Italian election shows liberal failures in combatting fascism

Italian election shows liberal failures in combatting fascism

Jonah Wexler, Editor-in-Chief

Almost exactly a century ago, Benito Mussolini and his army of goons marched on Rome, plunged Italy into fascism and set the stage for the horrors of Nazi rule across much of Europe in the coming decades. This anniversary would be nothing but a distressing mark on the calendar if not for what voters in Italy did last Sunday, Sept. 25.

The results of the Italian snap election were clear almost immediately after polls closed: the right-wing coalition led by the Brothers of Italy (FdI) party won an absolute majority in both of Italy’s parliamentary chambers. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of FdI and the right-wingers, will all but certainly become Italy’s next head of government.

Italy has had its fair share of right-wing governments and prime ministers in the post-war era, most notably the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. What makes Meloni and her FdI party stand out though, is their shared political origin. Brothers of Italy is the second iteration of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a far-right organization formed by some of Mussolini’s most die-hard disciples just one year after the dictator was hanged and fascism was routed. Meloni herself started her political career as a youth activist for MSI. Meloni’s history of public statements tells you everything you need to know: disgustingly anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rants, a policy platform that would burn affirmative action to the ground, accusations that Jewish financier George Soros funds white genocide (an obvious dogwhistle) and beliefs about queer folks that would make a Westboro Baptist churchgoer blush. And that’s just a sample. Meloni is no “mainstream” conservative; the FdI is no “normal” center-right party. Italy has just elected an avowed fascist to lead them.

What’s exceptionally frustrating about this is the forced amnesia many across the political spectrum, especially self-described “liberals,” are practicing in the wake of this stomach-churning development. Reactions from the political class across the world have shown a failure to recognize and condemn the threat Meloni poses to marginalized people. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany’s most-read newspapers, chided those alarmed at Meloni’s election saying “Meloni isn’t the devil.” Here in the States, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of Meloni “the election of the first woman prime minister in a country always represents a break with the past, and that is certainly a good thing.” Never mind Meloni’s extremely anti-feminist stances or position in history! Furthermore, the current Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, expressed his eagerness to work with Meloni. A bevy of world leaders, including France’s Emmanuel Macron, who defeated his own far-right rival for reelection just four months ago, have congratulated Meloni as they would any normal politician. And some of the bedrocks of mainstream liberal journalism in the U.S., the New York Times and the Atlantic respectively, published articles entitled “Giorgia Meloni is extreme, but she’s no tyrant” and “Italians didn’t exactly vote for fascism.” Given Meloni’s very public history of proximity to fascism then, what exactly did Italians vote for?

Both of these articles, and the crux of these arguments in general, focus on the rule of law stopping fascist leaders from being able to enact the worst of their agenda. This, of course, is exactly what commentators said about fascism decades ago, before fascists ignored the rule of law and overturned democracy, so pardon me if I don’t buy this line of thinking. To make matters worse, Meloni herself is taking advantage of comments like this. She has happily said that “fascism is history” and is irrelevant to current issues. When liberal figures and publications rush to defend or downplay her, it gives her, and rising fascism in general, credence and legitimacy. All of this has happened, despite FdI supporters being caught in recent weeks giving Nazi salutes. All of this has happened, despite the International Auschwitz Committee providing the loudest shouts of warning against Meloni and what her time in government could mean. It’s not surprising that the establishment would ignore the concerns of literal Holocaust survivors, but it’s telling nonetheless. Perhaps their stance here shows that the liberal establishment has more in common with fascist agitators than they would like us to believe.

This pattern of downplaying and willful ignorance is nothing new. In the aftermath of World War II, while Germany at least attempted reconciliation, banning pro-fascist political action and symbols, Italy sought to move past the stain on its history by simply ignoring it, hoping collective amnesia would prevent its reappearance. Many other European countries followed this more lax approach. Today, they’re confronting the consequences of this inaction. The second largest political party in France traces its roots to neo-Nazis. The third largest political force in Spain steeps itself in admiration of that nation’s former Hitler-loving dictator, Francisco Franco. And in Sweden, where elections were held two weeks ago, a party founded by skinheads swelled to become the nation’s second largest and the largest in their new governing coalition. Reconciliation may be uncomfortable to some, but it’s certainly better than the liberal approach of desperate optimism, foolhardily trying to wish fascism out of existence.

The existence of this problem in the United States is not just limited to the examples I’ve mentioned. Yes, it materializes in people of extreme power like the editors of the New York Times opinion column, Clinton, Blinken and others minimizing the dangers of fascism or congratulating its proponents, but it also has appeared in the administration of a certain liberal arts college in Minnesota legitimizing fascism by inviting a fascist to campus to participate in a “respectful dialogue” about reproductive rights. 

The way to end fascism is not through willful ignorance and desperate hope. Fascism is an infection, and the only way to get rid of an infection is to lance and sterilize it, not bandage it and pray it goes away. As long as liberals refuse to accept this, they are as culpable in rising fascism as the fascists themselves.