In Italian Elections, Berlusconi Takes a Cue From Trump, Bets Big on Bigotry

The former Italian premier says if his party wins upcoming March 4 elections, it will expel 600,000 African migrants.

Giorgio Cosulich/Getty

ROME—After a weekend defined by racial tension when 28-year-old alt-right nationalist Luca Traini systematically hunted and shot down African migrants, you might think Italy’s political leaders would tone down their racist rhetoric. But you would be wrong.

Instead, they have upped the ante, raising the stakes in the highly contentious election campaign by trying to outdo each other’s bigotry. Like U.S. President Donald Trump, whose “build the wall” battlecry gained him quasi-fanatical support, Italian political hopefuls seem to preying on the fears that many Italians harbor about migrants crossing the sea from Libya. And while pledging to build a wall across the sea is, well, a bridge too far, promising mass deportations is apparently the next best thing.

Matteo Salvini of the far-right Northern League, under which Traini unsuccessfully ran for a local office in 2017, renewed his earlier campaign promise to deport immediately 100,000 African migrants, no matter their status, should his party come into power.

At a campaign stop, Salvini rationalized Traini’s rampage in the little hilltop town of Macerata, where several people were wounded but, miraculously, none killed.

“The Italians are not racist,” said Salvini. “The problem is not immigration, but illegal immigration, namely the 800,000 migrants that the last governments allowed to land here.”

Ignoring the fact that it was one of his supporters who went on a shooting spree, Salvini said, “I want a civilized country, we are dying from goodness and hypocrisy, I want an Italy where you live and work quietly, where you go shopping and take a bus without thinking it's an adventure. I have the duty to tell the Italians how I will try to avoid other events like those of Macerata, increasing the expulsions, giving more support to the police.”

More extreme parties, including the neo-fascist Forza Nuova, which likely won’t win enough votes to make a difference, instead offered support to Traini, who is thought to have acted in retaliation after a Nigerian migrant was arrested in connection with the murder and dismemberment of an 18-year-old Italian woman who left her rehab program.

A Forza Nuova candidate from Puglia, criminal attorney Margherita Matrella, offered to represent Traini for free in the hopes that his trial might keep what she calls Traini’s “justified actions” in the headlines.

But the biggest bet on bigotry came from the ever-cynical “Cavaliere” Silvio Berlusconi, who needs Salvini’s support to bring his center-right Forza Italia party back to power. He trumped (as it were) Salvini’s pledge and said he would kick out 600,000 Africans, a feat that is both morally reprehensible and logistically improbable given that most of the people who arrive by sea are from countries that won’t accept their return or will make them pay dearly, sometimes with their lives, if they do.

Never mind that Berlusconi failed to outline whether those mass deportations would be paid for by the Italian state. At this point it would not be surprising to hear him say Africa will pay the bill.

“Immigration is a very urgent matter because after years of the left’s rule, there are 600,000 migrants who do not have the right to stay,” Berlusconi told one of the television channels he owns on Sunday night. “They represent a social bomb ready to explode, because they are ready to commit crimes.”

(Does this sound familiar?)

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Berlusconi said that when his party was last in power in 2011, before he resigned in shame amid an underage prostitution scandal and accusations of tax fraud, only 4,400 migrants arrived by sea from North Africa. He then blamed the center left government for allowing mass migration thereafter, failing to mention that the rise coincides with the fall of Libya and the deposition and death of his former BFF, Muammar Gaddafi, as well as unrest throughout the region and a ferocious war in Syria.

“The result is that today we have at least 630,000 immigrants, of which only 30,000 have the right to stay because they are refugees,” he said. “Another 600,000 must go.”

He then called for agreements with host nations to stop the departure of migrants and a “grand Marshall plan” for African countries that would rely on cooperation from the United States, Russia, Chad and the Gulf Countries. Good luck with that.

The Five Star Movement, the party leading the polls ahead of the March elections, but considered unable to govern because they won’t join a coalition, is also fiercely anti-immigration, saying that Italy should accept those fleeing war, but stop there. "On immigrants I say that if we have to welcome those fleeing from the wars, we will do it, but you cannot tell me that everyone who arrives is an urgent case,” said Luigi Di Maio, the party’s candidate for prime minister.

Even left-leaning parties followed the anti-migrant drumbeat. Matteo Renzi, the beleaguered leader of the Democratic Party, blamed Berlusconi for starting the war in Libya in the first place, and promised to invest in security forces in Italy to ensure safety, implying that he, too, agreed that migrants are the great national problem.

"It is not the gunslingers that should guarantee security in Italy,” he said, referring to Traini. “We need to invest in Carabinieri and Police. We propose the recruitment of 10,000 men because the few we have today can only wink at the gunslingers.”

The political parties are bolstered by a recent study by Confcommercio (Italian General Confederation of Enterprises, Professions and Self-Employment)  on the statistical connection between crime and immigration, which determined that if the number of immigrants increases by one percent, the crime rate in the same area goes up by 0.4 percent.

But it’s not just statistics that are making Italians fear foreigners. Subliminal messages are at play, as well. Over the weekend, giant posters popped up across Rome and other major cities with a photo of the back of a Benito Mussolini, identifiable by uniform, posture, and skinhead, touting a new movie called, “Sono Tornato” or “I’m Back.”

The film, which opened in 400 theaters right as Traini was hunting migrants in Macerata, is neither apologetic nor supportive of fascism under Mussolini. Instead the premise is Mussolini rising from the dead to tour contemporary Italy, taking note of what of his legacy remains. The timing is perhaps coincidental. But the coincidence is is very badly timed.