By Jake Guldin
In the fall of 2022, eligible voters across the nation of Italy provided Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, in English), a right-wing populist party spearheaded by now-prime minister Giorgia Meloni, with a decisive victory. With the help of two ideologically similar, albeit less electorally successful, political organizations — Forza Italia and Lega per Salvini Premier — a conservative majority was formed within the peninsula’s government, sending shockwaves throughout the European continent and beyond. In the wake of their dominance, publications around the world, from The New York Times to BBC News, released articles that were highly critical of the nation’s new leadership; some went as far as to characterize them as fascist.
Understandably, the use of such an alarming descriptor generated chatter from political pundits, ordinary commentators, and esteemed scholars at an international level, with people passionately debating the claim’s validity online, in person, and over the airwaves of television. In an effort to better understand the dueling sides of this ongoing discourse, I rigorously engaged with materials from those of varying backgrounds and perspectives. Additionally, I considered a healthy blend of primary and secondary sources. My findings, separated into three distinct sections, serve as the central focus of this essay.
Defining “Fascism” and Reviewing Fratelli d’Italia’s History and Stances
As with some other terms and phenomena, “fascism” is something that is difficult to describe, as experts largely disagree on what constitutes it. That said, Umberto Eco, one of Italy’s greatest thinkers and a survivor of Mussolini’s dictatorial regime, took note of several traits — some of them contradictory — that he believed were intrinsic to it. For the sake of this essay, and as a result of his definition and reasonings being cited repeatedly throughout my studies, his findings (published in an essay entitled “Ur-Fascism”) will be the ones recapitulated. Succinctly put by an individual far more intelligent than me, Eco’s fourteen points can be boiled down to the following: “a cult of tradition, rejection of modernism, fear of difference, appeal to frustrated middle classes, obsessions with international plots, life is permanent warfare, foreigners are both weak and strong because they are strong, machismo, contempt for the weak, every man is a hero, selective populism, and impoverished political vocabulary, more or less in order of importance” (Agnew 2). As mentioned earlier, a few of these characteristics appear as if they could not possibly manifest themselves simultaneously. Furthermore, multiple attributes listed could apply to more than just fascism. But, as the Italian multi-hyphenate presciently stresses, “It is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it” (Eco 5). Or, in other words, the point is that, for a coalition to be deemed a fascist one, it need not exhibit all of the elements outlined by Eco; one or two is more than enough. And, as will soon be seen, Fratelli d’Italia, it could be argued, embodies some of these deplorable qualities, as evidenced by its history and existing stances.
To begin, it must be noted that, at first, the coalition’s name included references to those that influenced it, including Allenza Nationale and MSI-Destra Nazionale, “thus not distancing itself from neo-fascist traditions” (Sondel-Cedarmas 61). Moreover, the logo of Fratelli d’Italia harkens back to that of the MSI as both feature a tricolored flame. Beyond their origins in groups harboring neo-fascist sentiments — themselves born out of Mussolini’s fascist traditions — Fratelli d’Italia prides itself on “the principles of national sovereignty, freedom, democracy, justice, and social solidarity, and strongly emphasizes its attachment to the national traditional” (Sondel-Cedarmas 61). However, Fratelli d’Italia’s interpretation of, say, “freedom” or “social solidarity” contradict those of citizens who consider themselves to be progressive, forward-thinking individuals. For instance, the party vehemently opposes same-sex marriage and adoption, illegal immigration, and granting citizenship to those born on Italian soil without genetic, ancestral linkage to the peninsula. In addition, Meloni’s squad supports an increase in security measures, a state with a strong central government, and the defense of Europe’s roots in Christianity, amongst other more right-adjacent, populist positions. With this and the aforementioned tenets of fascism it becomes abundantly clear how someone could, if they wish, categorize Fratelli d’Italia as a potential fascist organization as, for example, the party’s blatant Islamaphobia could be thought of as fulfilling the “fear of difference” aspect of Eco’s multifaceted definition. After all, as remarked by one professor from the University of California, Los Angeles, “Like pornography, as U.S. courts have decided, you know fascism when you see it” (Agnew 2–3).
Comparing Pieces of Propaganda
Political advertisements meant to bolster one candidate or revile another are, for better and worse, commonplace. Comprised of eye-catching imagery, catchy slogans, and subliminal messaging, they have historically been used to sway public opinion to varying degrees of success. For this section, two such propagandistic works — one heralding Il Duce himself, the other championing Meloni and her party — will be evaluated. The pair are reproduced below.
Upon initial glance, a spectator may realize that the politicians at the core of these two pieces — Giorgia Meloni and Benito Mussolini — are comprised of a sea of, presumably, ardent backers. This, for the average viewer, conveys a sense of unity between the governmental leaders and the common populous, perhaps even establishing that they are one and the same. Such a claim, that those governing and governed are identical, is further strengthened, in the case of the Fratelli d’Italia banner, by the chosen slogan (“Noi siamo Giorgia” or, in English, “We are Giorgia”). Although, at least superficially, there is a shared resemblance between them, there are a number of differences as well.
Take, for instance, the mood communicated by the expressions of Meloni and Mussolini, respectively. The former exudes optimism, staring directly at the viewer in the hopes of winning them over through sheer charm alone. The latter, in comparison, appears stoic and disinterested, looking downward at the enumerable citizens that make up his corpus. These distinct dispositions, in addition to other aspects of the images, ultimately relay how Meloni’s is about motivating voters to cast a ballot in her name while Mussolini’s concerns the establishment and maintaining of the authority he already has. So, despite some commonalities, it is obvious that there are discrepancies between fascist propaganda and that conjured up by the aids at Fratelli d’Italia.
Two Scholars, Two Opinions
In this final section, the clashing viewpoints of two world-renowned academics — Ruth Ben-Ghiat and John Agnew — regarding fascism’s presence on the peninsula will be assessed. Firstly, though, some background on the pair. Ben-Ghiat, who obtained her Ph.D. in comparative history at the prestigious Brandeis University, is currently a professor of Italian studies and history at New York University. In addition, she has penned a myriad of books on the issue of fascism including, but not limited to, Fascist Modernities: Italy, 1942–1945. Agnew, a political geographer who studied at the University of Exeter and Ohio State University, has addressed a wide array of subjects, ranging from hegemony to populism, via a series of published books and journal articles. With the duo’s credentials explained, allow me to summarize their respective standpoints.
Writing for The Atlantic, Ben-Ghiat, through exquisite prose and damning examples, illustrates how fascism is intertwined with Italy’s newly-elected leaders. She mentions, for instance, how Meloni and her constituents adhere to fascist values from decades ago, noting how “in particular, the natalist obsession of Il Duce’s 20-year rule, with its ‘Battle for Births,’ has survived in the Brother of Italy’s present-day concern about boosting the birth rate, its proposal to link social-welfare assistance to mothers and those engaged in child care, and its attempts to limit reproductive rights” (Ben-Ghiat). Further bolstering her claim that Italy’s first-ever female prime minister might have ties to fascism, she refers to a resurfaced video of Meloni from 1996 where she can be heard praising Mussolini. It can be watched below.
Ben-Ghiat also speaks about some of Fratelli d’Italia’s goals, indicating that the most dangerous one is their aim to turn the president into an elected position based on popular vote. On the surface, such an aim may seem harmless. However, she goes on to reveal, “Italy’s electoral college was introduced by the 1948 constitution, which enshrined antifascist protections against the future possibility of government takeover by a charismatic demagogue” (Ben-Ghiat). Or, in other words, such a change to how the president — more of a figurehead role, at the moment — is picked could lead to the rise of another Mussolini-like commander. For Ben-Ghiat, then, the threat of fascism in Italy is genuine on account of Fratelli d’Italia’s supremacy in the nation.
Conversely, Agnew posits that the surge in support for Meloni and her organization does not precisely mirror a rise in fascism within the region. He provides some incredibly convincing arguments such as, for example, one in which he breaks down the last election, saying that “pundits seem to agree that the increase in the Brothers of Italy vote in 2022 has as much to do with that party being the only one not in recent government, having remained in opposition, as much as anything positive about the party itself” (Agnew 4). Or, in other words, those backing Meloni and her friends did so because the other options were simply less appealing, not because they universally shared their thoughts on hot-button issues like immigration or LGBTQ+ rights. Beyond this, Agnew pointed out how those forming the right-wing majority are bound to fight with one another over what to prioritize, leading to the completion of minimal work. Building off of this, the writer sheds light on how, when it comes to “contemporary self-advertised right-wing populism, not doing much at all in office except attacking the ‘politically correct,’ and generally inflaming public opinion on questions such as immigration and cultural change” is to be expected (Agnew 5). Outside of saying that Fratelli d’Italia and the whole of the nation cannot be fascist on grounds of the former’s ineptitude and the latter’s reasonings for voting in the first place, he holds that fascism, as determined by Eco and other brilliant minds, is too loosely applied. As he puts it in his concluding sentence, “Some elements of Ur-fascism may well be in the air, right-wing populism worldwide shares them, but simple repetition of the original thing, in terms of its central features as I would see them — thoroughly institutionalizing the territorial state fetish, endorsing the essential illegitimacy of open elections, buffoonish machismo, and so on — seems mostly unlikely, at least in Italy” (Agnew 5–6). According to Agnew, then, Meloni and the Fratelli d’Italia, while despicable in their own way, are not the fascist menace that mainstream media makes them out to be.
As highlighted in this essay, the impassioned argument over fascism’s existence in Italy today is unlikely to decisively end anytime soon. There are copious amounts of evidence — primary and secondary in nature — for each side, making it challenging for anyone to firmly align themselves with one view or the other. It is my opinion, though, that no matter what happens with Giorgia Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia, we must heed these insightful words: “Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our figure at any of its new instances — every day, in every part of the world” (Eco 8–9).
Agnew, John. “Is Fascism Really Back in Italy?” Human Geography, 2023, pp. 1–6., https://doi.org/10.1177/19427786231157013.
Ben-Ghiat, Ruth. “The Return of Fascism in Italy.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 6 Oct. 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2022/09/giorgia-meloni-italy-election-fascism-mussolini/671515/.
Eco, Umberto. “Ur-fascism.” The New York Review of Books 42.11 (1995): 12-15.
INA Politique. “1996 : Giorgia Meloni ‘Mussolini Était Un Bon Politicien’ | Archive INA.” YouTube, 23 Sept. 2022, https://youtu.be/XuoXr-zjqas.
Pierdomenico, Alessia. “A Campaign Rally by a Right-Wing Coalition Including Brothers of Italy on Thursday.” Bloomberg, 23 Sept. 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2022-09-23/italy-looks-to-a-post-fascist-radical-to-lead. Accessed 27 Apr. 2023.
Schawinsky, Xanti. “Mussolini 1934 – XII SI.” Milan, Italy, Apr. 1934.
Sondel-Cedarmas, Joanna. “Giorgia Meloni’s New Europe: Europe of Sovereign Nations in the Brothers of Italy Party Manifestos.” The Right-Wing Critique of Europe, 2022, pp. 60–75., https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003226123-8.