The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In midterms, Trump Republicans look to Giorgia Meloni as model of success

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has become a subject of fascination among American conservatives. (Riccardo Antimiani/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

ROME — Hours after Giorgia Meloni’s party swept to election victory in September, American conservative strategist Greg Price shared a clip on Twitter of the soon-to-be Italian prime minister issuing a clarion call. In the video, she warned of an ongoing, global attack against gender, family and religion, carried out by unnamed forces seeking a world where forms of identity cease to exist.

“I can’t define myself as Italian, as Christian, mother, woman — no!” Meloni says in the clip, from a 2019 speech. “I must be citizen x, gender x, parent 1, parent 2.”

The clip, liked more than 200,000 times, went viral among Trump-aligned Republicans. And the reviews were fawning.

“So beautifully said,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

“Spectacular,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

“A model for Nov 8th candidates here,” said Steve Cortes, a former Trump campaign adviser.

In becoming the first far-right head of government in postwar Western Europe, Meloni has emerged as a celebrated point of reference for MAGA Republicans, who’ve interpreted her ascent as an affirmation of their own values and goals. In their narrative — prevailing on social media and in right-wing media outlets — Meloni is a truth-teller who speaks clearly about her beliefs, hasn’t compromised in the face of the woke left, and overcame a hysterical media calling her a fascist, a racist and worse.

The far-right leader who is changing Italy's tone

“This is somebody who I can relate to, because they’re doing the same thing to me,” Kari Lake, a Trump-aligned Arizona gubernatorial candidate who contends the 2020 election was stolen, said on Fox News.

There is no doubt that Meloni’s rise is remarkable — and if she succeeds in governing Italy, she could pave a path to power for other once-fringe figures in Europe.

She has caught on in the United States because, in some ways, her rhetoric mirrors Donald Trump’s. She has leaned heavily on the idea of a forgotten middle class, scorned by elites, while portraying herself as a defender of the underdog.

“The narrative of the people against the power,” said Maurizio Molinari, the editor in chief of La Repubblica. “She is emulating, and in a way translating to the Italian public, some of the messages that helped Trump.”

Molinari, who reviewed examples of right-wing U.S. media coverage of Meloni at The Washington Post’s request, concluded: “She is winning; we will win. This is their narrative.”

But there are also some American misconceptions about what propelled Meloni’s rise.

Italy’s Giorgia Meloni sets agenda, says she has no sympathy for fascism

While the social media chatter among Republicans tends to focus on her firebrand culture war speeches, with the assumption that those views underpin her popularity, Meloni says her positions on such issues probably cost her votes. This summer, when an Italian government collapse triggered elections and opened a clear path to power, she cut out her most controversial and extreme talking points. No longer did she bash the “LGBT lobby,” for instance, or frame migration as “ethnic substitution.” She also tried to explicitly assure the establishment in Brussels and Washington that she’d govern Italy with a conventional foreign policy: pro-Atlantic, anti-Kremlin. In short, she managed to do what Republicans had once hoped for and never got from Trump: She moderated.

Still, some Americans on the right have presumed her victory demonstrates an anti-system popular revolt.

After the Italian election, Fox News host Tucker Carlson devoted much of one night’s program to Meloni, portraying Italy as a landscape “destroyed” by neoliberalism and its open-border policy, with some parts of the country becoming “flat-out dangerous” because of migrant crime. Meloni, he said, was one of the “very few politicians … who has been willing to say the obvious — the truth — out loud.”

“This is a revolution,” Carlson said.

Giorgia Meloni’s interview with The Washington Post

The reality is more complicated. Italy did have a revolt, but in 2018, when it handed power to populist parties that subsequently fought with one another and squandered popularity. Those failures, coupled with long-standing problems — on-and-off recession, high government debt, limited job opportunities for the young — have fed a sense of political apathy, and skepticism that any political solution will work. Voter turnout in September was the lowest on record.

Meloni benefited from years in the opposition, when she was able to siphon off support from rivals on the right. But that doesn’t mean she has secured people’s loyalty. Some voters say they aren’t sure they’ll back her even a year from now.

Daniele Albertazzi, an Italian-born politics professor at the University of Surrey, noted that for three decades, between 42 percent and 48 percent of Italians have voted for right-wing parties.

Meloni’s party has a hard line on social issues that make its coalition different, and further right, than any prior postwar government. But Meloni has also filled key cabinet positions with familiar figures from past governments of Silvio Berlusconi, a nod to the many centrists who gave her their vote.

“It’s hardly a revolution,” Albertazzi said.

The reasons behind the far right's success in Italy

For American onlookers, one of the biggest points of discussion concerns the roots of Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy. Her party, created a decade ago, descended from an earlier group founded by Mussolini sympathizers after the war. Brothers of Italy policies aren’t fascist, and Meloni herself has said she has “never felt sympathy” for such beliefs. But her party has included a gaggle of members who have publicly made fascist salutes or celebrated Mussolini’s rise. Her government also took no action when several thousand Italians recently marched with fascist symbols in Predappio, Mussolini’s hometown.

In the eyes of Republicans, international media accounts about Meloni have been alarmist, unfairly tying her to fascism. Several TV segments on Trump-aligned media channels have featured a rundown of breathless headlines or MSNBC clips.

“[It’s] the left-wing media doing what they do best, labeling common-sense conservatives as far-right,” a Newsmax anchor said, before interviewing Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.). “We’ve seen the same thing happen at home, with MAGA supporters.”

“Giorgia Meloni is a breath of fresh air,” Norman then said. “It’s a preview of coming attractions” in the U.S. midterms in November.

Filippo Trevisan, an Italian-born associate professor at American University, who specializes in political communication and who reviewed several U.S. media clips at the request of The Post, said that neither the left nor right in America had been able to “truly represent the turn that Italian politics has taken.”

The mainstreaming of the West’s far right is complete

Meloni, for her part, has worked for years to build up ties with Republicans, and spoke in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. In an August interview with The Post, she deflected a question about whether she felt more aligned to the Trump wing of the party or those opposed to his ideological takeover.

“I’m not interested in getting into the debate inside of the Republican Party,” she said, “because it would be too complex of a matter for me.”

Notably, at a time when the notion of election fraud has worked its way so deeply into the Republican Party, Meloni never suggested — before or after the vote — that Italy’s parliamentary election might be up for question. When the outcome gave her a chance to be appointed prime minister by Italy’s president, Meloni showed deference to her predecessor, centrist Mario Draghi. And when she spoke last week before parliament, she celebrated the smooth transition of power.

“So it should be in great democracies,” she said.

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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