Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has spent much of his campaign trying to convince the American public that all of the racists and white nationalists supporting him must have done so by mistake. But a meeting on Monday with an Italian far-right political leader known for his xenophobic remarks has shown that Trump’s casual racism is anything but.
While the contents of their 20-minute discussion were not publicized, Trump and Matteo Salvini, leader of the xenophobic Italian Lega Nord and member of the European Parliament, are natural allies. They’re bombastic in their rhetoric, represent a resurgent right wing in their respective countries and have praised — or in Trump’s case, retweeted — Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2016
In addition leaving Italy on the eve of its Liberation Day celebrations, which mark the end of Italy’s fascist government, Salvini one-upped Trump in his praise of Il Duce.
“Mussolini did many good things in the twenty years before the racial laws and the alliance with Hitler,” said Salvini during a radio interview in February. Among the “good things” Mussolini did before allying himself with Adolf Hitler was crush political dissent, severely curtail press freedom, outlaw labor strikes and established a police state to reinforce his dominance over the country.
The Philadelphia meeting was organized by Amato Berardi, president of the National Italian-American PAC and a former Italian parliamentarian who represented Silvio Berlusconi’s The People for Freedom Party (PdL), now part of the Forza Italia party. Since Berlusconi’s final exit as Italy’s prime minister in 2011, Salvini has sought to become the next undisputed leader of the Italian right.
Towards the end of their meeting, Trump wished Salvini well. “Matteo, I hope you become prime minister soon,” Trump told him, according Italian news agency ANSA.
The Lega Nord head has been dubbed “the most dangerous man in Italy” by The Daily Beast. He has often invoked the same anti-establishment language used by Trump, but aimed at what many perceive to be Europe’s establishment, the European Union itself. “The problem isn’t [Italian Prime Minister Matteo] Renzi,” said Salvini during a rally in March 2015 in Rome. “Renzi is a pawn. Renzi is a dumb slave at the disposal of nameless people who want to control all of our lives from Brussels.”
And the party’s xenophobia isn’t relegated to the eccentricities of its outspoken leader. In a 2010 U.S. State Department report, it noted that despite encouraging engagement with all of Italy’s parties, regardless of their political stances, Lega Nord party members disqualified themselves several times from taking part in those initiatives.
The embassy had rescinded one nomination [to the International Leadership Visitor Program] after the candidate was convicted for an incident of racial incitement and froze another after a prospective nongovernmental host discovered prejudicial information about the candidate online.
Similarly, Freedom House reports going back as far as 2004 have warned that “The Lega Nord party continues to inject intolerance into national politics by organizing anti-Islamic campaigns, protesting, for example, the building of mosques.”
It is notable, though, that not all of Europe’s far right leaders support Trump, even if they risk becoming a minority in their own movements. Marine Le Pen, the most recognizable face of Europe’s new, younger far right leaders, has been decidedly cool about the racist businessman’s rhetoric, even towards Muslims, a demographic she constantly attacks at home. “Seriously, have you ever heard me say something like that?” said Le Pen in response to Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. “I defend all the French people in France, regardless of their origin, regardless of their religion.”
The risks of a Trump presidency go far beyond American shores. His victory would undoubtedly buoy the hopes of politicians like Salvini, who are jumping on the Trump anti-establishment, anti-immigrant bandwagon in the hopes that his victory would present them with a roadmap to their own victories back home. The below photo of the insignia of the neo-Nazi Greek party, Golden Dawn, superimposed over Trump’s face is just one sign of growing support for his ideas and rhetoric on the other side of the Atlantic.
This is an actual Donald Trump meme, made by actual Donald Trump supporters (not linking to site where it turned up) pic.twitter.com/QDifudNVYY
— Ishaan Tharoor (@ishaantharoor) August 27, 2015
Electoral victory for these parties isn’t unthinkable, especially not for Salvini. Polls last summer put his popularity at a few points below Italy’s current prime minister, a truly dangerous prospect in this dangerous time.
Photo: European Union 2015 – European Parliament/Flickr