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24 September 2022

The making and meaning of Giorgia Meloni

The post-fascist Brothers of Italy are rising fast, led by a charismatic, self-made Roman whom many expect to be Italy’s first female prime minister.

By Jeremy Cliffe

As dusk falls in Turin’s Piazza Carlo Alberto, at least 500 supporters of Giorgia Meloni are chanting and waving Italy’s green-white-red tricolore and flags bearing a flame in the same colours. Since 1945 this flame has been a symbol of the political heirs to Italian fascism and today stands for her post-fascist party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, or FdI). In every one of the narrow streets feeding into the square stand hordes of peak-capped Carabinieri and officers of the civilian Polizia, who gather quickly around one young woman when she unfurls a rainbow LGBT flag. Rows of police motorbikes and vans are parked, ready, in the surrounding alleys. I have covered political rallies all over Europe, but none as heavily policed and secured as this one.

Giorgia Meloni marches on to the stage, short and slight, but easily visible across the square thanks to her platform trainers, a bright-green, satin blazer and blonde hair. She starts by joking to the crowd that she no longer bothers with the newspapers. “I talk to you!” she says to cheers. “I go out into the street and talk to you. And the left can say whatever it wants.”

The cheers mount as she becomes more severe, her voice harsher, lambasting the “hatred” of left-wing leaders for daring to criticise her in the international media. Then comes the crescendo: “I have never done an interview in the international press in which I spoke ill of Italy because [raising her voice to a yell] I do not speak ill of Italy outside of our national borders!”

That turns out to be the pattern for the rest of the speech. Each section begins with a chatty, confessional moment, delivered in her distinctive Roman accent with sarcastic humour and seemingly common-sense aphor-isms: “You can’t abolish poverty by decree,” “It’s not solidarity if you let in people with no right to be here,” or (in a section railing against “progressive education” methods), “One doesn’t equal one.” Then Meloni’s voice builds, her words speed up, staccato, her small figure stalks the stage, blazer flapping as she gesticulates, before she turns to the crowd and bellows a concluding point. In one such segment she ends on the case for centralised Italian political power under a fully presidential system: “With presidentialism, what is said in the square is freed from what is done in the [parliamentary] building!”

By the end, it is dark in Turin. The imposing edifices on either side of square – the 19th-century facades of the Palazzo Carignano and the Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria, the bronze equestrian monument to the Risorgimento hero King Carlo Alberto – are dramatically illuminated. The whole scene assumes an operatic character as Meloni proclaims: “Viva Torino! Viva Fratelli d’Italia! Viva l’Italia!” There follows a rendition of the national anthem, beginning with the very line that gave Meloni’s party its name: Fratelli d’Italia.

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[See also: How support for the far-right Sweden Democrats has surged]

Founded only in 2012, the Brothers took just under 2 per cent of the vote at Italy’s 2013 election and scraped past 4 per cent in 2018. Meloni started out as an awkward outsider but her rise has been remarkable. In an Italian political scene dominated by posturing macho men from the country’s northern economic heartlands (Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini from Lombardy, Matteo Renzi from Tuscany, Beppe Grillo from Liguria), she is a woman who speaks “romanaccio” (a derogatory term for the Roman accent) and who grew up in the working-class Garbatella district of the Italian capital. She long attracted derision: a snooty commentator for the centre-left La Repubblica newspaper even called her “trashy”.

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But she has made a virtue of her roots, embracing them by developing the persona of “Giorgia” – a brassy, sardonic and confident product of Garbatella who pulled herself up in the world. Her refrain “I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am a Christian” has become so recognisable in Italian politics that it has inspired an array of raps and other musical parodies. This reinvention has paid off.

Italy votes for a new legislature on 25 September, and in the final polls before the pre-election polling purdah, conducted on 9 September, FdI were in first place on just under 25 per cent. Meloni’s steely gaze beams out from billboards, screens, posters and leaflets across Italy under the slogan “Pronti a risollevare l’Italia” or, put only slightly idiomatically: “Ready to make Italy great again.” “Giorgia” may well become Italy’s first female prime minister. Europe is watching nervously.

Garbatella was founded in the 1920s and populated primarily by Romans who had been cleared out of old central areas to make space for Benito Mussolini’s bombastic new monuments and avenues. In the 1950s and 1960s it epitomised the true Rome: working-class, brash and maternal, the Rome often depicted in the films of Cinnecittà directors such as Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti. This was the Italy of the postwar economic boom, politically dominated by the Christian Democrat (DC) party from 1946 to 1994, but also marked by the main opposition force, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which permeated the civic life of Garbatella. These were decades of class-based, ideological politics that reached deep into local neighbourhoods, whether thanks to the Catholic church and business organisations (in the DC’s case) or through trade unions and events such as the annual Festa della Unità (in the case of the PCI).

Born in January 1977, Meloni grew up in a family dominated by her mother and grandmother (her father walked out when she was 11). At the age of 15, she recalls in her 2021 autobiography, she decided “by pure instinct” to join the Garbatella branch of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement, MSI), a marginal party commanding around 4-5 per cent of the far-right vote for most of the postwar period. “Thus in that summer of 1992 I began the battle that I continue fighting today. Now I do so in the halls of parliament; then it was in the streets of Rome with the first initiatives, the first demonstrations, the first leafleting at the schools.”

Meloni became the local organiser for the youth branch of the MSI and then head of the student wing of its rebranded successor organisation, the Alleanza Nazionale. It was in this role that in 1996 she was caught on camera opining that Mussolini was “a good politician […] everything he did, he did for Italy” – a comment she today dismisses as youthful folly.

Italy has a deep history of instinctive small-c conservatism, often ascribed to its long centuries of foreign dominance (the French philosopher Guy Debord memorably called the country a “laboratory for international counter-revolution”). Its fascist years, from 1922 to 1945, refuted that tradition; a surge of radicalism and an embrace of the new that ended in disaster. Postwar Italian politics reverted to the old caution, a republic defined by the stability of mass-movement political parties – primarily the Christian Democrats and the Communists – deeply rooted in civic life and, alongside them, a dense web of patronage, political appointments and state bureaucracy.

In 1992, the year that Meloni went into politics, that world was collapsing. The Soviet Union had disintegrated. The EU had just ratified the Maastricht Treaty, confirming Italy on the path to the euro. The political establishment was being brought down by the Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”) corruption scandal. And the Italian media landscape was being transformed by the explosion of private television. These changes swept away the postwar political order. The DC disbanded. The PCI traded Marx for Jacques Delors, reinventing itself as the pro-European Democrats (now the Partito Democratico, or PD).

That the mass-movement politics largely disappeared but the dense bureaucracy built up over the preceding decades remained defines Italy’s peculiar contemporary political landscape. This is marked by traits, as Nathalie Tocci of the Institute of International Affairs think tank put it to me over lunch in Rome, of “extreme political fickleness combined with institutional stability”. Traits epitomised by the rise and rise of Giorgia Meloni.

[See also: Giorgia Meloni shouldn’t be normalised]

By the time Meloni was praising Mussolini in 1996, the postwar world of Italian politics had gone. The DC’s old electoral coalition had fractured in three main directions by the 1994 election. Forza Italia, a new party promising economic liberalisation, had just been formed by Silvio Berlusconi, the media magnate who benefited most from the deregulation of Italian television. The Lega Nord (Northern League) was a regionalist voice for northern grievances about control by Rome and wealth transfers to the poorer south. The Alleanza Nazionale, where Meloni was cutting her teeth, was a fusion of the neo-fascist MSI with the right of the old DC.

This tripartite arrangement would be the basis of Berlusconi’s four coalition governments between 1994 and 2011 – and continues to define the Italian right to this day. In the DC-PCI decades ordinary Italians had experienced political power through local party branches, cadres, offices and events, all operating within the framework of certain ideological principles (however vaguely observed in practice). Berlusconismo largely replaced all these with gaudy spectacle, spin doctors, advertising executives, veline (showgirls) and vacuous national boosterism; television politics in place of genuinely participatory mass politics.

At a time of rapid technological change, this hollowed-out politics combined with Italy’s long-standing institutional inertia and conservatism meant that Berlusconismo’s promised economic revitalisation turned instead into enduring stagnation. Yet as the country was sliding backwards, Meloni was on the up. Initially supporting herself by working as a waitress, bartender and nanny, she was elected to Rome’s metropolitan council in 1998 and then to the Italian parliament in 2006 at just 29, as an MP for Lazio (the region around and including Rome).

With its historical centralism and ranks of lower-middle-class clerks, public officials, police officers and military types, the Italian capital had long been a stronghold for the post-fascist right, which won the mayoralty in 2008, the same year Meloni was appointed minister for youth. The following year the Alleanza Nazionale merged with Forza Italia. But then, as the eurozone crisis peaked in 2011, Berlusconi fell from power and his party backed his technocratic successor, Mario Monti. That was too much for many old Alleanza Nazionale veterans including Meloni, who broke away to form the FdI.

Post-Berlusconian Italy has epitomised Tocci’s maxim about the combination of fickleness and stasis. The country has lurched from one thrusting figurehead to the next. First was Matteo Renzi of the centre-left PD, who peaked in 2014. Then came Beppe Grillo and his post-ideological, populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which surged to first place and almost 33 per cent of the vote at the 2018 election. Then came Matteo Salvini, who rebranded the Lega Nord as the Lega, reached out beyond its northern strongholds with a sharpened populist image defined by the European migration crisis, and peaked at the European election in June 2019.

Why, then, was the Lega subsequently eclipsed by another hard-right party, Meloni’s FdI? “The best explanation for Meloni’s rise is Salvini’s fall,” the author Claudio Cerasa tells me at the Rome offices of Il Foglio, the centrist newspaper he edits. Salvini spent much of the summer of 2019 on a hubristic tour of the country’s beach clubs, swilling mojitos and dancing with women in bikinis. Then in August that year he abruptly ended his party’s short-lived coalition with the M5S, but failed to found a new government of his own.

Salvini’s growing reputation for unseriousness became particularly damaging in 2020 during the Covid pandemic. In 2021 he took the Lega into a national unity government formed under the technocratic Mario Draghi to oversee the dispersal of the €200bn allocated to Italy by the EU’s pandemic recovery fund. More recently, Salvini has been further damaged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which makes his admiration of Vladimir Putin a political liability.

Where Salvini is burly and brash, Meloni is more sober. Where he often talks off the cuff, she is more cautious. Where the Lega joined Draghi’s unity government, the FdI was the one major party to stay out of it. Where he was damaged by his flirtations with Moscow, the FdI has long been relatively Atlanticist (a product of the MSI’s fierce anti-communism) and threw its support behind Draghi’s weapons exports to Kyiv. Meloni has also been fortunate in her rivals to the left. As Lorenzo Marsili, a progressive philosopher, argues: “Blame the non-right for what is going to happen. They have created a highway for Meloni.” He has a point. Other parties – from the M5S to the PD, as well as a new centrist bloc and various assorted greens and radical-left parties – have failed to forge a pact rivalling that of the FdI, Lega and Forza.

A new Italian grand coalition after the election of 25 September is possible but unlikely. Much more likely now is a government of that tripartite right with Meloni either as prime minister herself or the string-puller of a loyalist prime minister. That makes it a good time to ask: how “post” is the FdI’s “post-fascism”? After all, its predecessor, the MSI, was founded by figures who served under Mussolini and the party certainly remains a natural home for those nostalgic for the 1920s and 1930s. It recently transpired, for example, that the FdI state premier of the central Le Marche region, Francesco Acquaroli, had attended a dinner commemorating Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome.

But, counters Marsili, “It is incorrect to talk about fascism. Meloni is closer to the US Republicans on things like abortion and migration. It just shows the convergence between the far right and the conservative mainstream.” Tocci also points out that “the actual fascist vote in Italy is still the old 4 per cent that the MSI always got – the new FdI voters will come from the M5S and Lega”.

[See also: In the grip of overlapping crises, Europe faces a leadership vacuum]

And yet it would be too generous to dismiss the link entirely. FdI bears family resemblances to Italian fascism. Tocci perceives them, for example, in the FdI’s fetishisation of what she calls a “homogeneous, sporting, youthful, healthy society”. She highlights Meloni’s argument that “youth deviations” (a catch-all reference to everything from gangs and social withdrawal to drug addiction, anorexia and gambling) can be solved by greater participation in sport. An attraction to conspiracy theories is another such resemblance. The historian David Broder, author of the aptly titled forthcoming book Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy, has documented examples of Meloni and other FdI figures evoking the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory about a secret plan to replace native Europeans with migrants, including her reference to “the project of ethnic substitution of European citizens, desired by Big Capital and international speculators”. As Cerasa puts it: “She is not fascist, but she uses words and expressions that appeal to fans of that conspiracist culture.”

A Meloni-led government would probably not last long. It would inherit an economy with debt at 135 per cent of GDP, in rapid demographic decline, scarred by decades of economic stagnation and now a cost-of-living crisis.

Apart from a few old-timers who served under Berlusconi in the late 2000s, her party has no experience of national government. The markets and EU, which together have brought down past Italian governments, are watching closely and Meloni has few natural allies in Europe. And for his part, Salvini will certainly take any opportunity he can to reclaim his place as doyen of the Italian right – especially ahead of the 2024 European election. So there are reasons to believe that she will not have the time or political capital to, say, weaken Italy’s civil rights regime (poor by western European standards in any case). And that like Renzi, Grillo and Salvini before her, she will enjoy merely a short burst of popularity before someone or something else eclipses her.

Yet it would also be a mistake to blithely assume this much. Giorgia Meloni recognises the risks posed by the markets and has sought to head these off by committing to fiscal orthodoxy. She even travelled to London in early September to meet City investors and present herself as a stable leader. Her support for Ukraine may well prove a bridge to the European establishment. And her caution could give her greater longevity than some predecessors. “She knows that she has only one shot at her major ambition,” says Teresa Coratella of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “to become the leader of a new kind of conservatism in Europe.”

This is neither probable nor entirely unrealistic. Italy’s peculiar combination of a party-political vacuum and institutional sclerosis has long made it a forerunner of trends in an ageing, increasingly politically fragmented West: from Brexit and Trumpism to this year’s record election results for France’s Marine Le Pen and the far right Sweden Democrats. “My base case is that this [right-wing government] will last five years,” says a gloomy Marsili.

By the standards of Italy’s fissiparous politics that would be a long spell, one long enough to enact substantial change. So it is worth asking what that change would look like. It is clear from moments such as her speech in Turin that Meloni would ideally like to make the Italian constitution more presidential, tilting power from Italy’s chaotic parliament to create a stronger executive. Economically, she wants to fuse market orthodoxy with protectionism. In an ageing and already conservative country, she wants new natalist policies incentivising child-bearing and making abortions and the lives of migrants and LGBT people yet more difficult. It is a grim, backwards prospect.

And yet surveying the wider Western right – from the US Republicans to a French right dominated by Le Pen, a Spanish right increasingly close to radical nationalism, and a German right also flirting with more outspoken conservatism – it may well be a sign of things to come. If so, Debord will be proven correct once again in his assessment of Italy as an eternal “laboratory of counter-revolution”. As Cerasa puts it to me in his office in Rome: “When we look at Italy today, we are looking at Europe tomorrow.”

[See also: Édouard Louis: “I dream of a world without politics”]

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This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke