David Leask: A century after fascism’s first victory, we must confront the new look of the far right

SHE is widely regarded as Italy’s next prime minister, at the head of what the local press is dubbing a “centre-right” coalition

Populist and chauvinist Giorgia Meloni, with her reputedly earthy Latin tongue and tough working-class backstory, is topping the polls ahead of the general election later this month.

Last week, as she strayed into her native Romanesco dialect, she told cheering supporters she was “turning Italy upside down like a sock”. And she turned to those who call her a fascist, essentially accusing her of being beholden to unseen forces.

“We’re portrayed as monsters because we’re not for sale, we can’t be blackmailed, and we don’t have a ‘power lobby’ behind our back,” she said.

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Ms Meloni and her party, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), or Brothers of Italy, have taken a strong stand against those she believes are far-right.

But her latest outburst comes after an Edinburgh-based filmmaker included her image in his new documentary on the rise of fascism a century ago. Mark Cousins’ March on Rome was screened at the Venice Film Festival this week ahead of its release in cinemas next month.

It caused a bit of sushie in Italy. And provoked some really tough questions about what the far right looks like; Questions I think we should all be asking ourselves.

The film’s release is set to mark the 100th anniversary of Benito Mussolini coming to power after a ragged mob invaded the Italian capital.

But this is more than history, critics say; it is a reflection on the stories fascists tell then and now. And so it ends with pictures of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and, yes, Ms. Meloni.

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The culture spokesman for the FdI was outraged that such a film could be shown at a publicly funded event during the election campaign. Federico Mollicone called it – apparently unironically – “propaganda”.

Cousins ​​was unrepentant. Speaking after the screening, he acknowledged that Ms. Meloni did not describe herself as a fascist. “Maybe,” he said, “she’s not like Mussolini, but the language she uses is very dangerous.”

The FDI leader is really pushing right-wing and far-right culture war narratives, not least on immigration. It’s not just what she says that matters, but where her party is coming from.

There’s a reason her fans are nervous about the Cousins ​​movie. That’s because the FdI has fairly easily traceable neo-fascist roots.

Its logo – for starters – is the flaming tricolor, symbol of a movement founded by Mussolini-Diehards in the late 1940s. Some FdI members – so-called nostalgics, apologists for the “20 years” of fascism – were photographed giving the Roman salute.

Ms Meloni, 45, has accused the left of “hate, violence and lies” in what she called a “shameful” campaign against FdI. Her party feels besmirched by those who remember her history and attack her current nativist policies. For example, she opposes plans to give citizenship to foreigners brought to Italy as children.

A veteran trade unionist and senator, Valeria Fedeli, this summer called Ms Meloni a “racist because she discriminates based on her ethnicity”. Such criticism has, I am not joking, been dubbed “red hatred” by FdI supporters.

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“Fascist” is one of those words that has lost its meaning through overuse. It’s thrown at all manner of authoritarians and right-wingers, such as America’s Donald Trump. The term, which is now more suitable for polemics than for analysis, is not always ideal.

Is Ms. Meloni a real fascist? Well, maybe not. She’s not at the head of an army of black-shirted thugs; it is not planning an extra-parliamentary coup like Mussolini.

But if she comes to power, she must appeal to her base, she must blame the nostalgic for red meat, she must find more scapegoats for her country’s economic woes.

Expect migrants and minorities to suffer, expect extreme nationalist chauvinism to be normalized, expect culture wars to flare up. The rhetoric could get scary.

A prime minister from Meloni, a far-right leader at the heart of the European Union, one of the world’s greatest bastions of democracy and the rule of law, would be a disaster.

But the context is also important.

FdI, if the polls accurately reflect public sentiment, holds just under a quarter of the popular vote. It can only govern in coalition. Ms Meloni faces constitutional checks and balances, as well as political vacillations and roundabouts.

The current elections were called because of the collapse of the Covid emergency government led by technocrat Mario Draghi.

The FdI had left itself out as a sniper and benefited from it. Now she hopes to lead an alliance that includes two parties whose leaders served under Mr Draghi.

The first is the now dwindling anti-immigration League of Matteo Salvini, 49, a populist who once strutted around Moscow’s Red Square in a Putin T-shirt.

The second possible partner is the conservative Forza Italia of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is now 85 but still has jet black hair.

The latest Ipsos poll for Corriere della Sera on Thursday suggests the “centre-right” is beating the “centre-left” by 46.6% to 29.9%.

Mrs Meloni’s potential coalition is not very centered in my opinion, but it is very, very correct. It is also divided on core issues.

Take foreign policy.

The FDI leader has taken a more Atlanticist approach to Putin’s war on Ukraine than Mr Salvini, who is struggling to distance himself from his earlier fanboying of the Russian strongman.

Mr. Salvini wants to stop arms deliveries to Kyiv. Mrs. Meloni not. Can such a political divide be bridged?

This week Mr Salvini posted a picture of himself with Ms Meloni smiling against a backdrop of blue skies and an azure Mediterranean Sea during the electoral process in Sicily. “Together we will win”

he said on Facebook. He had his arm around his potential coalition leader. She looked reserved and had her head bowed.

As chilling as that sounds, the Lega leader seems to have picked a snap that made the couple look like a honeymoon couple.

A century after Mussolini took Rome, the far right is on the rise again. Cousins ​​rightly draws a line from 1922 to the present day.

But the new threat to liberal democracy looks very different from the old one. We need to figure this out quickly.

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