Is Italy going fascist again? What to expect from a Prime Minister Meloni with Andrea Mammone

September 28, 2022

Professor Andrea Mammone, La Sapienza University, explains the linkages of the Brothers of Italy with historical fascism and the dynamics of the 2022 Italian elections, on the International Horizons podcast.

Prof. Andrea Mammone appears on the right against a backdrop of Georgia Meloni and a faded Mussolini

Italy has just held an election in which it appears that a far-right candidate from a post-fascist party has won, and its leader will become the next prime minister of the country. What's happening in Italy? What does this election tell us about wider developments in Europe today? 

In this episode of International Horizons, Andrea Mammone of La Sapienza University in Rome talks to Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the linkages of Giorgia Meloni's party, the Brothers of Italy, with historical fascism and the dynamics of 2022 elections, which were marked by a generational shift from Berlusconi's leadership. Moreover, Mammone discusses how the victory for the far-right reflects the failure of the center and center-left parties to consolidate durable coalitions, and the paradox that a more forward-thinking left has not been able to present a woman for elections. Finally, Mammone discusses the implications of this election for Europe, how the EU and the political mainstream have legitimized the extreme-right movements in Europe, and the challenges Meloni will face in the economic realm where immigrants can no longer be used as scapegoats for the problems of Italy.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited selection of the transcript follows below.

Transcript

John Torpey  00:55

Italy has just held an election in which it appears that a far-right candidate from a post-fascist party has won, and whose leader will become the next prime minister of the country. What's happening in Italy? What does this election tell us about wider developments in Europe today? 

John Torpey  01:13

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. 

John Torpey  01:33

We're fortunate to have with us today Andrea Mammone, a historian of Italy and of the European far-right, who teaches at La Sapienza University in Rome. Mammone previously taught at the University of London, has been visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, and at the European University Institute in Florence. He has published a number of books on postwar and contemporary European far-right parties, fascism, xenophobia, memory and Italy. Including Transnational Neo-fascism in France and Italy in 2015, and a book called Italy Today: The Sick Man of Europe in 2010 with Giuseppe Veltri. He will soon publish a book on Southern Italy, and is currently writing about the return of nationalism in Europe. He's also written for numerous newspapers and periodicals, including the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, Corriere della Sera and CNN. Thanks for joining us today, Andrea Mammone.

Andrea Mammone  02:46

Thanks for inviting me.

John Torpey  02:50

Although we will not know for sure for some time, it appears on the day after the Italian parliamentary elections that the far-right Brothers of Italy and their leader, the woman, ironically, Giorgia Meloni, have won enough votes, it seems, to form the next government. This would be a breakthrough in two respects: the first so-called post-fascist party and the first woman would take power in Italy. Can you tell us, Andrea, about the Brothers of Italy and what makes them post-fascist?

Andrea Mammone  03:23

I used to call them neo-fascist in the sense that, you know, like, I use post-fascism in the sense that everything happening after the fall of fascism in 1945. But I think that, you know, they are actually from a specific neo-fascist tradition. So first thing is that they are a far-right party, even if in Italy not everyone is considering them far-right party, but they are a far-right party because they share similar themes as  Le Pen and other people across Europe, not just Europe today. But they are also a neo-fascist party. And then I will be trying to explain why.

Andrea Mammone  04:05

So neo-Fascism developed in Italy in 1946, when after the fall of fascism, there were a bunch of former fascist, still fascists I mean, that didn't want to give up. So they wanted to rebuild the sort of political movement and in 1946 they built this, very teeny at the time, party called the Italian Social Movement. Well, this party ended up being a presence in Italian Parliament and the largest far-right party in post-war Europe. Upon, until let's say the mid-80s, when Jean-Marie Le Pen in France led the Front National to the first electoral successes. So this party was neo-fascist because it was made by people who were actually fascists. I mean, many of them were coming from the fascist experience directly. And so they kept these sort of neo-fascist ideology, so ultra-nationalism, Catholicism, anti-communism, and so on all over the years. 

Andrea Mammone  05:16

At some point when Berlusconi got into politics, this party shifted, becoming National Alliance. This National Alliance at some point merged with Silvio Berlusconi and disappeared. What happened is that at some point with the crisis of Silvio Berlusconi (I mean Berlusconi is not the same Berlusconi as it was in the past) some of these people who were in the Italian Social Movement, then later in the in the National Alliance, left Berlusconi's new container, and they created Brothers of Italy. 

Andrea Mammone  05:59

So even if Brothers of Italy today is claiming that they have nothing to do with fascism, they have nothing to do with neo-fascism, but, I mean, this is not true. This is not real. It's not real, because as I said, they are coming directly from this tradition. Almost all the major activists and leaders are coming from that specific parties of the past. They use the same symbol, the flame, the famous flame, that is still in their symbol.  

Andrea Mammone  06:35

And that flame is not as Meloni said in an interview with The New York Times a week ago, something about that she said, "it has nothing to do with fascism." In reality, it has to do with fascism, because that specific symbol for activists of the time was symbolizing fascism and or Mussolini in their ideas, burning for the eternity. Moreover, the name of the neo-fascist party, the Italian Social Movement, so the initial RMSI, for some militants meant: "Mussolini sei immortale" (Mussolini, you are immortal). So the party, Brothers of Italy, always claimed to be in line with this tradition, and it is a neo-fascist tradition. So in my view, they are 100% neo-fascist, even if they're trying to claim that they are something completely different.

John Torpey  07:41

Got it. So but what does that mean today, I mean, other than feeling some kind of whatever sentimental attachment to Mussolini? You know, a lot of people seem to be suggesting that Meloni's advantage in this election was simply that she wasn't a part of the prior governing coalition or governing group that fell apart in the summer under Mr. Conte, or Mr. Draghi (I'm sorry). And so, to some degree, it's been described as a situation where she simply has clean hands, so to speak, and isn't tainted by having been in the government before, and people like that. I mean, so are you saying that, you know, there's a significant element of the Italian population that still feels this kind of whatever soft spot for Mussolini and fascism of the 1920s and 30s?

Andrea Mammone  08:44

No, honestly, I don't think that people are so nostalgic of the good, old, gold times of fascism. I think that these elections is telling us two things. The first thing is that, in truth, many Italians don't take care about fascism, not in a positive way; in a negative way, in the sense that they believe that fascism is not or was not so terrible anymore. So the vote for Meloni is also something that has a lot to do with public memory in Italy, with the legitimization of fascism happening over the year, and especially since the beginning of Berlusconi's political enterprise. So fascism has been twisted in some way; the memory of fascism has been twisted. 

Andrea Mammone  08:54

The second thing that this election is telling us, in my view, is that, well, essentially Meloni got tons of votes. But if we look at the number of people voting, or the number of people that should have voted in Italy is about 50 millions. Her party took seven millions. All the other parties took a share of it. The turnout was not so great, at least for Italian and European standards, so below 70%. I think that it was something like nine points less compared to the other elections, so we're talking about millions of Italians not voting. So even if Meloni, if we look at it, took millions of votes, but this is not something that is so surprising in the sense that Meloni and her party have always been in coalition with Silvio Berlusconi. Silvio Berlusconi's coalition were gaining even more votes than this. So I suspect that what is happening in Italy is that votes that were previously going to Silvio Berlusconi, now they are going to Meloni and for a short period of time.

Andrea Mammone  10:56

In the 2018 previous election and 2019 European elections, they went to the League, when Salvini seems to be, you know, the unstoppable, far-right-wing guy; everything he was touching was becoming gold. And then this is, you know, surveys and polls are telling me that he is down, completely down. On the other hand, Brothers of Italy started very slowly, not many votes, being the very, very junior partner of a coalition, and they are going up. And we see that at the same time, Silvio Berlusconi's votes are going down. But many of the, let's say, right-wing voters are not voting for another party outside of this right-wing coalition. They are voting for the other politician within the same coalition.  

Andrea Mammone  11:57

So Berlusconi is losing votes, because of course, he is old, it is a matter of age. He has not the same risk, he has not the same appeal that he had in the past. He has a language, which was perfect for Italy in the 90s, when everyone was watching television. He's unable to talk with young people. If you look at his Tik-Tok videos, they are terrible in many ways, quite paternalistic. You know, he looks like the old uncle, the old grandfather telling stories, which, you know, no one would believe. 

Andrea Mammone  12:33

So Berlusconi is losing those younger votes, but, you know, rather than being attracted by the center-left or some centrist parties, some of these people I suspect they are voting for Meloni. So fundamentally, the bulk of votes are the same. The difference is that, you know, this time they're not voting for Berlusconi, that, you know, and his peculiar deeds or character in many ways; they are voting for someone who is overtly in my view, neo-fascist. There are people within the party doing fascist salutes and so on. But, you know, the explanation that I have is that what I said before: the changes in public memory in Italy, referring to in the world fascism.

John Torpey  13:20

Right. And my understanding is that the right benefited from advantages built into the political system of, you know, allying with other parties, whereas the left sort of was at odds with itself. I mean that they failed to sort of present a coalition at the election, and that makes a big difference in terms of who actually wins these elections. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Andrea Mammone  13:50

Yeah, I mean, Italy, and historically, in the past, let's say up until the 90s proportional system. Now, it is a mixed system; some are majorities and some proportional, so it's pretty complex to get a full understanding of it. What's happened since the 90s, is that you had two different blocs competing for the first time in Italian post-war history. So it was clear who was winning the election immediately after, for example, Berlusconi or Romano Prodi, the former president of the European Commission and around again. Berlusconi had won twice. In the last two elections, things were much more fragmented, because there was the Five Star Movement who was outside of this frame. And in this specific election yesterday, there was also another coalition, the so-called ("Il Terzo Polo"), The Third Pole. 

Andrea Mammone  14:50

So some of these, let's say, non-right-wing coalitions, they were not necessarily taking the votes from the former Berlusconi's bloc, now Meloni's bloc. They were fundamentally competing for the center, center-left, leftist votes. So rather than it being a single coalition, that probably – well, we are not sure if they were voting because, I mean, it's very easy to say, okay, 25 plus 14, and we are close to the center-right winning the election – but certainly they would have challenged the center-right alone. 

Andrea Mammone  15:38

And I think that, you know, what the left in Italy forgot, in these elections specifically, is that Silvio Berlusconi's coalition and this right-wing bloc, always, almost always run together in coalition historically. So I think that, you know, they were thinking maybe they were a quarreling group, or that they might last not too long. But certainly, if, with this specific electoral law, which is a mixture of majoritarian issues plus some proportional counting, which is extremely complex, for the two chambers you need the coalition to eventually win. Because you know, when there is the majority, in some cases, you need to get one vote more than the other. 

Andrea Mammone  16:35

And what happened in this election is that the center-left has been almost unable to gain any, any seat when it was challenging directly the other competitors. And in the South, for example, is the Five Star Movement who gained some votes in some regions. So it has been a tremendous failure of the center, center-left symbolized by the Democratic Party. And I'm pretty sure that, you know, there will be some changes in the near future in the leadership, even if I don't even believe that the leadership is the problem. I think that you know, this party are the problem itself, because it is unclear if they want to be more centrist or sometimes more social democratic in a sense, and they haven't been able to build solid coalitions over the years.

John Torpey  17:36

Right. So the story seems to be that Meloni was very concerned, because she was already sort of coming from the far right, there was a lot of concern around Europe about what position she might take as the likely winner. As the sort of expected winner of this election, she took great pains to sort of stress her support for Ukraine in the war with Russia, whereas other parties on the right have tended to be relatively pro-Russian. So can you tell us about what that all may mean for the future stance of Italy? I mean, there's obviously a lot of concern about the weakening of the European sort of resistance to Russia. And her position in that sense does seem kind of odd, frankly, for a far-right politician in Italy.

Andrea Mammone  18:36

Yeah, I have to say two things to answer your question. The first one, in my view is that Giorgia Meloni is clever in many ways. She's not like some other, let's say, demagogic, populist politicians that they tried to change things so the right could change their minds, their ideas, their propaganda from the day to the night and the morning after is completely different. I think that she talked well about what to do when Russia invaded Ukraine. And she realized immediately that if she would have had one opportunity to run Italy, considering that almost all the international frame was supporting Ukraine, she couldn't side with Russia, because she was already aware that the majority of surveys in Italy saying that she was ahead, or she could win an election. So in my view, she has been extremely clever in this sense. 

Andrea Mammone  19:42

And she got that specific line so if she will be able to keep that line is very hard to say. It's very hard to say because fundamentally the European far right is divided on Russia and what you do with Russia. Even grassroots movements I'm seeing in Italy, but also in other countries, some of them are supporting Ukraine. Others are supporting Russia. Some are supporting Ukraine, because they think that they are the nationalists defending their land against invasion, and because of the Azov group in Ukraine. Others are siding with Putin because they see in him a sort of ultra-nationalist leader. So they're already divisions within the far-right at large, let's say. 

Andrea Mammone  20:36

So, but in their coalition, Silvio Berlusconi, who is historically a friend of Putin, Berlusconi has said, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, he said that he tried to contact Putin--Putin was not replying. That was the line in his party, that Putin is not the same Putin that they used to know. But two days ago, Berlusconi said in an interview --well, he is trying now to reshape the statement-- but he basically said that, Putin was trying to beat this war because he wanted to put some decent people in the Ukrainian capital. Salvini is supporting Russia, even if not openly, but we all know him. We all know what he did. We are aware that he has strong links and he had a partnership with Putin's party. So I think that will be a very huge challenge in terms of international politics. 

Andrea Mammone  21:58

The second challenge in terms of international politics may be with the United States, in the sense that if things are like --let's put this way, if she will support Russia, sorry, if she will support Ukraine, so NATO, and in the Transatlantic bloc, I don't think that she will have problems. But you know, if she start changing our minds, can be problematic because she has no friends in the US. Aside of people like Bannon and aside of people like the ultra-conservatives within the Republican Party, she has no real links with the Democratic administration running today the US. So that can be problematic. 

Andrea Mammone  22:42

And the third point in international politics that we should consider is the relationship with the European Union. Now, she's one, she's Euroskeptic. Even if she's trying to say that it is different, that now she has changed something that we don't want to be out of the European Union, I think that the majority of far-right parties in Europe today are not pushing their countries to be outside of the European Union, because they're well aware of what Brexit means. And also they are well aware that the majority of the electorate doesn't want to go, they don't want to go out.

Andrea Mammone  23:20

But she has some very strong opinions in terms of power, in terms of borders, in terms of immigration. She needs the money coming from the European Union for the recovery funds for the COVID, for the emergency. So that is another problematic ground for her because she has to keep the money coming in Italy. And on the other end, she asked to do something in terms of immigration, and in terms of defending Italy, defending this famous Italian identity. Yesterday, she did a very short speech. Now, while we talk, she's having the first post-elections speech. Yesterday, she has the sort of mini-speech, just to say "hello, thank you very much." And, I mean, there was just a little sentence that has not surprised me but kept my attention when she said, "We will not betray Italy." So, I mean, there is this nationalistic approach. And a nationalistic approach might clash eventually with the international sphere at some point.

John Torpey  24:41

Interesting. So, I mean, this raises the immigration problem, and as you may know (or may not), the first writing I ever did on Italy was about the Lega Nord in the early 1990s. And it was an anti-immigrant but also very much an anti-Rome and anti-Southern Italy kind of organization. And now somehow it's morphed into being this kind of nationalist party. The Nord has gone for the name, and it's just the Lega. But it's a fairly far-right party. And, you know, with the signature issue is still immigration. So, I mean, could you talk about the nature of the problem there? How large an illegal immigrant population is there in Italy? What are they talking about when they say there's an immigration problem?

Andrea Mammone  25:37

Well, this is, my belief is that this is mostly propaganda, in the sense that today immigration is probably the last problem in Italy. Because as many other countries in the last two years, huge problems have been the pandemic, the COVID pandemic, and now, the outcome of the war in Ukraine. So prices are going up for things like bread, energy, fuel, and so petrol and all this stuff that we all, let's say almost all Western countries are suffering right now. So immigration is not really the problem in Italy, but these parties have been mobilizing some of the electorate showing that, you know, eventually immigration is a problem. 

Andrea Mammone  26:28

For example, during the COVID, what Meloni and Salvini were saying was like, "you know, Italian cannot get out, there is a lockdown, Italians have to stay on. And there is COVID, but migrants are coming from the sea, and they are spreading COVID in Italy." So you know, always blaming someone, and it's very easy to blame immigrants, because I mean, migrants are coming from nowhere. Often they are poor, they are searching for a job and all the story from today we have from India to the United States, so the same propaganda, the same rhetoric.

Andrea Mammone  27:09

In my view, this will clash at some point with the real interests of Italians, which are what to do with the prices, the cost of living because of war in Ukraine, so can you blame immigrants? I don't know. I mean, it will be odd for them to blame immigrants. So at some point, they need to blame someone else. And if you know, and Berlusconi and Salvini will start saying, "well, economic sanctions against Russia are not working." 

Andrea Mammone  27:24

So I mean, this immigration has been useful for a share of the electorate, but I don't think that it is the major problem that Italians will consider in the coming months. I'm not talking about in one year, but in the coming months we will be paying huge bills for our gas and for the electricity. And all parties during the electoral campaign tried to say the Italian state, the government has to put money because we need a cap, because Italians cannot spend all this money, that our bill is too much money. It is a problem. So you cannot blame immigrants for that. And I think there that can be, you know, a major issue for Meloni and also with some implication in terms of international politics.

John Torpey  28:44

Right. So back to Georgia Meloni and the fact that she is obviously a woman. And I'm sort of curious what you make of the significance of the fact that she's going to be the first female prime minister. I mean, we've had several of them now in the UK, a long serving one in Germany, but hasn't happened in Italy, it hasn't happened in France or Spain, as far as I can recall. So is there a pattern there? Or what do you make of the significance of this? 

Andrea Mammone  29:17

No, I think that this is part of simply our modernization. I mean, if we talk about leadership of our far-right party that has rebuilt itself in the sense that, you know, traditionally, these are the party of men, the party of strength, even the party of violence in the past. So, it was, you know, related to masculinity in many ways. But I think that you know, there have been changes because simply, you know, things are changing. There is a modernization, there are lots of women joining these parties. There are people like Marine Le Pen and in Italy before Meloni, there was Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of Benito Mussolini. She founded a little teeny party. And then she also joined Silvio Berlusconi's party at some point for many years. And I think that at the end of the day, also in the US, even if probably not, with women leading but [Sarah] Palin for a period was considered the sort of strong hard right leader. So I think that, you know, there are general changes.

Andrea Mammone  30:35

The fact that Meloni will become the first female leader in Italy is a huge paradox. It's really a huge paradox. But you know, once more, in my view, this is telling us more of the failure of the center-left, which claims to be progressive, very modern, and so on, and usually is unable to give power to women, at least in Italy. But in my view, the biggest, the major paradox is that Meloni will gain power in Italy in the centenary of the March on Rome, which in many ways pushed Mussolini to power. So I mean, there are two huge paradoxes in Italy, the first female, and also in the year that the March on Rome. So this can be very, very terrible mixture in many ways. 

Andrea Mammone  31:32

And I don't know, very honestly. I think that, you know, this government can really last for one year only, because there might be lots of international pressure, Berlusconi might be her junior partner, and so on. But on the other hand, I'm not 100% sure that this will be moderate government because they are scared of these international forces. So I think that these things are slightly unpredictable, in my view.

John Torpey  32:08

Interesting. I mean, it occurs to me that all of these women that I referred to in Germany, in the UK, and now in Italy have been from the right, and to some degree from the fairly hard right, you know, Maggie Thatcher. So maybe it's something like Nixon going to China, right? Only the right can do that, because the left would be seen as soft on communism and things like that. So interesting question about why this is happening now. 

John Torpey  32:38

But as far as the international implications of this, as you were starting to kind of get into, is there a kind of message here for what's going on in the rest of Europe? I mean, the sort of return on nationalism, but that's not exactly new. The return of populism, obviously. She is said to be a nationalist, but not a populist, whereas Matteo Salvini is a populist. But maybe you could talk a little bit about what you think this tells us about what's going on in Europe more broadly?

Andrea Mammone  32:49

Well, I mean, I think that this is a larger trend, this is not something new. I think that the Italian election can be explained in many ways, on the one hand, as a sort of international trend from Trump to well, before even before Trump, but let's say from Trump --just to talk about the most recent years-- from Trump to the enduring appeal of Orban to the Swedish Democrats becoming the second party, in Germany becoming a major force and so on. So these movements are gaining sort of momentum everywhere, for a number of common reasons, which is the crisis of traditional parties, a sort of ultra-populist style, but also, but also communication in terms of fake news, and so and so. So there are a number of problems: unemployment, fear of losing identity, globalization, so there are tons of factors that are common in a number of Western countries. 

Andrea Mammone  33:26

On the other hand, I wouldn't be scared that this is influencing another European country, because as I said, the election was very Italian in a sense. If the failure of the center-left can be, of course, something that you can see in other European countries, but here we are talking about like 40% or so of Italians deciding not to vote. We are talking about someone who has been taking the votes of one of her allies. So I mean, this is something that you cannot really replicate in another country in the same way. 

Andrea Mammone  35:11

Plus there won't be too many elections immediately; there won't be elections in France, in Austria, in Germany, in Spain immediately, probably even in Britain. So I don't think that this will spread the malaise, let's say, across Europe. But what this is telling us is that certainly these types of movements appeal, and more appeal because they've been legitimized. And in my view, they've been legitimized, also by the mainstream. And for the mainstream, I'm not saying by only the national mainstream, but also by international politics. 

Andrea Mammone  35:11

If we look at the European Union, we have seen that the president of European Commission saying something before the Italian election , "Well, we have all the tools eventually if Italy is shifting towards their anger inside". Well, firstly, probably this was a comment not to do before an election because it has been immediately used by the right-wing party to say, "look at what the European Union is saying. They want to stop us; this is not democracy."

Andrea Mammone  36:04

Second point: well, I mean, if they have the tools, why have not they used it against Hungary years ago? Why the political group leading the European Union --I'm talking about the Europe's People Party-- why they have Orban among their ranks for years without pushing him out? So they have the head of an anti-democratic leader within a mainstream moderate party. And now they were supporting Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. 

Andrea Mammone  36:43

I mean, how can you support Silvio Berlusconi in Italy? The second time they're supporting Silvio Berlusconi, because also in the previous election, they were believing that Silvio Berlusconi was someone stopping the wave of populism in Italy, which is ridiculous, because Berlusconi is a master of populism. And but on the other end Berlusconi is with forces who are Euroskeptic, who are challenging some of the European Union. So I mean, I think that there are things to clarify within the European Union itself, but they are legitimizing some of these forces. So I think the problem is wider than a single country, but this is telling us that there are common trends. That's 100% sure.

John Torpey  38:01

Okay, an important lesson to learn from the Italian election that this is legitimating people from the far-right that are also coming along in other countries. Obviously, we've seen this in the United States as well. But that's it for today's episode. 

John Torpey  38:16

I want to thank Andrea Mammone of La Sapienza University in Rome, for sharing his insights about the recent election in Italy. Look for us on the New Books Network, and remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song “International Horizons” as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.