Talk of a re-emergence of neo-fascism is rampant in Europe. So I went to Italy last weekend to watch a rally in which the country’s most powerful political figure, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, was promoting a pan-European alliance of far-right parties, joined on stage by nationalist leaders from a dozen European countries. They are hoping to win enough seats in elections to the European Parliament May 23-26 to be able to dismantle the European Union from the inside.
First, however, I felt compelled to visit Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. Today, it’s a busy traffic circle surrounded by fast food joints, but in April 1944, it is where the dead bodies of Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci were hung upside down from a girder above an Esso station. Where the gas station once stood, there is no plaque memorializing the fascist’s demise, only the golden arches of a sleazy McDonalds.
Yet there is something fitting about banality replacing horror there. While far-right parties are making gains all over Europe, it is far too facile to apply the label “fascist.” So far, most of these new parties, including Salvini’s, appear more interested in gaining power and positions within their political systems (and within the European Union’s bureaucracy) rather than tearing them down.
As for the threat of a Europe-wide far-right juggernaut, the Milan rally made clear how hard it is for nationalists to form an internationale. Held in pouring rain in the main city square next to the magnificent cathedral, the rally was billed as an international event that would “change history.”
There were a few French flags flying, but nearly all banners were from Salvini’s Lega party.
Missing from the stage were paragons of the European far right: Hungary’s President Viktor Orban, who promotes so-called “illiberal” democracy that seeks to dismantle democratic institutions. But he apparently prefers to remain part of the current political groupings in the European Parliament rather than join up with his pal Salvini.
Nor were Polish right-wingers there, because they despise Russia, which Salvini and Orban admire.
Also missing was Nigel Farage, whose new Brexit Party is expected to win the Parliament vote in Britain. But Farage is a one-issue politician and will withdraw his European MPs once London finally leaves the EU.
Even France’s indomitable nationalist Marine Le Pen, the only significant far-right leader on stage, whose National Rally party is neck and neck with the En Marche party of President Emmanuel Macron, was an uncomfortable fit beside Salvini.
Le Pen sonorously denounced the “European Union that blows on Europe the bad winds of the wild globalization.” But, coming from a country that officially separates church and state, she must have cringed when Salvini ended the rally by praising a litany of Catholic saints and held up a white rosary, calling on “the heart of the Immaculate Virgin to bring us to victory.” Moreover, no one expects her ever to become French president because the Le Pen name is tarred with Nazi complicity in World War II.
And by the way, someone else interesting was missing: President Donald Trump’s former strategic adviser Steve Bannon. Bannon stood by Salvini last year and claimed he would godfather the pan-European rightist movement.
“Bannon has failed in his attempt to unify the far right in Europe,” I was told by Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial board editor of Le Monde newspaper. “They don’t want to be led by an American. Even Marine Le Pen denied he was an adviser.”
In recent days, Bannon was reduced to holing up in a 2500-euros-a-night hotel at the Hotel Bristol in Paris, giving interviews to the French press.
In sum, while individual far-right parties will gain seats, and may agree on some issues, a grandiose movement is unlikely. And Salvini’s political coalition in Italy is extremely shaky.
Which brings me to the main message: Salvini’s popularity rests not on any clear ideology, fascist or otherwise, but on his populist ability to convince his supporters that they are being cheated and he is the only one who cares.
“They forgot you. They made fun of you. They voted against you,” he shouted to his supporters at the end of the rally. In comments I heard repeatedly in Duomo Square, an elderly couple from Genoa wearing Lega buttons, told me, “We don’t feel abandoned because he is honest and fair.”
As a clever politician, Salvini is trying to play on those feelings — prevalent from Rome to Paris to London to Peoria — that centrist politicians have abandoned their voters in an era where everything is changing too fast. As I heard in Milan, in conversations in Paris, and in a huge Farage rally in London, that dissatisfaction occurs on both left and right. The leaders who address it will be successful.
However, “Italy is not Hungary, and Salvini is not a Mussolini,” says Beppe Severgnini, editorial writer and editor at Corriere della Sera. Salvini, he says cannot easily disassemble Italy’s peculiar democracy.
Nor will it be easy for anyone to form a grand European coalition of the far right.