Only a couple of months after the formation of its new extremist, anti-system government, Italy appears to be getting increasingly closer to its fascist past. It had already barred rescue boats from bringing desperate refugees to its shores and proposed registering Romani communities in a census and deport those without Italian citizenship, stoking fears of a return to violent racism.
But the Italian government is not walking the path from constitutional democracy to a more xenophobic one alone – across the Atlantic, Trump’s America is leading the way. In his first year in office, Trump introduced a Muslim travel ban, repeated his promises to build a border wall and forcefully separated children from their parents at the US-Mexico border.
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And as Italy’s populist government follows in the xenophobic footsteps of the Trump administration, Italy seems to be falling in the same pitfall as the US: allowing fascism to be normalised.
Lessons to be learned from Trump’s America
Throughout his election campaign, Trump was regularly and strongly criticised for being a fascist and a racist, but soon after the election, the discourse in the media and the political sphere softened drastically. Many newspapers hesitated to brand him a misogynist and a racist despite mounting evidence, and the F-word (fascism) was dropped from the lexicon almost completely. It was then believed that institutions, the law and the tradition of legality would force the new president to behave presidentially and respect the country’s core liberal values. Of course, the opposite happened. The Trump administration unapologetically went forward with its xenophobic agenda that is based on the complete abandonment of basic human decency towards minorities and immigrants. As many Americans waited patiently for the office to which he was elected to tame Trump, his xenophobia was gradually normalised.
And today, this sad scenario is repeating itself in Italy, a founding member of the European Union and one of the largest economies in the eurozone. As an extremist government settles in power, many Italians are hoping its actions will be tamed by Italian institutions, democratic traditions and the rule of law.
We already witnessed how Trump, after taking power, followed up on all his campaign promises and went even further. He did not refrain from attacking the system of checks and balances, the independent press and even the rule of law and democracy itself.
Sooner rather than later, Italians will also see how, when in power, these new populists often behave just like their openly fascist predecessors. The new government of the original birthplace of fascism has indeed already started to resemble the fascist governments of the last century. There is much disrespect for institutional powers and the administrative sector, and the independent media, at times, is considered the enemy of the people (though this was something we already witnessed during Silvio Berlusconi’s governments).
The latest example of this slide towards fascism was far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini‘s threat to lift the best-selling author Roberto Saviano’s police protection. Saviano has been under threat from organised crime since his popular book about the mafia, Gomorrah, was published in 2006. Saviano is also one of the toughest critics of Salvini and the new government’s xenophobic policies and is a constant fixture on Italian media. Salvini’s threat against Saviano is a clear indication of how the new government plans to deal with media criticism.
Italian society should take notice of this, or the next step can be the barring of certain journalists from government pressers, as we have witnessed in the US.
Many in Italy are normalising the actions of their government the same way Trump’s actions were normalised in the United States over the last year and a half. As they focus on one scandal after the another, forgetting one outrageous remark or policy proposal when a new one comes by, they are missing the big picture and overlooking the apparent racism of their government. They are focusing on the minutiae of excess and vulgarity without analysing the ideology behind the extremism of their elected leaders. Surprise, and maybe even resignation, prevails over historical analysis.
A new reformulation of fascism?
The world is experiencing a return to the discourse and ideology of fascism, but unlike the 1920s-1930s, the fascists are now wearing the robes of properly elected and apparently democratic officials.
Across the Atlantic, racist statements have already started being matched by real practices and the numbers of xenophobic attacks have increased dramatically. In Italy, the heirs of Mussolini have always been in power, but this new populist government is using fascist dog-whistles even more effectively than their predecessors, especially when they talk about polls, banks, immigrants, Roma and the EU.
The linguistic and philosophical affinities between the populists currently in power in the US and Italy and the right-wing movements of the past are strong. When Trump talks about the “infection” of immigrants, the loss of culture and his longing for a golden past or Salvini suggests a “mass cleaning” to be made “street by street”, they are actually referring to the defence of the (imagined) ethnic and cultural purity and homogeneity of their nations. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Italy’s famous fascist magazine, Difesa della Razza, was similarly advocating for the unity of race and how religious or ethnic minorities could not be part of the nation.
But how should Italians react to this illiberalism and xenophobia in power and stop fascism from becoming the new normal?
Second, the fragmented and weak Italian centre-left should unite against the populists in power, reconnect with ordinary Italians, understand their social and economic problems and offer a progressive and “young” platform, such as the one offered by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in the US. Only young, strong progressive voices like hers can trigger a resurgence of popular grassroots activism and stand a chance against authoritarian, fascistic tendencies of the new government.
Recent developments across the Atlantic are, in fact, showing the gap between fascism and populism is rapidly closing. The latter was once an authoritarian form of democracy that does not accommodate fascist, dictatorial racism. But Trump seems to be slowly abandoning this more “democratic” side of modern populism. By focusing more and more on xenophobia, the new populism of the right is getting closer to fascism and this should be a matter of concern for all of us. This is the lesson Italy, and the rest of the world, should learn from Trump’s America.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.