Dispatch

Italy’s Far-Right Is on the Rise

Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy is displacing Matteo Salvini’s League and making a play for power in Italy.

By , the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani.
Head of the League party Matteo Salvini (right), head of the Brothers of Italy party Giorgia Meloni (center), and co-founder of the Forza Italia party Antonio Tajani
Head of the League party Matteo Salvini (right), head of the Brothers of Italy party Giorgia Meloni (center), and co-founder of the Forza Italia party Antonio Tajani react onstage at the end of a united rally for a protest against the Italian government in Rome on July 4, 2020. TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

ROME—National Rally, the party of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, suffered a humiliating defeat in regional elections on Sunday—losing a key southern region that it seemed well positioned to win. But in neighboring Italy, Giorgia Meloni—a far-right leader who has borrowed heavily from Le Pen’s playbook—is gaining popularity. Indeed, she is poised to become the standard-bearer of the Italian right, despite her party’s historical roots in postwar neofascism.

Last February, the far-right party Brothers of Italy was the only one in the country that refused to join the broad government coalition led by Mario Draghi. The party’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, explained her decision by paraphrasing the writer Bertolt Brecht: “We sat on the wrong side because all the other seats were occupied,” she said, proudly indicating her party’s staunch opposition to the former European Central Bank president, a quintessential technocrat utterly despised by her electoral base.

Now she is talking about leading the government when Italy holds its next general election, in 2023 at the latest. “I’m getting ready to lead the country,” Meloni said in a TV interview, announcing a bold bid to transform a once tiny party into a leading force in Italian politics. The numbers are on her side.

ROME—National Rally, the party of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, suffered a humiliating defeat in regional elections on Sunday—losing a key southern region that it seemed well positioned to win. But in neighboring Italy, Giorgia Meloni—a far-right leader who has borrowed heavily from Le Pen’s playbook—is gaining popularity. Indeed, she is poised to become the standard-bearer of the Italian right, despite her party’s historical roots in postwar neofascism.

Last February, the far-right party Brothers of Italy was the only one in the country that refused to join the broad government coalition led by Mario Draghi. The party’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, explained her decision by paraphrasing the writer Bertolt Brecht: “We sat on the wrong side because all the other seats were occupied,” she said, proudly indicating her party’s staunch opposition to the former European Central Bank president, a quintessential technocrat utterly despised by her electoral base.

Now she is talking about leading the government when Italy holds its next general election, in 2023 at the latest. “I’m getting ready to lead the country,” Meloni said in a TV interview, announcing a bold bid to transform a once tiny party into a leading force in Italian politics. The numbers are on her side.


In the past few months, Brothers of Italy has been growing at an impressive pace. The party is currently polling above 20 percent, virtually matching Matteo Salvini’s League, the leading party of the center-right coalition, and it’s on track to become the second-largest political force in Italy. According to some polls, Brothers of Italy has even matched the center-left Democratic Party, which is deeply embroiled in its own internal struggles. Meloni is consistently indicated by conservative voters as the most popular leader among the country’s right-wing voters.

Meloni is siphoning support from her frenemy Salvini, who tactically joined the government coalition. Salvini’s hardcore supporters were not thrilled about the shift to the center, and now many of them are attracted by Meloni’s nationalistic rhetoric. That’s not surprising. The two right-wing parties are similar in many ways, and their agendas overlap when it comes to immigration, social issues, and sharp criticism of the European Union.

What’s surprising is that Brothers of Italy’s rise shows it could potentially reach a broader electorate compared to the parties that in postwar Italy took the inheritance of the post-fascist tradition. Despite having enshrined strong anti-fascist principles in its postwar constitution, Italy still has a somehow ambivalent relationship with its fascist past, and several political parties and groups have been tied, more or less openly, to that tradition.

Brothers of Italy could reach a broader electorate compared to the parties that in postwar Italy took the inheritance of the post-fascist tradition.

Meloni’s party is the contemporary heir of the Italian Social Movement, an originally neofascist party that went through a long, multiphase process of repudiation of its roots, something similar to the “dédiabolisation,” or de-demonization, of the National Front—now renamed National Rally—that was seen in France with the rise of Marine Le Pen. Brothers of Italy still sports the flame symbol used by the Italian Social Movement in its logo.

In the mid 1990s, the National Alliance, Brothers of Italy’s immediate forerunner, reached almost 16 percent of the vote, hitting a ceiling. The moderate wing of the conservative electorate was solidly represented by Forza Italia, the party founded by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Today, Forza Italia is a shadow of its former self, and the League’s ambitions are severely reduced by Salvini’s disastrous record as deputy prime minister in 2018-2019. The political juncture makes Brothers of Italy appealing to conservative voters who are politically homeless.

Meloni now faces a dilemma. She could double down on the nationalistic, far-right ethos of her party, galvanizing her loyal base, or she could broaden her political horizon, slowly turning Brothers of Italy into a big-tent party hosting conservatives of different persuasions.

Meloni’s recent shift in attitude suggests she’s keeping her options open. An ebullient leader who carefully built her political persona as a proud, uncompromising leader, she has recently softened her tone and smoothed her typical pugilistic style. After a recent meeting with Draghi described as “long and frank,” she characterized her party as “an opposition force that works in the national interest.” She even wrote an open-hearted memoir titled I Am Giorgia, designed to reach out to people beyond her base by sharing her personal story. The book sold more than 100,000 copies, a remarkable figure for a book written by a politician, and it hit the top of the Italian Amazon bestseller list.

Some observers see her new narrative as just another exercise in political opportunism. “Meloni won’t be able to simultaneously represent her traditional far-right electorate and moderate conservatives. Even if she is now presenting herself as a reliable leader, her party can’t really change its DNA,” said Nadia Urbinati, a professor of political theory at Columbia University.

In today’s hyperpolarized political landscape, Urbinati argues, moving to the center carries more risks than rewards. “She’s gaining popularity precisely because she’s not moderate. When Salvini moved to the center, he lost consensus, and she’s too clever to repeat the same mistake,” Urbinati said.

Giovanni Orsina, a political scientist at the Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, points to an unmet demand for a center-right coalition that could host both moderates and proponents of what Brothers of Italy’s most traditional supporters refer to as destra sociale, or “social right.” “In theory, Meloni may open up her party to include different sensitivities within the conservative spectrum,” Orsina said. “However, the party is rooted in a culture that is uncompromisingly identitarian. The very identity of Brothers of Italy hinges on its opposition to the mainstream forces, and any attempt to broaden its base could be perceived by many as a betrayal.”

Meloni could double down on the nationalistic, far-right ethos of her party, or she could broaden her political horizon.

Brothers of Italy squarely refuses any affiliations with the post-fascist tradition and rejects being labeled as a far-right party. “I don’t see what elements may support the definition of Brothers of Italy as a far-right party,” Meloni told Foreign Policy, “we are a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party, which I am currently president of, which is the family of the European and Western conservatives, joined by more than 40 parties in several countries, spanning from the Likud in Israel to the Tories in the U.K. and the GOP in the U.S.”

The main feature of Brothers of Italy, Meloni said, “is the defense of the national interest and the roots and values of the Western civilization,” and she blames mainstream media for misrepresenting her stances. “Unfortunately, the mainstream culture is oversimplifying, depicting anyone who talks about fatherland, family, sanctity of life, Christian and classical civilization as a dangerous extremist in order to deny his or her free speech rights. We’ve seen this in the U.S., with the demonization of Trump, who’s been canceled on social media, and we are increasingly seeing the same attitude toward conservative movements in Europe,” Meloni told Foreign Policy.

She firmly stood by former U.S. President Donald Trump and never misses an opportunity to praise his policy. When Vice President Kamala Harris, on a visit to Guatemala, discouraged migrants from illegally crossing the border, Meloni wrote that “Harris, an icon of the left, now talks like Trump.”

High-ranking party officials insist that Brothers of Italy does not need a process of de-demonization, because it has already defeated its own demons. “We had a small revolution that has not been fully understood,” said Giovanbattista Fazzolari, a senator from Brothers of Italy and a key official in the party leadership. “We’ve been presented as the new face of the old post-fascist forces, but when we founded the party in 2012 the whole idea was to break with the past and build a new, post-ideological force predicated on the defense of the national interest. It’s safe to say we’re now a Gaullist party more than a far-right one,” Fazzolari said.

Some signs of change include a shift in the political vocabulary and cultural references the party is embracing. “Just five years ago many activists were not thrilled, to say the least, when they heard the term ‘conservative,’ which today is fully accepted,” said Francesco Giubilei, the president of a conservative think tank called Nazione Futura, which is close to Brothers of Italy. The 29-year-old publisher, writer, and tireless organizer is the closest thing to an intellectual in a political area that traditionally focused on grassroots activism rather than political theory.


How to balance a more open and responsible attitude with the identitarian foundation of the movement is one of the challenges the party is facing now that it’s getting ready to lead. According to Meloni, some crucial traits of the destra sociale are nonnegotiable. “Often people abroad have a distorted view of how Italian politics work,” Meloni told Foreign Policy. “The ‘social right,’ for instance, was always close to the low-income people, to the disadvantaged suburbs, to the working class, cultivating a strong vocation for community organizing and civic engagement. These are features of the Italian right that I am very proud of and I have no intention of abandoning.”

However, some associations with the darkest part of the tradition Meloni points to keep popping up. Brothers of Italy has been careful to distance itself from neofascist organizations and extremist groups, but sometimes the two dimensions touch each other. Last January, for instance, Meloni observed, as she does every year, the anniversary of the killings of three members of the Italian Social Movement in Rome in 1978, an event that was also commemorated by hundreds of militants making the fascist salute in the area where the massacre took place. The rally was not organized nor supported by Brothers of Italy, but the neofascist activists and the party share a common heritage that may blur the line between the suit-and-tie heirs of the social right and outright fascist apologists.

Members of Brothers of Italy have occasionally been suspended for their ambiguous ties with neofascist groups. In 2019, some local leaders of Brothers of Italy in the Marche region organized a dinner party to celebrate the anniversary of Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, and the symbol of the party appeared next to the portrait of Italy’s dictator and other fascist memorabilia. The party formally disavowed the event.

Dog whistles are also common in Brothers of Italy’s communication style. The party promoted a campaign against the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who had allegedly funded a center-left party in Italy. The claim was, “Keep the money of the usurers,” a reference to one of the most indelible antisemitic tropes. The term “usurer” is still used in the party’s rhetoric to describe international bankers, Eurocrats, and foreign powers of all sorts attempting to erode Italy’s sovereignty.

Meloni’s rise in popularity outside her traditional electorate rests on the unresolved relationship between the Italian people and fascism.

Even in her carefully edited book, Meloni managed to slip. In the book, she quotes a passage from the poem “No Enemies” by Charles Mackay, a favorite of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “You have no enemies, you say? … If you have none, small is the work that you have done.” “The same idea,” Meloni writes, “has been also well known, with other words, in our country for several decades,” a clear reference to the motto “many enemies, much honor,” one of Mussolini’s favorites. There are several ways in which Meloni may refute those who accuse her of still being tied to the fascist tradition—quoting Mussolini, albeit stealthily, isn’t one of them.

On a deeper level, Meloni’s rise in popularity outside her traditional electorate rests on the unresolved relationship between the Italian people and fascism. “The problem is that Italy never went through a serious process of elaboration of its fascist past. Many Italians still believe fascism wasn’t altogether evil and the country never really developed a culture of rights and political pluralism,” Urbinati said. Unlike Germany, which got into a process known as “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” or “overcoming the past,” involving culture, education, and public debates grappling with the idea of collective culpability during the Nazi regime, Italy never had such a debate.

International alliances are also crucial for a party that needs to boost its profile and credibility if it hopes to lead the country. Last year, Meloni was elected president of the European Conservatives and Reformists, becoming the first Italian woman to lead a so-called party family in Europe. “We strongly believe in the project of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party,” said Carlo Fidanza, a member of the European Parliament who’s in charge of Brothers of Italy’s foreign affairs portfolio. “Our goal is to enlarge the house of the European conservatives, not to tear it down and rebuild it from scratch.” When Fidanza says enlargement, what he really means is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Following a long dispute, Orban’s party, Fidesz, left the European People’s Party right before being kicked out. “The idea of including Viktor Orban after its divorce with the European People’s Party is certainly on the table. It would be a quite natural outcome, and we have a strong relationship with Orban,” Fidanza said.

But even in Brussels, Meloni is facing fierce competition from Salvini, who is working intensely to form a new political family that would bring together his Identity and Democracy group, Fidesz, but also Poland’s Law and Justice party and Spain’s Vox, two main allies of Brothers of Italy in the European Conservatives and Reformists Party.

In the last few weeks, Meloni traveled to Warsaw to meet Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and met with Orban in an attempt to persuade them not to join a project that would isolate her. At the European level, Meloni is confronted with a dilemma similar to the one she’s facing in Rome; she would need to decide whether to move to the center, sticking to the more moderate conservatives, or to join the broad far-right coalition that is tempting her traditional allies.


Brothers of Italy is also carefully watching what’s happening in the United States. During the Trump years, Meloni carefully cultivated a relationship with the conservative world in Washington. She has been invited twice as a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference and was a guest at the National Prayer Breakfast. An outspoken Trump supporter, during the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 she tweeted her wish that “violence would stop immediately, as President Trump has requested.” Later, she attempted to clarify her statement, but never took it back.

Now that the Republican Party is embroiled in a fight between Trump loyalists and traditional party members, Meloni is keeping an eye on the situation, secretly hoping that what will come out when the dust settles is a “Trumpist GOP, without Trump,” as one Brothers of Italy official put it.

Meloni’s impressive rise in popularity will most likely lead Brothers of Italy to lead the government in some capacity, whether by picking the prime minister candidate or claiming key posts in a future cabinet. But the party needs to figure out whether it really wants to get rid of the shadiest aspects of its own traditional identity and open up to center-right moderates and reformists, or whether it will insist that change is not needed because the party has already changed.

Realists inside the party think it will eventually be able to morph into a more fusionist conservative force, but the party is not ready yet. “I don’t think that at the next general election Meloni will be the prime minister candidate of the center-right coalition. And you know what? It’s not a bad thing,” a party official who asked to remain anonymous, said.

She may seek to replicate the strategy Salvini enacted in 2018, when as interior minister he was in de facto control of the cabinet. His plan collapsed dramatically due to his eagerness to tighten control over the government, but the politically savvy Meloni is unlikely to repeat his mistakes.

Mattia Ferraresi is the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani. Twitter: @mattiaferraresi

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