Milking Fear Wins Votes
Venice, November, 2018 – Fascism rears its ugly head in many countries these days but
nowhere quite as blatantly as in Italy whose society has never succeeded in eviscerating the
legacy of the father of fascism, Benito Mussolini or has banned the barbarous ideology.
After World War II a fascist party in Italy has always participated in democratic elections. After all
the country changed sides at the last moment in the war and was therefore exempted from the Allied rigor in
persecuting key fascist figures. There were no Nuremberg Trials in la Bella Italia. The old fascist hierarchy
soon walked the streets again - and flourished.
The malaise lingered on, kept alive by father-to-son indoctrination, until it was injected with a new
energizer thanks to the invasion of African and Middle East asylum seekers and economic immigrants. If
Jews became the target of vicious purges in the past today the vilification of ‘black or dark-skinned’
newcomers win not only votes but radical followers – as they do in the United States and the rest of Europe.
Xenophobia, racism, fascism and nationalism make up the ingredients for fearsome new populist power.
And so it came to pass that a former Italian disc jockey named Matteo Salvini (just like a
former virtual TV showman called Donald Trump) scared a country into taking his one-time fringe
party of northern hillbillies (who in bygone days wore cow-horned helmets at rallies) from a pitiful
three percent to 17 percent in this year’s general election.
Folksy, super confident and street-crude, Salvini refused to form a coalition with the main Five Star
Movement (leaving the country in governing limbo) until he was offered the vice premiership and the
powerful role of Interior Minister, still somewhat short of his ambition to be prime minister.
Like all bullies Salvini picks fights wherever they will gain him votes. His main targets are
the immigrants and the European Union. He is aware most marginalized, right-wing nationalist,
unemployed or uneducated Italians blame the European Union’s austerity campaign and the
decisions of Euro-technocrats for Italy’s huge debt (132 percent of GNP) rather than crooked and
spendthrift public projects, endemic corruption and political parties lining their own pockets. The
same segment of the population believes immigration has raised the crime rate (proved
statistically false) and immigrants working for lower wages are taking away their jobs (young
Italians usually don’t want as too menial) while roaming migrants have increased the crime rate
(false according to statistics).
The feisty new hero of Italy’s fascist renaissance is busy stoking the discontent and beating the
nationalist drum. He dislikes the European Union whose leader he has insulted shouting ‘I refuse to deal
with drunks.’ He has accused France of ‘dumping’ immigrants across the border into Italy. He has ordered
some 3,000 immigrants out of the Calabrian town of Riace, a town which won a human rights award for
being the most immigrant-friendly city in Italy. He gave the order to place the town mayor, the architect of the
immigrant friendly policy, under house arrest and then ordered him out of the region, an order reminiscent
of Mussolini’s days when dissidents and opponents of fascism were sent to fester in island jails.
Helping illegal immigrants is now officially a crime.
Thanks to its long coastline and offshore islands Italy is the main landing strip for boat people
crossing the Mediterranean on skimpy crafts. So Interior Minister Salvini denied landing rights to vessels
which had picked up survivors of sinking migrant vessels. When captains in the Italian Coast Guard and
Navy ignored the order (arguing international law of the sea forced them to rescue survivors at sea) Salvini
issued a degree that made it a crime to help or shelter illegal immigrants, especially Africans which he has
He then turned his attention to the large Roma population in Italy ordering them to leave the
country – until he was told most of these gypsies had lived in Italy for generations and had Italian citizenship.
To which the swaggering Italian replied: ‘Unfortunately we have to keep those…. But deport the rest.”
Dragging along his often reluctant coalition partner the ‘Five Star’ Movement founded by comic
Beppe Grillo (which won 29 per cent of the vote) Salvini supports lower taxes, unemployment benefits
(unheard of in Italy) a 62- year pension age and benefits for the poor – though public coffers are depleted.
This 2019 Italian budget was handed to the European Union executive which turned it flatly down, arguing it
not only violated the Union’s codes but was preposterous in view of Italy’s massive debt.
Yet the rest of Europe found out this month the latest popularity survey showed:
Two out of three Italians support Salvini’s crack-down on immigration.
The new strongman of Italy has cleverly exploited the weakness of the European Union which
runs the 27 alliance with technocrats, located in Brussels, who issue rules and regulations that tell member
nations what they can produce (and how much) and what they must cut from their budgets. Violations of
these directives incur heavy fines.
These directives have always been controversial.
Yet it is the Union’s welcome to immigrants that has become its Achilles heel over the last years
empowering pipsqueak politicians all over Europe. Many of the former communist countries who anxiously
joined the Union and benefited from its investment largesse are now turning against the Union. Hungary,
Poland, Slovenia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, refuse to honour the European Union-imposed per capita
quota of immigrants, preferring fines and threats of investment cuts rather than sheltering immigrants.
Some countries are threatening to follow Britain’s example and leave the Union, a threat covertly
stoked by American or Russian pledges to pick up any economic slack so weakening a European Union
with its open borders which, united, is the world’s biggest economic block and therefore a formidable
competitor and powerhouse.
French President Emmanuel Macron this month attempted to mend European unity by converting
the centenary celebrations for the end of World War I into a warning that only fraternal coexistence can
ensure peace and prosperity, a praiseworthy endeavour virtually torpedoed at the start when Donald Trump
walked out on any discussions to cement the idea later.
But then, one hundred years ago, the end of World War I was already heralded as ‘the war that
would end all wars.’
How wrong was that.
Uli Schmetzer is a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of
six books all available on Amazon.com.