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When Americans loved Benito Mussolini — and what it tells us about Donald Trump’s rise

The appeal of celebrity authority in tumultuous times.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1936. He achieved vast popularity in 1920s America. (AP) (AP)
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Ever since appearing on the campaign trail in 2015, President Trump has triggered comparisons to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. (It didn’t help that, mid-campaign, he tweeted out a Mussolini quote because, he explained, he found it “interesting.”) Such comparisons were once inconceivable for American democratic leaders, but Trump’s narcissistic personality and intemperate public pronouncements have encouraged them.

Such analogies, however, can be misleading. Mussolini’s dictatorship resulted from the combination of physical violence and an unfree press. By contrast, Trump, as a candidate and then as president, did not enter a political scene marked by physical coercion and has never exercised control of the media, even as he takes advantage of a large conservative media very much in his corner.

Instead of pairing Trump with the ways Mussolini became a dictator in Italy, a better comparison would be with the ways the dictator achieved vast popularity in 1920s America. Unlike in Italy, Mussolini did not control the press or the film industry in the United States, but he found other factors — particularly the search for consensus and leadership in a fractured society — could be just as influential.

Many readers may be surprised to learn of the remarkably positive American response to Mussolini, known as Il Duce, following the 1922 March on Rome, the mass demonstration of Fascist troops that led Italy’s king to appoint Mussolini as prime minister. Even though Mussolini had fierce detractors among American journalists and political commentators, a wide range of powerful individuals and mainstream media outlets publicly voiced their enthusiastic admiration for his governance style and persona.

This was not a coincidence. Fascist officials courted and pressured American journalists in the hope of garnering positive coverage of Mussolini’s leadership. They were successful throughout the 1920s, before Mussolini’s news coverage turned following Adolf Hitler’s ascension in Germany in 1933 and, more dramatically, after Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in October 1935, which led the League of Nations to impose economic sanctions and Mussolini’s subsequent withdrawal from the organization.

Why such support for a Fascist dictator? Historians have repeatedly maintained that the aspiration to turn Italy into an anti-communist bulwark and a privileged site for commercial investments largely animated and informed Il Duce’s American support.

But this doesn’t explain his celebrity status. Mussolini’s powerful handlers tapped into widespread misgivings about the domestic cost of Wilson-style democracy and growing anxieties about gender equality by pitching Mussolini as a strong male leader with a nationalistic brand of effective governance.

This campaign was deeply intertwined with the budding motion picturing industry and the rise of the movie star. On Nov. 3, 1922, just a few days after the March on Rome, the Birmingham Age-Herald wrote that Mussolini looked “like a movie star.” This was not exactly a traditional political assessment. A few years later, Picture Play magazine dwelled on Il Duce’s intense charisma and described him as “Italy’s pet fire eater” and “the star of the newsreel sections.”

In fact, Mussolini’s rise to fame coincided with the full development of Hollywood star culture, which often paid surprising homages to his popularity. In February 1927, for instance, Motion Picture Magazine published a photograph of Hollywood’s power couple, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, doing what we would consider today unthinkable: making the Fascist salute. The accompanying caption explained that their gesture was a personal tribute to Il Duce, whom they had met the year before in Rome, and closed with an expression of their admiration: “There’s nothing like going to an authority!”

Il Duce’s rise to fame also paralleled the recent emergence of another foreign film star: Rudolph Valentino. Over the next few years, the public fascination with Valentino and Mussolini grew, until the film star’s unexpected death in 1926 at the age of 31.

The Italian dictator came to be seen in the United States as a charming, masculine and romanticized anti-Bolshevik leader, just as Valentino had risen to fame a year earlier as an exemplar of forceful and romantic leadership. Valentino’s image, shaped by his ghostwriter and publicist Herbert Howe, combined ideas of traditional marriage and limits on women’s rights with antidemocratic theories that embraced forceful leadership. “There must be a leader for a nation, for a state, for a home. There is no such thing as equality,” Valentino claimed in an interview. “The woman is not the equal of the man, intellectually or any other way.”

Valentino and Mussolini gained seductive authority thanks to such antidemocratic and misogynistic pronouncements.

Once again, these images were diligently crafted. Valentino and Mussolini’s American reputations were built up by scores of individuals operating on both sides of the Atlantic. Often trained as operatives for the U.S. government’s World War I propaganda office, known as the Committee on Public Information, these promoters knew their publicity craft, or “ballyhoo,” was most effective when masquerading as news. This way they could sell or defend anything and serve a wide range of interests: Hollywood and Wall Street profits, newspaper circulations and the government’s geopolitical aims.

Celebrity culture in 20th-century America grew out of the tension between, on one hand, increased access to consumption, information and political rights, and on the other, the well-promoted personal appeal of (male) leadership figures. Seismic changes, including the successful campaign for women’s suffrage and the steady growth of popular culture, produced an array of anxieties, including democratic disenchantment. The masculine authority embodied by figures such as Mussolini and Valentino offered a salve. Even as they embraced civic and consumer opportunities, Americans, paradoxically, found celebrities’ antidemocratic and anti-egalitarian authority comforting — a way to provide order in chaotic times.

This legacy still pervades our media landscape today. The line between publicity and news remains blurred across the media landscape. For years, BuzzFeed (to name but one outlet) has established itself as a profitable news organization by merging real scoops with sponsored posts. This blurriness, along with the rise of social media, has prompted scores of individuals to promote themselves as expert commentators and, inadvertently or not, as publicists or hoaxers.

With both individuals and media outlets boosting his well-timed provocations, Trump has repeatedly managed to turn his celebrity status into a populist authority that, in the name of law and order, frequently evokes dictatorial comparisons.

And we — those of us on Twitter and other social media — bear some responsibility here. In 1960s Paris, an association of novelists and mathematicians sought to identify “new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.” In their study of all possible murder-story situations they discovered, as Umberto Eco noted in his “Postscript to the Name of the Rose,” “that there is still to be written a book in which the murderer is the reader.” If you, like me, are on Twitter, let’s remind ourselves that Trump got his early ballyhoo-like wave of digital outrage-cum-promotion with just a few tweets that instantly ended up on our feed.