“Of course I do not want women to be slaves, but if I proposed to give our women the vote, I would be laughed at," Italian dictator Benito Mussolini told the German journalist Emil Ludwig in 1932. "She must not count in political life.” Ninety years later, the top figure in Italian politics will finally be female: Giorgia Meloni, head of the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party, is set become prime minister after her party received 26% of the vote in Sunday's elections.
Il Duce might not have been displeased that Meloni will have the job he once filled, given her past praise for him as a leader, fruit of her years of militancy in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement party, founded in 1946 to preserve Italian Fascism. Her party’s slogan, "God, Fatherland, Family," dates back to the regime.
Italy will become more enmeshed in far-right networks that stretch from Vladimir Putin's Russia to Viktor Orban's Hungary to Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil to Republican America.
Now Italy is the country to have the first female-led far-right government, ending an era of male monopoly of authoritarian governance. What can we expect from Meloni? For starters, Italy will become more enmeshed in far-right networks that stretch from Vladimir Putin's Russia to Viktor Orban's Hungary to Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil to Republican America.
Many of her positions will seem familiar to those who follow authoritarian politicians around the world, including in places like Florida and Texas. Meloni opposes "gender ideology," “LGBT lobbies,” and same-sex unions that harm "the natural family." She believes that nonwhite immigration threatens Italian identity — and her version of Great Replacement theory, which she calls "ethnic substitution," is among the most extreme of its type. She sees a deliberate plot by the right's favorite enemies, such as George Soros and the European Union, to impose mass immigration on Europe and wreck White Christian civilization. "I think there is a deliberate plan to erase everything that identifies us: culture, Nation, family are under attack," she stated in March 2019.
If this sounds like Fox News's Tucker Carlson or other Republican figures, there's a reason. As Meloni told The Washington Post, her party feels a kinship with the GOP, and she is in frequent dialogue with Steve Bannon and Republican politicians. "We have networks connecting us, our think tanks work with the International Republican Institute, with the Heritage Foundation, we do cultural exchanges, and many of their fights are about things we have talked about."
Ever the pragmatist – like Mussolini - in 2020 Meloni praised Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast (she was the only Italian politician invited) for his elevation of “God, fatherland and family," and in 2022 she spoke at CPAC Orlando along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
As Meloni told the Washington Post, her party feels a kinship with the GOP, and she is in frequent dialogue with Steve Bannon and Republican politicians.
Like many Republicans, Meloni has done her best to present her extremism as mainstream and unexceptional. "I don't consider myself a threat, a monstrous person, or a dangerous one," she told the Post, calling herself and her party "conservative" for centering freedom, the family, strong borders, and the defense of Italian nationalism. Yet her radical positions and belligerent persona suggest otherwise. Take this speech she gave in June 2022 at a rally of the far-right Vox party in Spain. You don't need to understand her Spanish to perceive that this is a demagogue whose delivery recalls that of Il Duce.
Some commentators counsel us not to be alarmed, pointing to the high turnover of Italian governments to suggest Meloni’s time as prime minister will be brief. That might be true. But history teaches us that whenever extremism is normalized, its effects remain in the culture. Silvio Berlusconi's 1994 center-right coalition only lasted six months, but broke the taboos against neo-fascist participation in government, creating a new reality that made Meloni's career as a mainstream politician possible. That path was smoothed even further by Berlusconi’s later center-right coalitions, including when Berlusconi appointed Meloni minister of youth in 2008. Each step toward normalization paved the way for today's unprecedented situation: a prime minister of a major European country who admires Mussolini and has direct links to neo-fascism.
That is a lesson Americans can pay attention to as Republicans bring their own extremists into government, supporting the campaigns of election deniers, Oath Keepers and participants in the Jan. 6 coup attempt. Republicans have continued to cultivate Orban as a mentor in all things autocratic. Meloni's fascist credentials will likely make her another GOP favorite as Republican America creates its own new political reality to support its dream of illiberal rule.