With so many populist parties and leaders spawning from left and right across Europe, it’s easy to miss a new face in the tangled Game of Thrones of anti-establishment politics.
But one up-and-coming firebrand who has been grabbing the spotlight is Giorgia Meloni, the young head of Fratelli d’Italia, a hard right Italian party that has been steadily growing under her leadership and took more than six percent of the country’s vote in last week's European Union parliamentary elections, doubling its support since 2014.
A landslide victory it was not, but that accomplishment still looks impressive given that it was achieved in the shadow of the overwhelming triumph of Matteo Salvini, the darling of the populist internationale whose Euroscepticism and anti-immigration policies propelled his League party to Italy's top table with 34 percent of the vote.
But Meloni has managed to thrive, carving out a niche for herself by almost singlehandedly transforming the legacy of an old-style neo-fascist movement into a more contemporary nationalist force whose crusading slogan is "Italy First and Italians First."
She appeals to voters who prefer her party’s view of a strong centralized state, as opposed to the federalized and decentralized Italy that the League wants, and she has enthusiastically welcomed alliances with other European far right parties, embraced the support of U.S. hard right provocateurs like Steve Bannon, and is celebrated by the U.S. Trump-era conservative establishment.
As the head of Fratelli d’Italia ("Brothers of Italy," the opening words of the national anthem), Meloni is the only woman to lead a major Italian party. That fact is important to how she brands brand herself and her movement - as a modern conservative force that still respects and appeals to her traditional base.
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Meloni is often compared to Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Rally, for her nationalist and hardline views on immigration and EU integration. She doesn’t yet have the following and experience of her transalpine counterpart, but also lacks the historical and family baggage (such as a father prone to Holocaust revisionism, blatant racism and anti-Semitism) that still, somewhat, holds back Le Pen’s legitimization.
Born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of Rome, Meloni still speaks in the deep, coarse accent of the capital’s dialect, peppered with the occasional insult, a touch of authenticity which endears her to voters - and which, combined with her loud, rapid-fire delivery, she wields as a sledgehammer to silence opponents in debates.
At the tender age of 15, she joined the youth branch of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement), a neo-fascist party founded by close followers of Benito Mussolini in the immediate aftermath of World War II. During the 1990s (she joined in 1992) the party moved incrementally from the margins of Italy’s political spectrum toward the mainstream, allying with media-mogul-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi and ultimately merging with his conservative People of Freedom party.
Meloni followed that transition into legitimized right-wing politics, and in 2008 was called to serve as Berlusconi’s Youth Policies Minister, becoming at 31 the youngest minister in the country’s history. But in 2012, as Berlusconi’s political fortunes waned, Meloni and a small group of allies on the far right split from his People of Freedom and formed Brothers of Italy.
The party started out as a classic throwback to the basest instincts of its original neo-fascist past. Its campaign for the 2013 national election was widely condemned and ridiculed for a homophobic ad that called on voters to "vote with your head, not with your ass."
A year later, Meloni took over the leadership of the party and set to work smoothing over the rougher edges of its political messaging.
For example, its program for the 2014 EU elections, in which it took less than 4 percent of the vote and failed to win a single seat, called for the outright abolition of the Euro. The Brothers didn't repeat that call in last week's election, but pivoted towards attacking the "predatory actions of the Franco-German axis" and called for "compensation" for countries like Italy that were supposedly penalized by the introduction of the common currency.
The Brothers' platform now has retreated from demanding huge policy shifts that a small party couldn't possibly achieve, towards baiting the pro-Europeans and framing Italy as a victim of their policies.
Meloni is skilled at deflecting questions about her party’s past and her own views on fascism. In one recent interview, she dismissed questions on what she thinks of fascism and anti-fascism by using a colorful expression which literally translates to, "You’ve broken my balls" and shouting that, "I want to talk about the current millennium and Italians’ problems today!"
But behind Meloni’s hip and social-media-savvy persona, the ranks of Brothers of Italy are filled with activists and party officials nostalgic for fascism. The party regularly participates in the commemoration of militants killed by Red Brigades terrorists in the 1970s, an event that includes military-style parades and fascist salutes.
Prominent candidates for Brothers of Italy have included members of the Duce’s family, including granddaughter Rachele Mussolini and great-grandson Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini.
Meloni is careful not to alienate that faithful base, especially since there is a hyper-competitive marketplace on the far right of Italian politics. In a nod to the party’s roots, Meloni successfully ran for parliament in the 2018 elections from Latina, a town south of Rome founded by Mussolini and dominated by the imposing legacy of fascist architecture. "I chose to run here because this is a symbolic city that has a very strong connection to the history of the Italian right," she said then.
In this age of highly personalized politics, manifestos have far less influence over voters than Meloni’s in-your-face personality, unabashed "patriotism" and no-nonsense style. Polls consistently show her as one of Italy’s most popular politicians, with approval ratings that punch above the still fairly small voting base of her party.
She particularly shines when she portrays herself as conservative feminist who defends family and national values while being victimized by both right and left, turning her opponents’ attacks against them.
In 2016 Meloni was pregnant with her first child and mulling a run as mayor of Rome. Her former ally Berlusconi, who wanted a unified ticket for the center-right under his own candidate, tried to kill her potential candidacy by declaring "a mother cannot dedicate herself to a job as terrible job as administering Rome."
Meloni retorted: "No one can tell a pregnant woman what to do," and went on to take a surprise third place, winning 20 percent of the vote - double that of Berlusconi’s man.
She won additional points as a working mother a year later, when Asia Argento, the Italian actress of #MeToo fame, posted a picture of the recently-pregnant Meloni eating at a restaurant and called her a "fat fascist." Meloni earned widespread praise for owning her fat-shaming critic by reposting the image on her Facebook account and writing that giving birth to a child was "well worth gaining a few kilos," and that she wasn't "interested in the usual tired and old insults."
When she speaks to a broader audience, her careful curation of the past and her modulated tone quickly fall to the wayside.
Meloni has learned from the likes of Le Pen and Salvini every trick in the contemporary right-wing populist's playbook . She emphasizes her defense of Italy's sovereignty, and rails against the "nihilistic globalist elites, driven by international finance," which, in her view, rule Europe and which are secretly encouraging illegal immigration "to destroy European identities."
Her policies aim to "defend our Christian identity from the process of Islamization," and she has proposed measures such as banning the construction of new mosques and creating a register of imams authorized to preach in Italy.
Over the last months, Meloni has been spreading her message and her personal brand not only in Italy, but also abroad, by carefully cultivating ties with international hard right traditionalist and socially conservative groups, focusing on the common ground of fierce anti-abortion stances, critiques of LGBT families and support for "pro-family" legislation.
Those ties include the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, with which her party sits in the European Parliament, and the American Conservative Union, whose flagship conference, CPAC, she addressed in March and for which she is booked again for 2020.
She welcomed Steve Bannon's attempts to build a pan-European "Movement" of hard-right nationalists, inviting him to headline a Brothers of Italy meeting in September 2018, and calls him "a friend." Bannon himself has referred to Meloni's party as "one of the old fascist parties… who are going to become quite mainstream."
She was also a key speaker at the World Congress of Families in March, which took place in Verona and which gathered anti-LGBT, anti-abortion and anti-feminist activists from around the world, from U.S. evangelicals to Putin-friendly Orthodox traditionalists.
At the latter, she backed proposals for financial incentives for women who choose not to have an abortion (only legal in Italy since 1978) and for a global, UN-backed moratorium on surrogacy: "If it’s right that you can’t remove a puppy dog from its mother after its born, is it right that two rich men can buy a child from a desperate mother?" She went on: "Why do we spend so much time fighting all kinds of discrimination but pretend not to see the greatest ongoing persecution - the genocide of the world's Christians?"
"I'm not allowed to identify myself an as Italian, Christian, woman, mother. No!…. Everything that defines us is now an enemy for those who would like us not to no longer have an identity…That's why we inspire so much fear…we will never be slaves at the mercy of financial speculators… We will defend God, country and family," she concluded, to a standing ovation.
Meloni is successfully appealing to a broader conservative electorate, particularly in the south of Italy, where traditional values have a greater hold. Many voters there remember with some bitterness that Salvini’s League began as a party demanding independence for the country’s rich northern regions from the impoverished, "parasitical" south. Indeed, Meloni has stated that her sights are firmly set on attracting far more of Italy's 11 million "center-right" and "patriotic" voters.
Meloni’s rising profile and political capital have two important consequences. In the short term, her numbers make her into a natural and significant ally for Salvini - and his potential kingmaker.
If The League and the Brothers maintain the combined 40 percent of the vote they just achieved in the EU elections, then Salvini could potentially end his fractious alliance with the grassroots populists of the 5 Star Movement, go to national elections and try to win a popular mandate for a fully far-right government, jointly with Meloni.
In the longer-term though, Meloni has bigger ambitions. Should Salvini's star wane for a fickle public, a professional hazard for populist leaders (see Austria's Heinz-Christian Strache), Italy’s hard right will have a ready and experienced replacement.
It would be not be surprising if, in the not-too-distant-future, "authentic" ultra-nationalist, anti-abortion Christian "patriot" Giorgia Meloni becomes Italy's first ever female prime minister.