU. “A great Italy can better contribute to creating a great Europe,” she proclaimed.

Meloni further insisted that her party stood “unambiguously” against Nazism and anti-Semitism and embraced democracy without reservation. She unequivocally condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and backed NATO. She compared her party to the British Tories, the Israeli Likud, and the U.S. Republican Party. It is a measure of the rightward drift of global politics that references meant to suggest a more accommodating stance— to the Tories (which pulled the UK out of the EU), the Likud (ever more extremist under Benjamin Netanyahu), and the Republicans (currently deranged by Trumpism)—are not reassuring in the least.

Indeed, Italy is about to embark on its own roller-coaster MAGA ride—let’s call it a mega-MIGA—that threatens not only to upend Italy but the EU as well.

Euroskepticism Reimagined?

In the run-up to the election, Meloni sounded some of the traditional themes of the Italian far right, namely opposition to immigration, support for “family values,” and a deep mistrust of redistributive economic policies. As Europe’s third largest economy, Italy has been doing pretty well by conventional measures, with substantial post-COVID-shutdown growth last year of 6.5 percent and projected 3.3 percent expansion this year. But like much of Europe, Italy faces spiking inflation as well as an unemployment rate that, even on its recent downward trajectory, remains higher than the EU average. High debt, low birth rates, and a sclerotic state bureaucracy have all put Italy in a difficult bind.

Fortunately, however, Italy is part of the European Union.

Ordinarily a right-wing populist of Meloni’s ilk would be expected to be a Euroskeptic who takes easy potshots at Brussels while asserting Italy’s superiority. And indeed, that’s certainly how she has tacked in the past with broadsides against the euro and an effort to remove all references to the EU from the Italian constitution. “The fun is over” for the EU, she promised shortly before the elections.

At the same time, however, she and her party have abandoned any thought of exiting the EU or even abandoning the euro zone. Meloni’s not stupid. She knows who butters Italy’s bread. The country currently stays afloat thanks to a significant influx of COVID stimulus funds from Brussels. Hannah Roberts and Jacopo Barigazzi write in Politico:

Italy needs cash from Brussels. The new government has until December to meet 55 milestones and targets set by the European Commission in order to secure the next tranche of funding from the EU’s €750 billion post-pandemic economic recovery plan.

Even Meloni’s fellow right-wing fanatic, Silvio Berlusconi, called an earlier Brothers of Italy proposal to renegotiate the EU deal “illogical and dangerous,” prompting Meloni to backtrack.

Here’s the rub: Brothers of Italy are still a minority force in European politics and Meloni can count on only a few sympathetic governments. Viktor Orban in Hungary of course supports a whittling away of Europower in Brussels. The Polish Law and Justice Party largely sides with Meloni’s alt-right messaging (though PiS might be out of office come next fall if the Polish liberal-left can stay unified).

Then there’s Sweden. In last month’s elections, however, the deceptively named Democratic Party came in second, dislodging the Social Democratic government. A right-wing coalition will likely take power in the coming weeks. Like the Brothers of Italy, Sweden’s Democratic Party has fascist roots and has taken pains to distance itself from its past. But changing the party icon from a flaming torch to a gentle flower has not fooled anyone in Sweden, not even the other members of the winning right-wing coalition who probably won’t even invite the Democrats to participate in the new government.

Meloni’s tempered Euroskepticism, in other words, is pragmatic and tactical. She just doesn’t have enough allies in powerful positions. Meanwhile, the far right in Europe has largely shifted away from opposing the European Union to a more covert effort to transform European institutions from within. Toward that end, far-right parties began some time ago to compete seriously in European Parliament elections. They have simultaneously built power bases at a local level, often in rural areas and often, with a program of economic populism, at the expense of communist or neo-communist parties in urban areas. They have even grown in influence in countries like Germany and Spain that, because of their fascist pasts, have put significant barriers in front of neo-fascist parties.

Eurohijacking is infinitely more dangerous than Euroskepticism. Meloni, Orban, and their co-religionists are biding their time as they build power at the national and European levels. Their goal is that of the political termite: to eat away at the foundations of the common European home.

For the time being, the Brothers of Italy, the Swedish Democrats, and Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary are on the ascendant. The grand vision that Steve Bannon put forward after Trump’s victory in 2016—of an alt-right trans-Atlantic alliance—was initially inspired by the victory of Lega and the Five Star Movement in the 2018 elections in Italy. Bannon is similarly pumped about Meloni: “I’ve said for years that Italy is the worldwide laboratory for the populist-nationalist revolution,” he said recently. “The world needs to be watching very attentively to Giorgia Meloni, and taking note.”

A Republican Party still subservient to Trump has also embraced Meloni, regardless of her past. Rand Paul (R-KY), for instance, was “cheering” her victory. “I think people probably reacted in an unfair way to her,” he said. “For goodness’ sake, calling the woman Mussolini is a little bit over the top.”

But then, both Bannon and Paul continue to support Donald Trump, an obviously over-the-top figure who is a great deal closer to Mussolini than Meloni will ever be. As Italian philosopher and activist Lorenzo Marsili points out, Meloni has not been following a historic model of Italian fascism so much as the current model of American neo-fascism, courtesy of Trump himself.

Through such positive reinforcement loops—Orban to Trump to Meloni and potentially back to Trump—the far right aspires to build its Nationalist International against the “globalists” who preside over the European Union and the United Nations.

Goodbye Fascism?

The victories of the far right in Europe do not, however, necessarily represent a major swing in public opinion toward neo-fascism. The liberal-left parties in Italy received more votes than the far-right. The Social Democrats remain the most popular party in Sweden. Marine Le Pen lost her bid for the French presidency earlier this year, the Alternative fur Deutschland saw a drop in support in last year’s German elections, and Austria’s Freedom Party is no longer part of a ruling coalition (though its popularity has been edging up again).

Further to the east, the most powerful fascist politician in the world today, Vladimir Putin, is facing a serious challenge to his authority because of his ill-considered decision to invade Ukraine and the frankly inept performance of his military. No, I’m not just jumping on the Putin-as-fascist bandwagon. I’ve been calling the Russian leader a fascist since early March. The war in Ukraine is not simply a territorial grab, and it’s certainly not, as the Kremlin asserts, a covert effort by the West to use Ukraine as a proxy to defeat Russia. Rather, it is an expression of Putin’s fascist imperialism. That phrase, “fascist imperialism,” sounds an awful lot like Soviet propaganda from the Cold War era as applied to the United States. But in his quest for power and national glory, Putin has transformed himself into precisely what he accuses his enemies of being.

The Russian president once aspired to lead an axis of illiberalism with his right-wing buddies Orban, Le Pen, and Matteo Salvini of Lega. The Ukraine war, however, has made Putin politically radioactive even to most of the European far right, which has largely condemned the invasion. Meanwhile, if the sheer intemperateness and QAnon lunacy of his annexation speech last week is any indication—identifying the West with “Satanism,” referencing the “golden billion” conspiracy theory, veering off on a rant against the LGBT community—the Russian leader obviously feels the need to ramp up his invective to compensate for declining public enthusiasm for the war and his leadership. Putin has extended his fascist control over parts of Ukraine but at the risk of losing grip over his entire kingdom. Such are the perils of imperial overstretch.

But perhaps the most exciting news for anti-fascists around the world is the impending loss of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. The “Trump of the Tropics” is perhaps more of a traditional Latin American caudillo than a fascist exactly, though he does meet the necessary criteria to qualify as the latter: authoritarianism, militarism, extreme nationalism, and a far-right social policy. He is only intermittently a corporatist, given his anti-statist and pro-free market ideology, but Brazilian activist Gabriel Landi Fazzio makes a strong case that Bolsonaro’s economic philosophy and actions still constitute a form of neo-fascism.

Lula just missed winning the election in the first round this weekend, gaining 48.4 percent of the vote versus Bolsonaro’s 43.2 percent. Bolsonaro did better than predicted by the polls, but it’s still going to be difficult for him to get enough votes from the candidates who are dropping out to beat Lula. A lot of Brazilians didn’t vote, either because they don’t like either candidate or because they thought their choice would win outright (Lula) or lose anyway (Bolsonaro). In any case, Lula might benefit from the same tailwind that Emmanuel Macron enjoyed in France when people came out to the polls in the second round to prevent Le Pen from taking over.

Bolsonaro could still win in the run-off. And his party—the equally misnamed Liberal Party—is now the largest one in the Brazilian parliament. But perhaps the greater threat is that, like his pal in the United States, Bolsonaro might simply refuse to leave office. He has often talked of his fondness for Brazil’s past military dictatorship. Unlike Meloni in Italy, he is not scrambling to disavow his connections to fascists of the past. He could lose at the polls and attempt a military coup in response.

And that, ultimately, is the biggest problem with fascism. You say “Goodbye,” and fascism keeps saying, “Hello, hello, hello.” It is the most undead of political philosophies. Just when you thought you’d put a stake through its heart, fascism climbs out of its grave once more to suck the blood out of the body politic.


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