Matteo Salvini is President Donald Trump’s most outspoken foreign surrogate, and he isn’t ashamed of it.
Salvini, 43, is the leader of Italy’s Northern League (Lega Nord)—a populist, right-wing faction in Italian politics that calls for deporting all illegal immigrants, exerting more control over the country’s borders, and taking Italy out of the eurozone common currency. From the nascent stages of the U.S. presidential campaign and the Republican primary, Salvini was a Trump loyalist. And ever since the real-estate magnate and reality TV star was elected president and inaugurated, Salvini has positioned himself as Trump’s leading surrogate outside the U.S.—taking to social media and the airwaves to defend the president and push back against his critics.
Salvini idolizes Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, among others. After he successfully sank former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional referendum in December, Salvini celebrated in a way that doesn’t need translation, and exemplifies the pure elation felt by euroskeptics and nationalist voices by their recent victories: “Viva Trump, viva Putin, viva Le Pen e viva la Lega!”
“Finally, we have an international alliance that, until a few years ago, didn’t exist because we were all on our own,” Salvini told The Daily Beast on Sunday in a phone interview from his home in Milan. “We had [former President Barack] Obama, we have [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, we have Europe, we have [French President François] Hollande, we had [former Italian Prime Minister Matteo] Renzi. Now, in my opinion, we have a great alliance that’s supported by the people and not by financial interests.”
After Brexit, Trump’s victory, and the defeat of Italy’s constitutional referendum, populists have sent a clear message to those in power throughout Europe. Salvini feels emboldened by Trump’s surprise win, and he isn’t the only one.
“Everybody is, all over the world. In France, Germany, Holland, Austria, Italy… I hope it’s a good sign for peace,” he said. Salvini hopes the populist wave will push Italy to revisit commitments to the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations, and spark positive relations with countries like Israel and Russia.
The Northern League was founded in 1991 by its longtime leader, Umberto Bossi, as a separatist movement with the aim of seceding from Italy and forming a new northern state. It was fueled by a deep resentment of the southern part of the country, whose inhabitants Bossi viewed as mooching off the success of the north. Since taking over the party in 2013, Salvini has sought to drop the “northern” portion of the party’s name in a bid to welcome southerners, and has brought his movement onto the international stage by openly embracing European populists such as Le Pen—who once said Salvini sends her into “ecstasy.” The bombastic Salvini also sported a black shirt at one of his rallies, where supporters waved neo-Nazi symbols and photos of former dictator Benito Mussolini, whose notorious supporters were known as the Black Shirts. (A spokeswoman for Salvini confirmed to The Daily Beast that he wore a black shirt at the rally but denied he was showing support for fascist groups or sympathy for Mussolini.)
Positioning himself as Trump’s most ardent supporter in Europe, Salvini—like the American president—has a habit of taking to Twitter to air his grievances against his political opponents and the news media, and has done so more recently to defend Trump as the American president faces a barrage of criticism at home.
“They all attack him. Everybody is against Trump. In Italy, too: mass media, Sky, Rai, newspapers, [George] Soros, multi-nationals, Merkel, Hollande,” Salvini told The Daily Beast. Like Trump, he often lumps his political opponents and the press together.
Now that Trump is president, Salvini says he doesn’t think he has an obligation to defend Trump’s every move. But if his Twitter account is any indication, Salvini revels in the opportunity to defend and champion the American president at every pass.
“What @POTUS is doing on the other side of the ocean, I’d like it done in Italy. An invasion is underway, it needs to be blocked,” Salvini tweeted after Trump signed an executive order banning foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entry into the United States.
When protests were raging at U.S. airports in the days following the executive order, Salvini again defended Trump: “Americans voted, #Trump won and he’s doing what he promised. Protesters against @POTUS are in bad faith, they don’t accept democracy.”
After a federal judge in Seattle issued a ruling that temporarily blocked the travel ban, Salvini impugned the judge’s motives—just as Trump himself did—in a tweet: “Small world… Judges who play politics are everywhere.”
It’s not unusual for a foreign politician to voice their love or displeasure for an American president. But Salvini’s consistent defenses of Trump amount to much more than a tweet or two here or there.
“It’s spontaneous,” Salvini said. “I was already supporting him in the spring and the summer [of last year] when nobody thought he would win. I like his ideas on a flat-tax, controlling borders… having a relationship with Putin. I do it because I believe in him.”
Last April, the flame-throwing populist put his money where his mouth was, and traveled to the U.S. to attend a campaign event in Pennsylvania for then-candidate Trump. Recently, at a meeting in Brussels, Salvini posted a photo of himself wearing a Trump inauguration shirt underneath his blazer.
According to Italy’s ANSA news agency, the pair met for 20 minutes and Trump told Salvini he hopes he becomes Italy’s prime minister “soon.”
While his political support is likely not robust enough to propel him to Italy’s prime ministership, Salvini wields influence over Italians who share the same nationalist, anti-establishment sentiments that catapulted Trump to the presidency and are fueling similar candidates throughout the continent. Additionally, Salvini helped sink a constitutional referendum that was championed by Renzi, the former prime minister who is rumored to be plotting a political comeback.
Recent polling data shows Salvini with just 9 percent support among Italians in a crowded field, while his party stands at 13.5 percent. A center-right coalition would garner around 30 percent support, but such an alliance would be contingent on Silvio Berlusconi—another former prime minister to whom Trump is often compared—partnering with Salvini. Berlusconi holds the most power and influence in Italy’s right wing. Barring any alliance with Berlusconi or the Five Star Movement’s Beppe Grillo, Salvini will likely be left out of any ruling coalition. He told The Daily Beast that he would not form an alliance solely to win, and would only enter into one if his policy prescriptions were honored. “Otherwise, I would prefer that we stay away,” he said.
Grillo has been an easy target for Salvini, who accuses the populist Five Star Movement, born less than eight years ago, of being weak on illegal immigration. In the U.S., Trump often made use of this same critique of Democrats—and even his fellow Republicans—when they criticized his initial proposal for a Muslim ban and his subsequent hard-line stance on building a wall on the southern border.
Asked what the world would look like with himself as the leader of Italy alongside Trump as the U.S. president, Salvini said it would be more “orderly,” “controlled,” and “peaceful.”
Salvini believes that there are too many Muslims coming into Italy—a view that he has repeated in the past—and calls for more restrictions on those coming to Italy. More specifically, he wants to halt migration for those who are not escaping war. The problem, according to Salvini, is Islam itself.
“It’s not only a religion. It’s a law. It’s the only religion that imposes its laws,” he said. “With Islam, there’s the Sharia. There’s the Islamic law which prevails, and as long as it doesn’t distinguish between God and the state, it’s a problem.”
Critics say this type of rhetoric encourages terrorists and boosts recruitment efforts, but Salvini believes he’s simply calling attention to the problem. Asked whether Muslims should even be in Italy, Salvini said they should be “regulated.”
“In my opinion, Islam is an outdated religion. It’s not modern. And therefore, there’s too much space for violence,” he said. In the past, he has called Islam “incompatible” with Western society.
While Trump often uses vague language like “getting smart” or “getting tough” on securing and controlling U.S. borders, Salvini is much more blunt in describing his views. Salvini laughs off accusations from his critics, who charge that he is a racist or fascist.
“Racist means thinking more highly of another, being superior to another. I don’t feel better or superior—white, black, yellow, all the same,” he added.
Editor’s note: The interview with Matteo Salvini was conducted by the reporter in Italian and translated for this article.