Ever since Giorgia Meloni’s far-right party, Brothers of Italy, won Sunday’s Italian election, congratulations have been pouring in from conservative leaders and pundits across the world.
What these fawning social media messages have in common is a tendency to emphatically label the Brothers, a party whose political roots lie in neofascism, as a fellow moderate conservative force.
These tributes range from former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who tweeted that “Italy deserves and needs strong conservative leadership,” and British Prime Minister Liz Truss to U.S. Senator Ted Cruz calling one of Meloni’s speeches “spectacular” and Yair Netanyahu, son of former Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, congratulating Meloni and Italy’s “conservative camp.”
Right-wing media have been even more explicit in embracing Meloni and papering over the problematic aspects of her party’s origins and ideology.
Fox News hailed the “dawn of a new day” and noted that Meloni’s campaign had focused on her "Christian values." Conservative Political Action Coalition head Matt Schlapp chatted with Steve Bannon – two of her most prominent U.S. boosters – about how the leader of Brothers of Italy “fits right neatly in the term of what we call conservative here in America.”
And British commentator Piers Morgan summed up this global whitewashing operation by tweeting that Meloni “is not ‘far-right.’ If you think she is, you really need to brush up on your Nazi/Fascist history. She’s what she says she is…center-right. The left should stop calling every conservative opponent Nazis/Fascists. It’s so lazy.”
This rush by the global right to legitimize Meloni’s future rule raises several key questions: Is she a fascist? Is she an extremist or far-right leader? And, most importantly, why is it so crucial for conservatives that she not be labeled as such?
There is indeed some truth to what Morgan and his peers claim: Dismissing Meloni and the Brothers of Italy phenomenon as a rehash of Benito Mussolini’s regime is indeed lazy. But that can only be said after carefully considering the party’s deep ties to its fascist past.
The Brothers are the political heirs of the Italian Social Movement, founded in 1946 by Mussolini’s surviving lieutenants. The party still uses the same symbol, a tricolor flame, said to signify that the political heritage of Il Duce lives on, despite his own violent demise in 1945.
The ranks of the Brothers are filled with nostalgics who flash the fascist salute in public and closet antisemites like Guido Crosetto, one of Meloni’s closest advisors, who once peddled conspiracy theories about “Jewish bankers and freemasons” allegedly pulling the strings of international finance.
A great-grandson of Mussolini, Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini, was one of Meloni's candidates in EU elections in 2019, and his verdict on WWII fascism was hardly denunciatory: It was, apparently, "a very complicated, complex period…You can't define it in terms of right or wrong, good or bad."
As someone who came of age in the youth movements of Italy’s far right, Meloni’s own rhetoric is laced with the mottos and style of the fascist era: from her pledge to defend “God, homeland, family” to her labelling as “deviants” young people suffering from addictions and eating disorders.
Even her love for fantasy literature and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien – often used to depict her as a lovable geek – is in fact a fruit of her political upbringing, since for decades Italy’s neofascists have idolized Tolkien’s work and organized “Hobbit camps” for their summer activities.
Still, Meloni is probably sincere when claiming that the Brothers have consigned fascism “to history.” That is because she is above all a smart and opportunistic politician: she was for Covid vaccines until it became convenient to pander to the anti-vaxxers; she praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a defender of Europe’s Christian identity until that position became utterly embarrassing; she supported Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar Assad while criticizing Israel’s killing of children in Gaza until it became politically expedient to proclaim herself a fan of the Jewish state and tout her party’s “strong ties” with Likud.
And while in her youth she openly declared that Mussolini was a “good politician,” her role models today are not Il Duce and his allies, but Christian nationalist authoritarians like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant populists like France’s Marine Le Pen.
In this sense, it is not strictly correct to label Rome’s new rulers fascists, as there are much more updated extremist political formulas that the Brothers can follow.
That said, taking at face value Meloni’s claim that she is a moderate center-right conservative is, to use Piers Morgan’s words, as lazy as dismissing her as a fascist.
In the name of defending Italy’s Christian identity and 'traditional' family values, Meloni openly plans to curtail abortion rights and opposes equality for LGBTQ people. She has expressed belief in the Great Replacement, a white supremacist (and usually antisemitic) conspiracy theory that claims globalist elites are secretly working to demographically replace white people with non-white migrants, and has proposed a naval blockade on North Africa to prevent immigrants and asylum seekers from crossing over to Europe.
Domestically, the Brothers have already announced plans to change Italy’s constitution to switch the country to a presidential system. On the EU level, the Brothers join other populist parties who seek to halt or reverse the process of European integration, returning the continent to a collection of fractious and often competing nationalisms.
All these are not the words and policies of a moderate conservative. The attempt by her new international fan club to depict Meloni as such is notable in that it is part of a much broader process of normalizing extremist views and parties throughout western democracies.
While this trend is, to some extent, also at work in progressive circles, it seems to be far more advanced on the right: from the “very fine people” that then U.S. President Donald Trump used to describe white supremacists to the electoral victories of the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy; from the Republican defense of the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol to the rising fortunes of the far-right Religious Zionism party (incorporating the Jewish Power faction) in Israel.
Leaders, words and actions that were once beyond the pale have been welcome into the mainstream, and with that comes the legitimization of racism, hatred and political violence, all of which are naturally incompatible with basic democratic values.
Meloni is just a small piece in this process but she certainly shows great promise when it comes to jumping onto the reality-altering bandwagon of the global right. Take for example the fact that the future prime minister of Italy is fond of using a quote from English writer G.K. Chesterton: “Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.”
Of course, she uses this aphorism to express how self-evident it is that “financial speculators” are attempting to destroy Italy’s and Europe’s traditional Christian identity. There is much irony in such a quote (written, of course, by a Mussolini fan and unapologetic antisemite) being uttered by someone whose political camp has been systematically wielding fake news and "post truth" to undermine democracy around the world.
One can only hope that fire will be kindled, but to testify that fearmongering and hatred should never be part of our political discourse, and that extremists remain extremists no matter how much they are whitewashed, appeased and abetted.
Ariel David is a Haaretz reporter and former AP correspondent in Rome, where he covered Italy and the Vatican. Twitter: @arieldavid1980