“We should all burn together if this is going to end in fire.”
These scary words don’t come from an end-of-the-world poem; they come from a politician’s autobiography. Giorgia Meloni, who is the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, started her book 2021 with this strange call to arms. She didn’t write it in the way that most politicians do, which is in a more straightforward way. But then, Ms. Meloni is not a typical politician. Her party has the symbol of the defeated lieutenants of the Mussolini regime, and it calls itself “post-fascist.”
At least, she wasn’t always like that. But just two months after Ms. Meloni’s best-selling autobiography came out, her party topped national polls for the first time. Since then, it has continued to get more than 20% of the vote and has been Mario Draghi’s technocratic coalition’s only major opponent. On Wednesday, things changed quickly, and the government fell. In the fall, early elections could make it possible for the Brothers of Italy to become the first far-right party to lead a big economy in the eurozone. It would be a very big deal for Europe and the country.
It would also be a big jump for a party that only got 4 percent of the vote in 2018. At the center of it is Ms. Meloni, who skillfully mixes worries about the end of civilization with funny stories about her family, God, and Italy. She knows about pop culture and likes to talk about J.R.R. Tolkien. In her memoir, she quotes a line from an Ed Sheeran song that plays in a Hobbit movie. Ms. Meloni presents herself as a politician who is very down-to-earth.
But the success of The Brothers of Italy isn’t just because they toned down their message. It’s also getting a boost from the breaking down of barriers between the traditional center-right and the new far right, which is happening all over Western Europe and the United States. Italy, which has a lot of debt, a divided society, and an unstable government, is where the process is furthest along. It’s a good place to look if you want to know what might happen in the future.
It’s not the first time Italy has led the way, even though its elites often look to other countries for ideas. It fell to Mussolini 100 years ago, making it the first country to be taken over by fascists. If that showed how liberal democracy’s defenses could break down, Italy would show how much change it could handle. In the years after World War II, it was the birthplace of Christian Democracy, a form of center-left politics that included both conservative and more socially-minded groups. It was also the site of many left-wing innovations.
The end of the Cold War may have been the most telling sign of what was to come: After the mass parties that had been in charge fell apart, Silvio Berlusconi quickly took over the political scene. He was a billionaire who pretended to be an outsider who didn’t like the establishment. He used his media platform to gain a loyal following and sharply change the terms of public debate.
The Brothers of Italy are part of this group of stars. In many ways, it’s nothing special: Like other far-right parties in Europe, it grew out of a fascist or collaborationist group and was on the fringes of national politics for a long time. In the 1990s, when Mr. Berlusconi was in charge, post-fascists were given jobs in the government. In recent years, however, Ms. Meloni’s party has become the only major right-wing group. It now leads the so-called center-right electoral alliance, which also includes the hard-right League and Forza Italia. Even though the party talks a lot about tax cuts and being pro-business, the main reason for its rise is Italy’s persistently bad economy.
Even though the pandemic has made it worse, it has been going on for a long time. In the last 20 years, the country’s economy hasn’t grown at all, and the huge amount of public debt has made it hard to get things back on track. Youth unemployment is always high, and differences between regions are very strong. In this time of decline, when it doesn’t seem likely that things will get better, people have been open to the Brothers of Italy’s message that the only way to save the country is to turn away from immigrants and defend the traditional family.
Not just in Italy, either. For example, the far-right Vox party in Spain, which has grown to 20 percent in the polls by defending the Franco regime, looks up to Ms. Meloni as a role model. In June, Ms. Meloni went to a Vox campaign event and yelled in Spanish, “Yes to secure borders! No to mass immigration!” This was a perfect summary of their shared politics. The most important part of Ms. Meloni’s speech was when she shouted, “Yes to our civilization! No to those who want to destroy it!” This could have been said by Marine Le Pen, whose National Rally is now the most powerful right-wing party in France.
Even more than Ms. Le Pen, Ms. Meloni does everything she can to show that her party is part of the mainstream. This is especially clear in the party’s strong support for the European Union and NATO and its strong opposition to Russia and China. At the same time, the party has a clear reactionary agenda at home. But even there, it sometimes gives in to civility. When the neo-fascists of Forza Nuova attacked trade union offices with violence last October, Brothers of Italy distanced itself from the group. It didn’t vote for a motion to ban Forza Nuova, but it did condemn “all totalitarianisms.”
But the term “post-fascist” is also used to describe violent subcultures. Last fall, a documentary made national news with claims that the party’s organization in Milan had ties to neo-Nazis, laundered money, and used illegal campaign funds. The film showed that the leader of the Brothers of Italy group in the European Parliament worked closely with Roberto Jonghi Lavarini, who is known as the “black baron” and is a neo-fascist militant.
Aside from these less-than-savory ties, the party has improved its reputation in the establishment and reached out to many more people than just those who miss Mussolini. Violence on the streets by neo-fascists is much less than it was in the 1970s, let alone the 1920s. But the fact that people who openly see themselves as part of the fascist tradition are taking over the wider right is a worrying trend that isn’t just happening in Italy.
Maybe we won’t all go up in flames together. But some of us will, whether it’s in Italy or somewhere else.