The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

That Giorgia Meloni speech captivating the U.S. right doesn’t make sense

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, at the party's election night event in Rome on Sept. 26. (Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg News)

Thanks to a viral video, the American right has an unexpected new crush.

Clipped by a YouTube channel that specializes in sharing content from far-right politicians, the video features Giorgia Meloni, expected to become Italy’s next prime minister. Meloni is shown speaking at the World Congress of Families gathering in 2019, a right-wing conference brought to Italy that year by sympathetic politicians. After her party, Brothers of Italy, secured the most seats in last weekend’s parliamentary contest — paving the way for the right-wing coalition of which it is a part to assume control of the country’s leadership — interest in Meloni spiked and the 2019 speech began to circulate.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) declared it to be “spectacular.” A writer for the Federalist fawned. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) marveled at how “beautifully said” Meloni’s argument was. A cadre of allies of Donald Trump were similarly energetic.

The speech is, in fact, well presented. It also doesn’t really make any sense.

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I will admit that I do not speak Italian and am relying for this analysis on the subtitles added to the snippet. But then, I suspect that Cruz and Greene are similarly ignorant of the language and are similarly basing their evaluations on what the video itself presents as Meloni’s argument. The enthusiasm on the right, in other words, is based on the translation, so parsing the translation seems like a perfectly fair way of evaluating that enthusiasm.

Before doing so, it’s worth understanding the importance of the format. The medium is the message, as the saying has it, and that’s certainly true here: Meloni hits robust emotional notes, assuring the audience (in 2019 and now) that they are on the right side of history. By the time she arrives at the quote from British author G.K. Chesterton that serves as capstone, she’s carried the emotional rhythm perfectly, validating her claims in the gut even as she fails to do so in the brain.

Here is the bulk of the content of her transcribed speech, presented in the flattening format of printed text.

“Why is the family an enemy? Why is the family so frightening? There is a single answer to all these questions.
“Because it defines us. Because it is our identity. Because everything that defines us is now an enemy for those who would like us to no longer have an identity and to simply be perfect consumer slaves.
“And so they attack national identity, they attack religious identity, they attack gender identity, they attack family identity.
“I can’t define myself as Italian, Christian, woman, mother. No. I must be Citizen X, Gender X, Parent 1, Parent 2. I must be a number.
“Because when I am only a number, when I no longer have an identity or roots, then I will be the perfect slave at the mercy of financial speculators. The perfect consumer.
“That’s why we inspire so much fear. That’s why this event inspires so much fear. Because we do not want to be numbers. We will defend the value of the human being.
“Every single human being. Because each of us has a unique genetic code that is unrepeatable. And, like it or not, that is sacred. We will defend it. We will defend God, country and family.
“Those things that disgust people so much. We will do it to defend our freedom because we will never be slaves and simple consumers at the mercy of financial speculators. That is our mission.”

It’s important to understand that this came at the end of a longer speech. If you are perplexed at the use of “all of these questions” after only two were asked, for example, that’s not a function of mistranslation. It’s because the snippet quoted above comes after a much longer list of questions. The one that immediately preceded this but didn’t make the cut for inclusion in the viral clip was: “Why do we spend our time fighting all types of discrimination but we pretend not to see the greatest ongoing persecution, the genocide of the world’s Christians?”

Changes the context a bit, no?

So Meloni had also offered various anecdotes meant to bolster the idea that families are “an enemy.” But that’s accepted by the American right in the viral clip even without Meloni’s putative evidence. Forcing us to ask, then, who considers family to be an enemy or frightening, and in what way? Similarly, we can ask how it is that “everything that defines us” is an enemy to those people looking for “perfect consumer slaves.”

I am not some dewy-eyed naif, so I know what the expected answer is, of course. Attacks on national/religious/gender/family identity, as presented here, are an excoriation of what the right now likes to summarize as “wokeism.” This is the idea that adjusting cultural expectations to not exclude particular people is an affront to those around whom expectations have long been centered. That even small accommodations for people who aren’t Christian or aren’t straight or weren’t born in Italy/the United States is an attack on those who are any or all of those things.

This is manifested regularly in our domestic political conversation. Not just through the conservative media’s constant elevation of “woke” as an evil force eroding the foundations of America but through lesser measures. At about the time Meloni was speaking, for example, I was writing about how White Republicans are about as likely to say that Whites face discrimination as they are to say Blacks and Hispanics do, and that White Republicans are as likely to say that evangelical Christians face discrimination as they are to say that Muslims do. This pattern of belief has continued.

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression,” the old saying goes, and it certainly applies broadly in the context Meloni seeks to invoke.

But what Meloni does is something different, at least to this American’s ears. Normally, complaints focused on being “woke” are criticized on their own merits, as purported constraints on those not included among the supplicating groups. Here, though, Meloni seems to suggest that all of this is an attempt to sell stuff. It’s semi-Trumpian in the sense that it attempts to intertwine cultural insecurity with economic dissatisfaction, but does so clumsily.

There have long been complaints on the right about how corporations try to leverage calls for diversity as marketing or employee retention ploys. (There have been similar complaints on the left, in fact!) But Meloni reverses this, suggesting that corporations and financial speculators — somehow not winking while she uses that term — are the initiators of “wokeism," to somehow make money. That she is now “Citizen X” is a transition left unexplained, as is the path from that anonymization to profit.

It’s inscrutable — unless, perhaps, you assume that there is a powerful global financial elite that controls everything and that must necessarily therefore be orchestrating “wokeism.”

But we’re getting away from the other odd claim, that people find her identity as a mother, Christian or Italian “disgusting.” Who does, exactly? Setting aside the idea that Nike might make an ad targeting women who don’t have kids or that PepsiCo might do a promotion for Ramadan, what’s the driving force that casts her life as abhorrent? There are domestic debates over the interplay of religion and public life, certainly, but it’s obviously ridiculous to say that being asked to, say, bake a cake for a same-sex wedding is equivalent to being made into a number. Much less with the express intent that you’ll buy more San Pellegrino.

There’s an enormous pull to believing that you are fighting nefarious forces bent on making the world worse. We will defend God, country and family! Yes! Sign me up! But against who? How? On what battlefields? Listening to the speech, you get caught up in the emotion, by design. Upon reflection, though, you notice that, for those questions, there isn’t a great answer.

Meloni’s rise in Italy has drawn comparisons to Benito Mussolini, in part because of her politics and in part because she has in the past praised the fascist leader. The speech above checks a number of the identifiers of fascism delineated by Italian author and commentator Umberto Eco, who grew up during Mussolini’s regime. But perhaps the most potent link to the dictator represented in the video being shared on the right is precisely that it’s a speech, an emotional call to arms.

And as a speech targeting a particular ideology, it appears to be an effective one.

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