Italy’s Hard Right Feels Vindicated by Giorgia Meloni’s Ascent

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ROCCA DI PAPA, Italy — As a young card-carrying member of a party formed from the ashes of Italy’s Fascist party after World War II, Gino Del Nero, 73, recalls being insulted, sidelined and silenced by leftists, as well as by some neighbors and co-workers.

But now that Giorgia Meloni, a hard-right political leader, has been sworn in as prime minister of Italy, Mr. Del Nero feels vindicated.

“That is over,” he said of the decades where he had to keep his head down. “We are freer now.”

The ascent of Ms. Meloni, who leads the most hard-right government since Mussolini, was the final blow to a political taboo for Italy. That has worried critics on the left, who fear that she will initiate an atmosphere of intolerance on social issues and that her nationalist impulses will threaten Italy’s influence in Europe.

But to her supporters, it has meant a chance to assert their domination over the mainstream of Italian politics and to shed the shame and stigma of their association with a Fascist movement that took power 100 years ago this week, with Mussolini’s march on Rome, which ushered in two decades of dictatorship that used political violence, introduced racial laws against Jews, allied with Hitler, and disastrously lost a world war.

For her part, Ms. Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy, a party descended from the remnants of that failed experiment, has sought to walk a fine line, repeatedly condemning Fascism, while also nodding to the long years of political exclusion and social ostracism of her supporters and offering them solidarity.

In her maiden speech to Parliament as prime minister this week, Ms. Meloni again rejected Fascism and said that the racial laws of 1938 were the lowest point in Italian history. But she also denounced Italy’s postwar years of “criminalization and political violence,” in which she said “innocent boys” had been killed “in the name of antifascism.”

The remarks were very much in line with the balancing act that Ms. Meloni executed throughout her campaign before the election in September. On the eve of that vote, she said her victory would not only be “payback for so many people who in this nation had to lower their head for decades,” but also “for all the people who saw it differently from the mainstream and the dominant power system.”

They were, she said, “treated as the children of a lesser God.”

“Giorgia’s victory closes a circle,” said Italo Bocchino, a former member of Parliament and now the editor in chief of Il Secolo d’Italia, a right-wing newspaper that used to be the party’s in-house organ, and whose readership, he said, has grown by 85 percent in the past year. “Let’s say it’s been like a desert crossing that lasted for 75 years.”

But if her supporters now hope for a long-awaited cultural shift, others are looking on with “critical and concerned awareness,” said Nadia Urbinati, a professor of political theory at Columbia University. Ms. Meloni’s use of the word “nation” instead of “country” or “people” during her maiden speech struck Ms. Urbinati as a possible red flag.

When the Italian Social Movement was first formed in 1948, its close association with its Fascist forebears repelled many Italians still stinging from the fallout of World War II. Effectively, for nearly a half-century, Italy remained politically split between the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party, leaving little room for the hard right to maneuver in part because of a tacit agreement to keep the right out of government.

Political polarization surged among young people during the 1970s and early ’80s, and schools and streets became violent battlefields where the right was vastly outnumbered. Clothing was a political statement then: Members of the left wore parkas, known as an “Eskimo,” and lace-up shoes, and they wore their hair long; members of the right opted for Ray-Ban glasses, leather bomber jackets and camperos, made-in-Italy cowboy-style boots.

In those days, said Simone D’Alpa, one of leaders of the Rome branch of Gioventù Nazionale, the youth wing of Brothers of Italy, you could be targeted, even killed, for wearing camperos boots, or for writing essays seen to be too rightward thinking. Ms. Meloni’s victory vindicated those deaths. “We owe it to them,” he said.

The tide first turned in the early ’90s, when the party was reborn as National Alliance and softened its tone. Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister at the time, brought it into the center-right coalition, lifting a longstanding taboo. Critics said that Ms. Meloni’s messaging of “vindication, comeback and victimization” was unjustified because members of her party have already been in office.

But to supporters, leading the government is another story.

Six of Ms. Meloni’s cabinet ministers started their political careers in the Italian Social Movement, the post-Fascist party. Her close ally Ignazio La Russa was elected president of the Senate, the second top institutional office after the president. The right-wing newspaper Libero called his nomination “the definite legitimization not only of a party, but of an entire world,” that for 30 years had been in a “political ghetto.”

Ms. Meloni’s supporters also hoped that this legitimization would trickle down to their everyday lives.

Two years ago, vandals targeted Maurizio Manzetti, a cook in the seaside Roman neighborhood of Ostia, whose restaurant décor includes Italian flags and photographs of Ms. Meloni. They spray-painted “Friend of Giorgia, Fascist” on a wall in front of the eatery and left a bottle that looked like firebomb in front of his door.

“As soon as you talked about patriotism, sovreignism and borders they called you a Fascist,” Mr. Manzetti said. “Now the word patriot is not going to be canceled anymore.”

Some nationalists said that having a prime minister might also give them a better foothold in public sectors of cultural life that they complain has systematically excluded them.

“There’s now a great opportunity on a cultural level,” said Federico Gennaccari, the editor of a Rome-based conservative publishing house. His wish list, for example, would include a new take on the massacre of Italian soldiers and civilians by Yugoslav Communist partisans from 1943 to 1947 in northeastern Italy. For decades, members of the hard right, in a clear example of “whataboutism,” cited that massacre when asked about Fascist complicity in the Holocaust.

One series about that massacre that Mr. Gennaccari saw aired by the state broadcaster RAI “didn’t say the word Communist once,” he said.

Others, like Gennaro Malgieri, a conservative author and former lawmaker, spoke of a “hegemony of the left” in postwar Italy that had “occupied centers of learning and culture,” keeping the right from making inroads in “publishing, means of mass communication, universities, festivals and positions in cultural institutions.”

While Italy is far less sensitive to political correctness than other Western democracies are, Mr. Malgieri said the victory would afford the right more — and vaster — channels from which to critique those positions and affirm a nationalist “way of being Italian” that derived from the country’s Roman, Greek and Judeo-Christian roots.

Some Italian historians question the extent to which the right had been truly banished, and whether it was instead simply engaging in politically useful victimization.

“The names of people who were discriminated against or exiled because they were right wing don’t come to mind,” said Alberto Mario Banti, a modern history professor at the University of Pisa.

Still, supporters said, Ms. Meloni’s victory was a turning point for them.

Mr. Del Nero, from Rocca di Papa, said he hoped that now he could read a right-wing newspaper or book on the subway without eliciting scornful looks.

His loyalty to the right had come at a cost, he said, years of being excluded from workers’ union meetings at the hospital where he worked. Colleagues silenced him in discussions. People often dismissed him as a “Fascist.”

“It’s a mark we carry inside,” he said. “Now I feel vindicated.”


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