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The Mussolini fans selling flip flops with the slogan “Death to traitors”

The northern Italian town of Predappio is the birthplace of Il Duce (“the Leader”). 

Father Giulio Tam places a hand on Fiamma’s pregnant belly and closes his eyes as he prepares for the blessing. “Dear Lord, make this baby strong enough so he can kick these bloody immigrants out of the country.” He then takes a look at the crowd around him. “And, please, don’t make him a faggot.”

There is laughter from the sea of shaved heads. The priest, a well-known figure in right-wing circles, raises a glass of wine and shouts, “A noi!” – “To us!” Straight arms whish in the air in a Roman salute. Even the children stop playing around the life-size statue of Benito Mussolini and repeat the fascist slogan: “A noi!

The northern Italian town of Predappio is the birthplace of Il Duce (“the Leader”), as Mussolini was known. For most of the year, its streets are silent and empty. But on the Italian dictator’s birthday on 29 July, thousands of tourists wearing leather boots and black shirts annually flock to Predappio from across the country to pay homage to him. They march from the main piazza to the Mussolini mausoleum, where they take selfies, force their puzzled pets into a Roman salute and make their kids kiss the imposing white bust of Il Duce, before returning to the town centre to shop.

The village has a thriving Mussolini-fuelled economy. Tourists peruse the shelves of the three double-window souvenir shops on the high street – a broad, sunlit avenue where a café, bank, pizzeria and ice-cream shop are the only alternatives to the Nazi-fascist boutiques. A matching pair of swastika mugs costs €25. Although Mussolini T-shirts are on sale in the kids’ section, this summer’s bestsellers are flip-flops with the slogan “Death to traitors”.

In Italian law, it is hard to tell if it is legal to sell these items to the public. The country has two bills aimed at curbing fascist propaganda – one of them the constitution – but the laws are rarely enforced. In September, the Italian parliament will vote on a third law that targets the fascist souvenir market, though the bill is unlikely to get beyond the Senate, where the ruling centre-left party has a weaker majority than in the Chamber of Deputies.

Many locals argue that it is a fuss over nothing. “I don’t see anything wrong with Predappio. Fascism is history; history is culture. And we have to talk about it,” Mayor Giorgio Frassineti says. He is a member of the centre-left Partito Democratico and a former communist. He strokes his long, black beard as he shows me the hate mail he has received in his eight years in office, most of it coming from his own coalition. “It’s ridiculous to ban cigarette lighters just because they have the face of Mussolini on it,” Frassineti says. “Instead of prohibiting the sale of souvenirs, we should be discussing what fascism represented to us.”

Frassineti wants to create a four-storey, €5m fascism documentation centre on Predappio’s main piazza, much like the one that Munich has on Nazism. The former prime minister and his fellow party member Matteo Renzi, who resigned in December, promised to contribute €2m, but after protests from inside and outside the party, he never delivered.

Phone calls from self-titled “historians” keep interrupting Frassineti mid-sentence. They inquire about wooden eagles, statuettes and furniture that belonged to Mussolini. “They’re not for sale,” he barks.

Yet the village welcomes admirers of fascism. Around 60,000 tourists come to Predappio each year – besides Mussolini’s birthday, the anniversaries of his death and ascent to power draw crowds. Those who visit the dictator’s country house Villa Carpena (also known as Villa Mussolini), now a museum, receive discounts at local bed and breakfasts. A list of fascist-friendly restaurants is provided on request. Frassineti sees no danger in this. “As I was telling you, Italians are very well vaccinated against the return of the infection,” he says.

Residents follow the annual Mussolini parade from their windows. A few hundred neo-fascists march waving Il Duce flags and carrying truncheons. They are quiet, clean up afterwards and treat people with deference. “They’re fascists, but they’re good people. They never caused any problem here in town,” says a man playing cards at a café.

Filippo Focardi, a history professor at the University of Padova and the author of a book explaining the country’s amnesia over fascist guilt, Il cattivo tedesco e il bravo italiano (“The Evil German and the Good Italian”), calls this “the normalisation of fascism”.

“It all started by the end of World War II,” Focardi says. “We shifted the blame to the ‘evil German’, and we elaborated the positive stereotype of the ‘good Italian’, an opponent of war and a saviour of the Jews.”

For decades after the war, the Italian ruling class talked of fascism as a “soft dictatorship” and mostly ridiculed Mussolini and his wars. They used Germans as an alibi to avoid an Italian Nuremberg and never came to terms with the violence of the dictatorship, causing a series of omissions in the country’s collective history.

“During his years in office, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi legitimised the post-fascists and welcomed them in his government,” Focardi says. “He even rewrote history, saying that Mussolini never killed anyone – he just sent dissenters abroad for a vacation. None of this is true, of course, but it gives you an idea of how popular Mussolini still is among Italians.”

Back at Villa Mussolini, it’s time for Il Duce’s birthday lunch under the thick wisteria planted by the dictator. The main course is pasta Bolognese. Bank clerks sit next to loud football hooligans; sunburned grape pickers share the table with neo-Nazis. Father Tam co-ordinates the fascist chorus between courses. “Do you know who’s behind this new bill that threatens to erase Mussolini from history?” says the priest, a follower of Marcel Lefebvre, the ultra-conservative French bishop who was excommunicated by the Vatican in the 1980s. “A communist Jew. And do you know what Mussolini would do to communist Jews?”

He’d send them abroad for a vacation.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire

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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left