The next prime minister of Italy is likely to be Giorgia Meloni, who has been described in media accounts as a far-right nationalist who leads a “cult of personality.” She has amassed a devoted following with fiery rhetoric about immigration, gender ideology and the need for Italians to have more children and to put Italy’s interests first.
Despite media attempts to compare her to the former U.S. president, Meloni, 45, is no Donald Trump. She’s an unmarried mother with a working-class background who has said that, when considering being the first female prime minister of Italy, “I cannot say that faced with such a responsibility my hands aren’t shaking.”
But Meloni’s ascendency — like that of other right-leaning leaders in Europe — has been described in the same sort of fearful terms associated with the former U.S. president. Her positions have been described as the fruits of bigotry, racism, white supremacy and fascism by those who oppose her and her party, the Brothers of Italy. The fever pitch is such that much of the coverage of her victory suggests that she’s a blond Benito Mussolini in sneakers, or if not that, the Italian Trump. The latter is meant as a compliment by some, an insult by others.
One columnist in the U.K. called the Brothers of Italy, whose name comes from the first line of the Italian national anthem, “the first European copycat of the U.S. Republican Party.” But conservatives in Europe may not be looking to the U.S. for strategies on how to win elections. It’s just as likely that they see our cultural battles as a cautionary tale.
Consider, for example, the viral clip of a 2019 speech that has won Meloni so many American fans on social media this week. Although a critique in The Washington Post said the speech “doesn’t make sense,” it makes perfect sense to a wide swath of Americans who are weary of being dismissed as neanderthals, haters and bigots for believing that something is not quite right with their country’s rush to embrace gender-affirming surgery and to throw out perfectly good pronouns.
Saying that the left has made the family the enemy, Meloni decried movements that would strip away historical identities, such as nationality, gender and religion.
“I can’t define myself as Italian, Christian, woman, mother. No. I must be Citizen X, Gender X, Parent 1, Parent 2. I must be a number,” she said.
It was a stirring clip that won her new fans, but Meloni had already won over many American conservatives with a 2020 speech, delivered weeks before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
Addressing a national conservatism conference held in Rome and sponsored by the U.S.-based Edmund Burke Foundation, Meloni praised Pope John Paul II and the late President Ronald Reagan, and rebuked progressives who see the family as “an archaic and backward concept to be superseded.”
“They are creating a world of alleged individual rights and formal freedoms. In theory, we are free to do anything we like, or almost … free to take drugs, free to have an abortion, free to take the lives of human beings suffering from serious illnesses. ... Only rights, and few — if at all — duties.”
Among Meloni’s admirers in the U.S. are commentators like Rod Dreher and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who tweeted that the viral clip of Meloni speaking was “spectacular.” Dreher, an American who has spent much of the past year in Europe, has said that the American reporting on Meloni and other conservative leaders in Europe is “not to be believed” and is informed by a liberal press in thrall to progressive ideology.
“They hate Meloni because she takes a hard line on out-of-control immigration, and because she believes in defending the traditional family (which entails rejecting transgender ideology). Ergo, ‘FASCIST!’,” Dreher wrote for The American Conservative.
Dreher has been similarly critical of coverage of Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, who spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas last month, and also met with Trump while he was in the U.S. Dreher said coverage of Hungary is “wildly distorted” in the Western press.
“I went there expecting a somewhat repressive country, based on what I had been told by our media and U.S. institutions,” Dreher wrote. “What I found was a normal country — certainly one with a government that is more conservative than the usual EU suspects, but in a way that is totally normal, at least to American eyes.”
Like Trump and Meloni, Orbán is often accused of fascist leanings, as are other Americans who disagree with the hard left. It bears watching how conservative movements in Poland, Spain and Sweden are described amid a rumbling of worry about “far right” victories there and in other countries, said to be fueled by “toxic populism.” If Dreher is right, the only way for Americans to truly know what’s going on in those countries is to travel to them.
Not all conservatives are bewitched by Meloni; some say that because of her positions in the past, she bears careful watching.
Declan Garvey and Esther Eaton of The Dispatch wrote this week, “In 1992, she joined the youth wing of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, and the Brothers of Italy party she helped found in 2012 mimics that party’s logo. In 1996, she called Benito Mussolini a “good politician” and declared that ‘all that he did, he did for Italy.’ Her promises to defend God, the homeland, and the family mirror a Mussolini-era fascist slogan — though she argues the idea itself isn’t fascist.”
One wonders why she has to make the argument at all. Because of previous associations with monstrous regimes, supporters of God, country and family are fascist until proven otherwise?
Indeed, it’s interesting to see Meloni and her compatriots who espouse traditional values described as “radical,” as in a recent CNN piece. In it, Princeton University professor Rafaela Dancygier told the network, “I know that there’s sort of a temptation to paint (the right’s European victories) as a radical shift. And it’s definitely radical, but I just don’t think it’s a shift. This is the continuation of a trend,” Dancygier said.
Other commentators have noted that Meloni’s rise to power was enabled by infighting among Italy’s liberal coalitions, giving the Brothers of Italy an opportunity that they gladly took. Meloni’s victory is in part a “failure of the left,” Dancygier said.
By that she means a failure of the left to organize and flex its power.
But the greater failure of the left, in both America and Europe, is its inability to discern when its policies have drifted so far from the mainstream that defending “God, country and family” is a radical act. What used to be boilerplate language at a small-town stump meeting can now electrify conservatives the world-over. That, more than a “cult of personality,” is the real reason for the recent rise of the “far right.”