ROME—With a week left until Italians vote for their next leader on March 4, there is a palpable feeling of change in the air, and it’s not a change for the better. The final election polls, which were published last week, point to victory for a center-right coalition with several fringe parties that openly embrace the ideology of fascism which includes racial purity, authoritarianism and extreme nationalism.
The other parties in the coalition, which is being led by former prime minister and convicted tax fraudster Silvio Berlusconi, have pledged mass expulsions of migrants and a military-backed tightening of the borders. Indeed, the various parties seem intent on one-upping each other when it comes to hardline policies.
“If we need to do a naval blockade, we will do a naval blockade. If we need to dig trenches, we will dig trenches,” Giorgia Meloni, head of the far-right Brothers of Italy party said at a recent rally alongside Benito Mussolini’s granddaughter, who is one of her party’s candidates. “No one enters Italy illegally, and those who have will be sent home.”
Thousands of Italians took to the streets in Rome, Milan, Bologna and Palermo on Saturday to protest this visible resurgence of the very fascist ideology promulgated by Mussolini, the dictator who ruled Italy from 1922 until 1943, taking his country into an alliance with Germany’s Adolf Hitler and the crushing defeat that nearly destroyed this country 70 years ago.
In Milan, anti-fascist demonstrators carried banners saying “never again” showing victims of the holocaust next to photos of African migrants behind bars.
In Rome, anti-fascist demonstrators handed out hats and stickers with the slogan “Make Italy Anti-Fascista Again” and several people marched with banners of Benito Mussolini’s face with a giant slash through it.
One might think that every Italian would be out protesting anything that even looks vaguely like fascism, but on a rainy Saturday afternoon, the crowds were not huge. Many people stayed home, and not only because of the weather.
Those spewing fascist and quasi-fascist nationalistic rhetoric have somehow managed to make it sound comforting, playing on fears of “dangerous criminal migrants” in the words of Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Donald Trump, and promising a stronger government that will take care of everything.
A check back through Italian history books would remind voters that Mussolini initially won favor on just such promises.
“We have to return to a time when Italians believed in a state that guarantees security and order,” Meloni said at a rally held in an immigrant neighborhood in Milan as she snapped selfies in front of a giant Italian flag that had been rolled out onto the Via Padova, where many immigrants live, saying it was time to “take back our streets.”
The normalization of fascist rhetoric has been hard for those on the ruling center left to combat. More than 600,000 mostly African migrants have reached Italy by sea since the country last voted in national elections. Most people view “out of control migration” as the biggest problem in the nation, according to a recent poll, and even the more liberal center left candidates are campaigning on better border controls.
Italy’s justice minister, Andrea Orlando, a member of the center left, warned that slipping back into accepting fascism in Italy should worry all of Europe and beyond. “The real danger in Italy and in Europe is the underestimation of this phenomenon,” he said at a rally in Rome. “There is a general underestimation of the fact that within this rhetoric is a hidden sickness of violence that will quickly evolve into reality.”
Rome’s vice-mayor, Luca Bergamo, who also marched against fascism warned that normalizing it is unacceptable. “Now, 70 years after the Republican Constitution was born from the ashes of fascism, it is essential to demonstrate against the regurgitations of fascist flavor,” he said Saturday. “No violence is justifiable.”
In Milan, where officials normally are better at organizing contentious events than they were this weekend, a group of anti-fascist demonstrators were given permission to hold a sit-in at a square between where Salvini addressed his supporters in front of the city’s majestic Duomo and a venue where members of the far-right Casa Pound party held their own ground.
In an ironic end, police had to use billy clubs against those protesting fascism to keep them from attacking those who embrace it.