The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The mainstreaming of the West’s far right is complete

6 min

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In the land that invented fascism, the far right is back in power. Italy’s general election on Sunday yielded the result most saw coming — an emphatic victory for the nationalist Brothers of Italy Party, which secured about one-quarter of all votes and, along with a coalition of right-wing allies, a solid majority in both houses of the Italian Parliament. The party’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, 45, is poised to become Italy’s first female prime minister. She’s also set to be her country’s most ultra-nationalist premier since fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Meloni’s success marks a significant moment not just for Europe but for all Western liberal democracies. In a major European country, a far-right party directly linked to its country’s fascist past has not simply entered government or backed a ruling coalition but is set to take the lead. For years, as right-wing nationalists advanced electorally across the continent, more centrist politicians tried to erect “cordon sanitaires” that would freeze them out and cast them as politically beyond the pale.

But if there’s one dominant story in Western politics over the past decade, it’s that the far right is no longer beyond the pale. It has taken over the right-wing mainstream in many countries, including, arguably and most significantly, in the United States. In France, the far right has long been the leading force of the opposition; in Spain, it has also gained ground. In Sweden, a party originally founded by neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists will now be the second-largest faction in parliament. In Hungary and Poland, the far right is already in power.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy can trace its origins to the Italian Social Movement, a small neo-fascist party founded out of the ashes of World War II by Giorgio Almirante, a former chief of staff to Mussolini. In the wake of Meloni’s victory, Almirante’s daughters were misty-eyed about what the election represented, describing to an Italian news agency that the vote was a “completion” of their father’s journey.

Meloni rages at being called “fascist," and many analysts don’t view the “fascist” label as a useful frame through which to see her rise to power. There’s little to differentiate her anti-establishment politics from that of other would-be populists elsewhere, as many in the West chafe against the perceived failings of an entrenched liberal establishment. She has disowned elements of Mussolini’s dark legacy and has denounced antisemitism.

In an interview with my Washington Post colleagues, Meloni said she should be viewed as a mainstream conservative. “The issue of individual freedom, private enterprise in economy, educational freedom, the centrality of family and its role in our society, the protection of borders from unchecked immigration, the defense of the Italian national identity — these are the matters that we preoccupy ourselves with,” she said.

Yet Meloni has a lengthy record of extremist rhetoric, has embraced the white supremacist narrative of the “great replacement” theory and has engaged in frequent dog whistling to a radical base. “Since 2017, she has tweeted repeatedly that Italian identity is being deliberately erased by globalists such as [Jewish American financier George] Soros and European Union officials, who have conspired to unleash ‘uncontrolled mass immigration,’” wrote Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. “The paranoid style in Italian politics translates into xenophobic proposals to deny citizenship to children born in Italy to foreign parents and to cut foreigners’ access to welfare benefits.”

Economic and demographic anxieties course through Italy — home to some of Europe’s highest unemployment rates and lowest birth rates — and Meloni is only the latest politician to harness them. Anti-immigrant and nativist parties have been part of numerous ruling coalitions in recent years.

The Italian elections “were unique because Meloni will be the first female prime minister of Italy and the first far-right prime minister in today’s western Europe,” wrote Cas Mudde, a professor in the school of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia. “But they were usual in the sense that far-right parties (and ideas) have been part of the European political mainstream for at least two decades now.”

Meloni’s own journey from angry neo-fascist youth politics to the halls of power in Rome would be impossible without the toleration of the establishment. “Meloni owes much to the more moderate forces in what Italians call the ‘center-right’ alliance,” David Broder, author of “Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy,” wrote in Politico Europe. “They’ve allowed her the opportunity to present herself as part of the mainstream, not just because she’s been softening her policies — at least in presentation — but also because center-right politicians jumping on her bandwagon have given her a veneer of respectability and credibility.”

At the same time, attempts by her main center-left rivals to make the election about a spectral “fascist” threat proved unsuccessful. “The far right can succeed in Italy because the left has failed, exactly as in much of the world, to offer credible visions or strategies,” wrote Italian essayist Roberto Saviano. “The left asks people to vote against the right, but it lacks a political vision or an economic alternative.”

Similar arguments were made about the success of the far right in Sweden’s recent election, where the Sweden Democrats became the second-largest party in the country and are now kingmakers in ongoing coalition talks. “Individuals leaning toward the Sweden Democrats for various reasons have felt stigmatized: Some haven’t been invited to family gatherings, and in a few cases have even lost their jobs,” noted Swedish author Elisabeth Asbrink. “This has not only fed the party’s self-image as a martyr but also nurtured even more loyalty among its supporters.”

Charles Kupchan, a European expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times that far-right parties have not only pushed centrists further to the right but are now “normalized” themselves.

“The direction of political momentum is changing — we had a wave of centrism before and during the pandemic, but now it feels like the political table is tilting back in the direction of the populists on the right,” he said. “And that’s a big deal.”