Italy’s first far-right leader since Benito Mussolini, Giorgia Meloni, has declared victory. Her Brothers of Italy party is allied with Spain’s far-right Vox party, Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party and the Sweden Democrats party, which emerged out of its neo-Nazi movement. We look at “the return of fascism in Italy” with professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” who says that Meloni, a self-declared conservative, “really sees her party as carrying the heritage of fascism into today.” Ben-Ghiat also describes why Meloni is part of a “transnational design” to create a far-right political culture across Europe.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We begin today’s show in Italy, where the country’s first far-right leader since Benito Mussolini, Giorgia Meloni, has declared victory, as the right-wing alliance led by her Brothers of Italy party looks set to win a clear majority in the next Parliament. Meloni is also allied with Spain’s far-right Vox party, Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party, Sweden’s newly formed coalition government led by the anti-immigrant, far-right Sweden Democrats party, which emerged out of Sweden’s neo-Nazi movement. Far-right French politician Marine Le Pen’s party hailed Meloni’s strong showing as a lesson in humility to the European Union. Meloni has vowed to shift the EU’s politics sharply to the right.
The pan-European progressive movement, co-founded by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, said in a statement on the Italian election, quote, “Italians must now repeat what their ancestors once did: defeat fascism. But not for the return of the politics-as-usual that brought the fascists to power in the first place,” he said.
As the leader of the biggest party in the winning alliance from Sunday’s election, Meloni is expected to become Italy’s first woman prime minister after the new government is sworn in. She addressed supporters Sunday night.
GIORGIA MELONI: [translated] This is surely, for many people, a night of pride, surely a night of payback, surely a night of tears, hugs, dreams and memories.
AMY GOODMAN: During her campaign, Giorgia Meloni tried to downplay her party’s post-fascist roots and instead to portray it as a mainstream conservative party.
For more, we’re joined by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, expert on fascism and authoritarianism, whose new article for The Atlantic is headlined “The Return of Fascism in Italy,” author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. She publishes Lucid, a newsletter on threats to democracy.
Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you just start off by talking about — well, Giorgia Meloni has declared victory. Talk about her and her party, what they represent.
RUTH BEN–GHIAT: Yeah, Meloni is somebody who was a hardcore neofascist, who was in the — at 15, she joined the party that was founded right after Benito Mussolini’s original party was banned in 1945. And this become the fourth-largest party, the neofascist party, called the Italian Social Movement. And she was not only a militant, she became by the ’90s the head of its student organization.
And the flame — if you look at the logo of her party, called Brothers of Italy today, which was founded in 2012, she insisted on keeping a tricolor flame in the logo. And that is the flame that’s the symbol of the original neofascist party. And over the years, many people have told her to get rid of that flame, but she won’t. So this tells us a lot about her loyalties. And she really sees her party as carrying the heritage of fascism into today, so much so that Ignazio La Russa, who’s a party elder, let’s say, he said a few days ago, “We are all heirs of the Duce.”
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to a clip of Giorgia Meloni, as a teenager, describing her support for the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
GIORGIA MELONI: [translated] I believe that Mussolini was a good politician, which means that everything he did, he did for Italy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, take her from her teenage years, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, to the present and to this victory and the party that she represents.
RUTH BEN–GHIAT: So, she is as much a creation of Mussolini, let’s say, as Berlusconi. And Silvio Berlusconi, who is part of her far-right coalition, gave her her real start as minister of youth in his very far-right government in 2008. And his party fused with the former, the other — it was— the Italian Social Movement renamed itself the National Alliance, and these two parties fused. And the reason Brothers of Italy was founded — and she was very active in the founding — is there was no more autonomous extreme-right party in Italy. So, that’s important to know.
And many of her positions, which she’s now trying to say she’s a conservative and a moderate, she has — she is a proponent of great replacement theory, the idea that nonwhite births are going to extinguish white births. But she’s so far right that — some people espouse this theory as a natural outcome of demographic change. She actually is a conspiracy theorist. She believes, and there’s many tweets to this, many speeches, that there is a plot, a design, a plan, she calls it, by Soros, by the EU, to kind of force mass immigration onto Europe and Italy and extinguish everything that makes us who we are, she says.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about her views on immigration — as you talk about the great replacement theory — her views on reproductive rights, on her fierce opposition to the LGBTQ community.
RUTH BEN–GHIAT: Yes. So, a lot of what she espouses can seem very familiar if you follow the far right in Hungary — again, the obsession with George Soros, the opposition to what she calls LGBTQ lobbies, who are ruining civilization with what she calls gender ideology. And she’s an example of what political scientists call genderwashing, when women politicians say that they are for women and that they are going to improve female conditions, but actually they go after reproductive rights, and they have a very specific idea of womanhood and the family, and that is very much rooted in the far-right ideology.
And she also will seem familiar if you follow GOP politics. An important — I want to mention that she’s very close with Steve Bannon. She’s very close with the GOP. She’s been to the National Prayer Breakfast. She’s been to CPAC. And so, her position on abortion rights, reproductive rights, in general, approaches all of these far-right parties.
AMY GOODMAN: The position of Italy on abortion, without Meloni, just its — overall, what the law is?
RUTH BEN–GHIAT: It was a very hard-won battle, as you can imagine. Italy is unusual, because the Vatican is inside Italy. It’s a very Catholic country. 1978, abortion rights were granted. And what her party has done — we can look at what’s happened in places where Brothers of Italy, her party, has already been governing, like Verona. And what she’s done is she’s made it more difficult to access abortion. She’s made it more complicated for women to exercise their reproductive right.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Giorgia Meloni speaking to her supporters in Spanish, addressing the far-right Vox party of Spain.
GIORGIA MELONI: [translated] The left defends the woman, unless it encounters a criminal foreigner at that moment. Because of their ideology, the criminal foreigner is more valuable than the woman. And they would say that you’re a dangerous extremist, racist, fascist, denier, homophobic. They would say you’re not presentable and have incapable leaders to govern. They would say it is useless to vote for you, because you don’t have a chance to win. But you know what? Don’t be afraid, because they don’t decide. You, the people, decide. The people are the first strength that the party needs.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is more of her addressing Vox party of Spain.
GIORGIA MELONI: [translated] Now is not the time for weak thoughts. Today, the left-wing secularism and radical Islam are a risk to our roots. Against this challenge, there is no middle ground. Either you say yes or you say no — yes to the natural family, no to the LGBTQ lobby; yes to sex identity, no to gender ideology; yes to the culture of life, not the abysm of death; yes to the university of the cross, no to the Islamist violence; yes to secure borders, no to mass migration; yes to the work of our citizens, no to big international finance; yes to the sovereignty of peoples, no to the bureaucrats in Brussels; and yes to our civilization.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Giorgia Meloni, a candidate for Italian prime minister when she spoke. She has now declared victory. So, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, talk about the neofascist movement of Italy and how it affects the Vox party o Spain, how it affects Sweden, how it affects Poland, how it affects Hungary. All of the leaders in these places have congratulated Meloni on winning.
RUTH BEN–GHIAT: Yeah, I will. I just want to mention you see the yes and the no and her style of speaking. She’s a demagogue. And at the end of my book Strongmen, which is about male leaders and machismo, I predicted that there will be a female-led far-right authoritarian government. We thought it would be Le Pen. But you hear her style of speaking, which is very much the charismatic demagogue. So, they can come in the figure of a woman, too.
She is part of this far-right international, a kind of — you could call it a second fascist international. I studied and wrote about the first one in the ’30s and ’40s. And, you know, Hungary is a node, is a hub. And they’re very active in trying to have this kind of new political culture that is transnational. Fascism has always been transnational. And the fact that she’s polylingual — she speaks four languages — has always been a help to her. So she’s a real, you know, European politician. And she also speaks English — that’s going to help her with the GOP. But there is a transnational design to bring this new far-right culture into being, and it’s absolutely terrifying. You heard what she is saying. You know, it’s Islamaphobic. It’s racist. You’re going to expect a very draconian treatment of immigrants, boats turning back, you know, deaths.
We’ll have to see — we’ll have to see what she does in terms of how constrained she is. She has a big majority in Parliament. So, in terms of what actually happens, we’ll have to see. But she is a female demagogue. Now, Italy has always been a political laboratory. Mussolini invented fascism. In the ’90s, Berlusconi brought fascists into the government, neofascists, for the first time. He broke a taboo. And now Italy has the first female far-right prime minister.
AMY GOODMAN: Especially for young people — and you teach, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, young people at New York University — can you talk about who Mussolini was, to understand what she is embracing, and Mussolini and Hitler’s connection?
RUTH BEN–GHIAT: Yeah, it’s really important that — the reason I mentioned Berlusconi also is, when he brought back neofascists into the government, he also did a whole rehab whitewashing job, which affected generations of Italians. He actually told the then-journalist Boris Johnson in 2003, “Mussolini never killed anyone.” Now, instead, Mussolini’s dictatorship committed genocide in Libya, mass war crimes in Ethiopia, used gas in its colonies, participated in the Holocaust.
It was the first dictatorship, and he was so successful in his repression and his propaganda — he was a big star in America, he had a syndicated column in Hearst newspapers — that Hitler worshiped him through the entire 1920s. And Hitler actually learned a lot from him, including Mussolini was a fan of great replacement theory. And he gets short shrift. Hitler is the one who is remembered, but Mussolini was very, very important, very innovative. And we see that Meloni is part of this heritage.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about those who say, “No, she is not fascist, she’s conservative”? And then let’s talk about not only her influence in Europe, but also in the United States, and her relationship with Donald Trump.
RUTH BEN–GHIAT: Yeah, well, you know, this is — what do we call these things today? Do we call them fascist? And, you know, there is this whitewashing that’s going on, where Viktor Orbán has said for years that his is an illiberal democracy, when, honestly, there’s nothing democratic about what goes on in Hungary today. But it sounds good. And, you know, there’s these people like Orbán — he’s trying to have it both ways. He gets EU funds, and then he has this electoral autocracy.
So, Meloni is an extreme case, because she’s calling herself a conservative, which is what we’re hearing from the MAGA Republicans in our country, too. They keep calling themselves conservatives. But as we see — just go back to that speech, that demagogic speech — there’s nothing conservative about Meloni. There’s nothing conservative about her party. I repeat, her party was founded because there was no autonomous extreme-right party to carry on the heritage of fascism.
AMY GOODMAN: So, again, if you can go to today, what’s happening in the United States? Talk about the violence of January 6th. Talk about Trump advocating for everyone from QAnon to the Proud Boys. And then we’re going to be speaking with the author of a new book on the Proud Boys.
RUTH BEN–GHIAT: Yeah, it’s a good segue, because the GOP, I’ve been saying for a long time, has to be seen as a far-right authoritarian party in the model of European parties. And what’s going on right now, we’re having — history is being made before our eyes. The party is remaking itself to support whatever form of illiberal rule it wants to have in the United States. And, of course, we’re seeing this at the state level, in Texas and especially in Florida.
And so, when a party is remaking itself, it pushes some people out, and these are, let’s say, moderates, like Cheney, Kinzinger, all these — all the people who were anti-Trump. And who is being invited in? Lawless people, violent people. That’s why, if you want to get ahead in the GOP, your campaign ad has to have you and an assault rifle. People who participated in January 6th — criminals — are being invited to run for office, and actual extremists, like Mark Finchem in Arizona. He is an Oath Keeper. He is very proud. He’s very public about being an Oath Keeper, a member of the violent extremist group. And so, he is now the Arizona candidate for secretary of state. So, getting ahead in today’s GOP, being an extremist is a help to that, because they are remaking themselves as a far-right party. So there are going to be, I predict, a lot of interchange between Meloni’s neofascists and the GOP.
AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, expert on fascism and authoritarianism, author of the book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. We’ll connect to Professor Ben-Ghiat’s new article for The Atlantic titled “The Return of Fascism in Italy.” She also publishes Lucid, a newsletter on threats to democracy.
Next up, we continue with fascism, or neofascism, to the far right here at home. As the House committee investigating the January 6th Capitol is set to hold another public hearing Wednesday, we look at one of the key groups that carried out the attack: the Proud Boys. We’ll speak with the author of the new book, We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered In a New Era of American Extremism. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” performed by Pharoah Sanders. The legendary saxophonist passed away Saturday at the age of 81.