ROME—Nearly four years ago, Matteo Salvini stood on a makeshift stage in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo and donned a black t-shirt over his white button-down. It was seen as a not-so-subtle nod to an ideology many associated with the kind of neo-fascism that was just starting to rear its ugly head in Europe and long before anyone ever thought Donald Trump could be elected president of the United States. He delivered a fiery hate speech to a massive crowd of people — some of whom held up pictures of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, whose notorious Blackshirts were one of Italy's most influential political forces.
Last Saturday, Salvini stood over crowds at Piazza del Popolo again. But this time he came as a statesman, so the black t-shirt stayed at home in the drawer. In its place a red Italian Police sweater— a favorite symbol of his commitment to security. He is now both Interior minister and vice premier, a veritable strongman lording over a shaky coalition with Luigi Di Maio, head of the rambunctious Five Star Movement, and Giuseppe Conte, the puppet prime minister who does his bidding and often acts as his punching bag. Salvini mentioned neither at his Saturday event, which had all the hallmarks of a Trump-style campaign rally, minus blatant hate for the press. Salvini is unarguably the most powerful man in Italy right now, and this time people in the crowd held up pictures of him.
They also chanted “il capitano”—as his loyal followers like to call him—the captain. Puccini's elegant aria Nessun Dorma: Vincerò (None shall sleep, I will win!) played as he ascended onto the stage. He was flanked by chefs and bakers in white as he droned on about the power of patrimony and the importance of protecting Italy’s pasta and parmesan from European regulations. His speech was measured; his tone downright dull. Minders in the crowd gently asked extremists to put away their fascist garb, even though there were still plenty of self-proclaimed fascists in attendance with emblems like the celtic cross and fasces flag from Mussolini's long-abolished National Fascist party.
Salvini’s trajectory is a curious experiment in political evolution. He started as an antifa-style leftie youth who then dropped out of his university studies in political science and later history to join the far right movement that was gaining strength in his native Milan in the 1980s. At 45, he is now head of the rebranded Lega or League, a far-right party that grew from the roots of the separatist Northern League once helmed by Umberto Bossi and his cigar-chewing clan of foreigner-hating extremists. In its heyday, the Northern League campaigned to separate Italy to create the independent country of Padania that started north of Florence and encircled the wealthiest of Italy's diverse provinces to keep the riches from the “ignorant peasants" of southern Italy. Now, Salvini embraces them as the heart and soul of the country.
He touts the importance of traditional families, yet he has two children by two different women. He was most recently dumped when his tv host girlfriend Elisa Isoardi posted what appeared a post-coital selfie of the two in bed during clearly happier times as a farewell tribute to the failed relationship. “With immense respect for the true love that there was,” she wrote. “Thanks Matteo.”
Through the years, Salvini has toed the Northern League party line, like when it banned the construction of mosques and lobbied for segregation of migrant kids in Italian public schools. Back when he was still on the political fringe — about 18 months ago when he polled at around five percent — Salvini's battle cry was “Roma Ladrona” or the thieves of Rome. Now the only thieves he refers to are those he says are in Brussels. “Someone has betrayed the European dream,” he said at his campaign-like rally. “But we will put blood and strength back into the veins of a new European community.”
Five years ago, Salvini also lumped France and Germany together as enemies of his state. Now, the man who once called for an Italexit style referendum to leave the European Union, wants to be one of the union’s key leaders. He has berated French president Emmanuel Macron for being weak and inviting the Yellow Vest protests. And now he is flirting with Germany to help him expand his power. “The Franco-German axis is showing its limits,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “I will do everything I can to renew a new Rome-Berlin axis.”
Never mind that the last time Italy and Germany worked together on a project, the results were apocalyptic. Salvini needs Germany if he is to reform the E.U. “from the inside” as he promises. He says he is toying with the idea of a run for president of the European Commission when Jean-Claude Juncker resigns next year. And he is being pushed forward by like-minded thinkers including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and French nationalist Marine Le Pen. All are backed by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who launched his alt-right “Movement” in Europe in September.
Bannon told The Daily Beast that he admires Salvini. “He's a global leader in charge of one of the most interesting political experiments in the world,” Bannon said. “Italy is the political center of the world and everyone is watching.”
But at a press conference in Rome on Tuesday, Salvini responded to a question put forth by The Daily Beast about the reciprocal feeling. “He's stimulating,” Salvini conceded. “But I believe Europe has so much diversity and originality that sometimes the other side of the Atlantic doesn't get it.” He then added that “only Europeans can decide what is best for Europe.”
To be fair, Salvini deserves to be self-congratulatory for ticking the box on one of Europe's most pressing priorities. He reduced migrant and refugee arrivals into Italy by 80 percent by blocking Italy’s ports a few days after taking office. Now the charity boats that once plied the waters in search of migrants are docked and even Italian Coast Guard vessels that save people have a hard time getting permission to bring them to Italian shores. It is something Europe has long said only Italy can do to stop the union's migration crisis. His hard line has won him tempered respect across the the E.U.
The Lega under Salvini won 17 percent of the vote in Italian elections last March when he campaigned with veteran bad boy Silvio Berlusconi and Italy's alt-right femme fascista Giorgia Meloni. It took three months for him to abandon his campaign partners and cobble together the current coalition with the Five Star, which no one ever thought would last a month, let alone six. Now the Lega is polling at around 35 percent and growing, which means if he pulls the rug out from under the coalition, as many suppose he will, he might easily win enough votes to run the country alone. And if he can do that, there is no reason he can't also take on Europe.
“Salvini could become the strongman of Europe,” Claudio Borghi, a Lega spokesman said recently. “It’s an incredible opportunity.”
Perhaps one better if missed, but there seems no stopping il Capitano's stride now.