ROME—In the year since Matteo Salvini won a major share of power in raucous Italian elections, taking over the posts of deputy premier and interior minister, he has managed to secure a 94-percent reduction in the number of migrants who cross Italy’s borders illegally. And his success has made him the rising star not only of Italian politics, but of Europe’s assertive far right.
Salvini cut illegal immigration by closing the ports, a maritime equivalent of building a wall. And that sort of tactic—that sort of statistic— is something U.S. President Donald Trump admires. Indeed, Trump has said as much. At a G20 summit last year, he lauded Italy’s hard-line approach and said he wished he could do the same thing in the United States.
But bottling up the border is not the only thing these two leaders share. They also despise critical media and don’t adhere to the standards of conventional political correctness which, for Salvini at least, often borders on an enthusiastic embrace of Italy’s fascist past. Just last month, he threatened to expel Italy’s nomadic Rom people in what many saw as a move reminiscent of Benito Mussolini’s role abetting the Nazi Holocaust.
Just last week, Salvini threatened to strip police protection from anti-Mafia writer Roberto Saviano, whose best-selling book Gomorrah so infuriated the mobsters of the Neapolitan Camorra that they put a bounty on his head. Saviano had been critical of Salvini’s immigration policies and Salvini didn’t like it. By taking away Saviano’s four bodyguards, the interior minister would have been handing the journalist a death sentence. In the end, the bodyguards stayed—at least for now—but the threat remains a potent one.
Trump might wish he had that kind of power over reporters who’ve raised his ire.
Salvini also hopes to talk to American lawmakers about chemical castration, an extreme measure just introduced in Alabama, which follows several other American states. Sex offenders would be treated with drugs that would render them permanently impotent. Salvini, as he has said on more than one occasion, wants to introduce this measure to punish even first offender rapists, a threat he has made mainly against migrant offenders.
On the eve of Salvini’s trip to Washington, which begins Sunday, Salvini said the goal of his visit was to convince Trump that Italy can be the U.S. president’s best friend in Europe. So far, Salvini’s official agenda only includes one bilateral with Vice President Mike Pence and another with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But there are rumors that he will also meet Trump.
Salvini told The Daily Beast at a recent function in Rome that he would love to meet Trump in Washington. “Look, it's not on the agenda, but I don't exclude it happening,” he said. Then, when asked what he'd like to say to the U.S. president, he grinned ear to ear. “I'll tell him that he is an inspiration.”
Salvini is a diehard Trump fan, and has taken several pages from the Trump playbook. He reaches his base through a continual schedule of campaign-style rallies. He's held more than 200 in 2019 alone, tending to rile up his followers and turn them on the press.
He often refers to some of his own hardline approaches to protectionism and nationalism as the “Trump cure.” Salvini traveled to Philadelphia back in 2016 when Trump was campaigning and the two met long enough to take a thumbs-up photo Salvini tweeted. Trump said then that he hoped that Salvini would one day be the prime minister and Salvini said he would vote for Trump if he could. Few thought either would make it as far as they have.
Now, Salvini wants to convince Trump—either in person or through his surrogates—that his Italy is the sort of friend in Europe that, well, the United States never really wanted before the two men came to power. “It would be a great thing,” Salvini told NBC news in an interview before the trip. “We share common values. My party appreciates the Trump administration.”
Salvini often touts the two governments’ commonalities, from promises of tax cuts for working-class voters and protectionism focused on national jobs and identity. “So being one of the favorite partners of the U.S. in the European Union will be very important,” he said in the NBC interview. “Also on a geopolitical level since Italy's approach on some situations is different from some of the European Union.”
Salvini has worked to employ the same bans against Chinese tech company Huawei that the U.S. has enacted, but the two differ on NATO, which Trump often complains about and undermines, while Salvini voices strong, albeit convenient, support. That’s not least because he fears he may need to invoke Article 5, which compels all NATO countries to come to the aid of a fellow member, if new tensions in nearby Libya explode.
Trump and Salvini also differ somewhat on Russia. Both men openly admire Vladimir Putin and both likely benefited from Russian involvement in their elections. A European Commission report on Friday noted that Russian “disinformation” was evident in the recent European Parliament elections. But Salvini is blatant. He is a frequent traveler to Moscow and has been seen donning a T-shirt with the Russian president’s mug. When he recently won huge support in those European parliamentary elections, he posed for a photo in front of a shelf with both a MAGA hat and a portrait of Putin.
The Italian press has mocked him for going to Washington to get Trump’s “blessing.” But Salvini clearly believes the trip will serve him well at home.