Make the Papal States Great Again
Italy’s most dangerous populists are the immigrant-hating Catholic fundamentalists of Forza Nuova.
MILAN — On a Saturday morning earlier this month, a 28-year-old gunman, Luca Traini, drove through the streets of Macerata, a city in central Italy, and shot everyone who looked like an African immigrant, wounding five men and a woman. Nobody doubts that the attack was racially motivated. But, ahead of Italy’s March 4 national election, only one political group, Forza Nuova, has celebrated it on those terms, even volunteering to provide the defense lawyers for Traini’s trial.
It would be a mistake to think of this group, and its views, as an outlier. In reality, they’re as Italian as Catholicism.
It’s tempting to dismiss Forza Nuova, whose ideology combines Catholic fundamentalism with a nostalgia for Benito Mussolini’s regime, as a mere sideshow. Although Forza Nuova is an official party, it has never been a major force at the ballot box. It had a brief presence in the European Parliament between 2004 and 2009 — when it ran in a coalition with Alessandra Mussolini (the granddaughter of that Mussolini) — but has otherwise never succeeded in institutional politics. But Forza Nuova’s decision to openly side with Traini is a concise demonstration of two separate but intertwined trends in Italian politics: the extremization of the mainstream right, and the mainstreaming of the far-right.
Forza Nuova was born two decades ago from the ashes of Terza Posizione, one of the major groups of the Italian far-right in the 1970s and 1980s. As the term (in Italian: third position) suggests, Terza Posizione opposed both capitalism and communism, drawing inspiration from Julius Evola, the modernity-hating philosopher who used to be a marginal intellectual of Mussolini’s regime but later became the darling of European neofascism. After the group disbanded in 1983, two of Terza Posizione’s leaders founded new movements: In 1997, Roberto Fiore founded Forza Nuova, or “New Force,” while in 2003, Gabriele Adinolfi helped co-found CasaPound, named after the American poet and fascist sympathizer Ezra Pound.
Despite their founders’ common history and their shared far-right views, Forza Nuova and CasaPound always had a strained relationship. Both groups are driven by xenophobia, nostalgia for the Mussolini regime, and opposition to globalization, but they differ radically in their attitudes toward modern lifestyle and morality.
Forza Nuova is openly radical in its Catholicism, opposing homosexuality and abortion rights and calling for traditional gender roles. It is considered close to Sedevacantism, the radical fringe of Catholics who do not recognize papal authority after the Church softened its position with Vatican II, and the group’s manifesto calls for the restoration of Catholicism as Italy’s official religion and includes references to the warrior-archangel Michael. “We want a new Church in a new Italy,” Forza Nuova official Adriano Da Pozzo told Foreign Policy.
CasaPound, on the other hand, has no issues with gay people and couldn’t care less about what women do with their bodies: They are all about defending Italians from what they describe as an ethnic invasion from North Africa.
Different as these far-right groups are, both sense the wind at their backs. The attack in Macerata came at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is running high in Italy. Because of its geographical location, Italy has become the epicenter in Europe of the African migration crisis, especially after the Balkan route was closed in 2016. That year alone, 181,000 migrants reached Italy by sea, according to Italy’s government, though in 2017 that figure fell to 119,000, after Italy struck a deal with Libya.
Immigration is one of the hottest topics in Italy’s approaching election. In Macerata, the racist attack followed the murder of a young white woman — for which the primary suspect is an African immigrant — that generated a wave of resentment. According to a recent poll, as much as the 59 percent of Italians feel “threatened” by the presence of a high number of immigrants. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is heading the center-right coalition and is trying to style himself as a moderate, has vowed to deport 600,000 immigrants.
A recent poll suggests that as much as 11 percent of the general Italian public condones, to some extent, Traini’s actions, while another 12 percent believes he is a criminal but part of the blame is on the African community. Among voters of Lega, the anti-immigrant party that used to be known as Lega Nord (“Northern League”), responses in the first category increase to 31 percent.
The far-right is galvanized in unprecedented fashion: Lega, which hasn’t earned double digits since the mid-1990s (in the last national elections it got a mere 4 percent), is set to reach as much as 14 percent, according to the latest polls. The smaller CasaPound made headlines in November for having reached a record 9 percent in the local elections in Ostia, a town near Rome. This March CasaPound might even earn seats, for the first time in its history, in the national Parliament.
The rise of Lega and CasaPound are the result both of a general shift toward the right of the Italian public and of two careful repositioning strategies. On the one hand, Lega’s leader, the energetic 44-year-old Matteo Salvini, has revolutionized his party’s identity, turning a North-centric, anti-tax, pro-independence force into a nationalist party, Italy’s rough equivalent of France’s National Front (hence, the drop of the word “Northern” in the name). On the other hand, following the script of many other far-right parties in Europe and of the alt-right in the United States, CasaPound has pursued a “cool,” media-friendly image of the extremists next door.
Forza Nuova, by contrast, is still in the same marginal electoral position where it was a few years ago, appealing mostly to ultraconservatives who feel threatened by immigration as much as by marriage equality. A Forza Nuova anti-gay rights video gained widespread popularity in 2013 — but only because it was widely mocked, because it featured the music of Tchaikovsky, who was gay. Nevertheless, the group’s stridency has helped other plainly xenophobic parties, like CasaPound, seem practically mainstream, and thus gain a following outside of the traditional far-right base. (The fact that CasaPound recruited a top model, the Croatian-born Nina Moric, as one of its most outspoken supporters has also helped.)
The fact that Forza Nuova is still perceived as a fringe organization — although one in ideological alliance with more successful parties — also allows it to serve as a public forum for the sorts of views Lega and CasaPound can no longer afford to express. After the Macerata shooting, CasaPound was quick to distance itself: In a public statement, the group’s president, Gianluca Iannone, described Traini as a “mentally unstable” person whose actions deserve “outright condemnation.” Then, he blamed the situation on the presence of immigrants on Italian soil but said that the “problem” must be dealt with peacefully.
It was a crafted, toned-down statement for a group with a history of hate crime: In 2011, a CasaPound sympathizer shot five African immigrants in Florence, killing two of them. “They’re trying hard to polish their language — they want to make it to the Parliament and cannot afford to look like they’re associated with shooters,” said Ugo Maria Tassinari, a journalist at the Tiscali news site who wrote a book about far-right movements.
CasaPound’s statement after Macerata was pretty much in line with the one issued by Lega. Lega also blamed the crime on Italy’s progressive government “that filled the country with illegal immigrants.” Berlusconi, for his part, expressed a similar view: He described the attacker as mentally disturbed and blamed the problem of racism on immigration and on the Democratic Party that has allowed it.
Forza Nuova, on the other hand, took a very different stance: On the day after the shooting, it issued a statement proclaiming that the movement “stands with Luca Traini.”
Speaking with FP by telephone, Da Pozzo, the Forza Nuova official, added that the group has offered to have the movement’s lawyers defend Traini pro bono (an offer that was declined, said Da Pozzo, since Traini had already a lawyer). The official also confirmed that Traini had participated in Forza Nuova’s events but was not an official member.
Why defend a mass shooter? Tassinari said it’s a marketing strategy: “Since CasaPound has to watch his mouth, Forza Nuova is filling the void. They want to be perceived as the only political group defending Traini. The guy has his fans, and Forza Nuova is currently the only group who can appeal to them.”
Matteo Cavallaro, a political scientist specializing in the far-right at Sciences Po Toulouse, agreed. But he added that Forza Nuova’s strategy is symptomatic of a broader trend of convergence within Italy’s right. On the one hand, he said, the mainstream right is incorporating an anti-immigrant language that previously belonged only to the extreme right; on the other hand, the far-right is having its first chance to get into the mainstream. “Everyone else on the right, from Berlusconi to CasaPound and Lega, is essentially saying the same thing,” he said. “So Forza Nuova figured out they might be the only guys saying something different.”