Analysis |

The Dark, Trumpist Heart of Italy’s Aspiring Rulers

The rejection of a proposed change to Italy's constitution has bolstered a populist movement, with similarities to Trump's election but with a decidedly anti-Semitic tinge.

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Five-Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo gestures during a rally in Turin, Italy February 16, 2013.
Five-Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo gestures during a rally in Turin, Italy February 16, 2013.Credit: Giorgio Perottino, Reuters
Ariel David
Ariel David

The failed referendum that triggered the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has set Italy on a path of instability that could place the country in the hands of a populist, Trump-style movement, tinged with strong anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiments.

The Five Star Movement was the big winner of Sunday’s vote over a government-backed constitutional reform that turned into a plebiscite on the three-year rule of the center-left premier.

The anti-establishment and anti-European Union party founded by comedian-turned-populist-politician Beppe Grillo took the lead in the “No” campaign, opposing constitutional reform that sought mainly to streamline Italy’s complex political system by reducing the power of the upper house of parliament, the Senate, allowing the lower chamber to pass most laws on its own.

Taking his cue from the recent Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, Grillo managed to harness a massive protest vote that had little to do with the content of the reform but was fueled by popular anger over a largely stalled economy, immigration issues and disgust of perceived corruption and alienation from ruling Italian and European politicians.

“I actually like the reform, but I don’t like Renzi and he needs to go,” said Rossella, a homemaker in Rome who had just cast her ballot on Sunday and would not give her last name. “The left was supposed to protect workers like me and instead, our situation gets worse and worse,” said Loredana, a baker in the capital who also asked that her last name not be used. “I have no faith in this government. We need new elections to bring down this whole political class.”

A long march to victory

The Five Star Movement sought to quickly capitalize on the nearly 60 percent "no" vote in the referendum that sank Renzi. The movement called for immediate parliamentary elections, saying it was already working on the composition of its government, in the event that it comes to power.

With most polls showing that the movement is Italy’s most popular party, its rise to power appears almost inevitable, although it would not be instantaneous. Elections in Italy are all but impossible right now because last year the ruling center-left, certain it would win the referendum, passed an electoral reform that only provides for the election of the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, and delegates the selection of senators to regional authorities.

Now that the constitutional reform has been nixed and the Senate has retained its powers, there are no rules in place to elect the upper house. It will be up to President Sergio Mattarella to name a caretaker prime minister, possibly Renzi himself or a technocrat, to shepherd a new electoral law through parliament before calling early elections next year.

The bungling of electoral rules and the probable delay in returning to the ballot box are liable to further enrage many Italians and strengthen the Five Star Movement’s chances of victory.

An Italian Trump

The grassroots movement founded in 2009 has shot to success on promises of giving all citizens a stipend, nationalization of the country’s failing banks, taking Italy out of the euro and stemming the flow of migrants and refugees into the country. In 2013’s parliamentary elections, the party won 25 percent of the vote, shocking the political establishment, and in June, it triumphed in local elections, managing to get mayors elected in several key cities, including Rome.

The fact that the capital’s new mayor, Virginia Raggi, has failed to put together a stable city government for the last seven months, with her team plagued by many resignations and scandals, appears to have barely put a dent in the party’s popularity. Much like Trump and the supporters of Brexit, Grillo has been relying on a mix of rhetoric and populist promises to whip up support, mainly through his blog and a network of social media sites.

In November, the former comedian celebrated Trump’s victory as “a huge F*** you” to the world and acknowledged there were similarities between the Five Star Movement and Trump’s campaign, in that they both responded to rising popular anger against the establishment.

Grillo and his supporters live in the world of post-truth and use conspiracy theories and fake news to spread fear, hate and consolidate their political base. They have also lent their backing, and their huge social media platforms, to bizarre and unscientific theories: anti-vaccination campaigns, the idea that AIDS doesn’t exist and that cancer screenings are dangerous. And Jews and Israel feature heavily in the Five Star Movement’s paranoia, both explicitly and implicitly.

Grillo and his acolytes have spread the idea that the world is run by a secret cabal of bankers, financiers and politicians. The comedian has said he believes the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States may have been an inside job. He has railed against “Jewish Hollywood producers” and stated that a group led by a former Mossad agent controls all information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that reaches Europe. He has also called Israel “frightening” and “irresponsible” – suggesting the Jewish state may be seeking to start a Third World War.

Anti-Semitism among the Five Star Movement’s supporters is even less veiled than among the leadership and is rarely condemned by the top echelons. Jewish journalists and intellectuals who have criticized the party have been subjected to insult campaigns.

Putin’s long shadow

And as with Trump, questions have been raised in Italy and abroad about the Five Star Movement’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The party’s social media network frequently shares and translates fake news stories circulated by Kremlin-backed propaganda sources. The movement also sent delegates to the June conference of Putin’s United Russia party and its leaders have spoken out against Western sanctions on Russia. Manlio Di Stefano, the party’s point person for foreign policy, has also accused NATO of preparing “to launch a final attack on Russia.”

Is it unstoppable?

The Five Star Movement’s victory success in garnering support for the "no" side in the referendum marks the third major success this year of populist, nationalist forces that have been gaining ground across Europe and the United States. A further triumph by the party in the coming elections could cause instability in Europe, and theoretically could doom the euro if the eurozone’s third largest economy leaves the common currency.

If the movement rises to power, Israel can also expect a souring of its generally strong relations with Italy, against the backdrop of policies expressed by Five-Star activists such as Di Stefano, who during the 2014 Gaza war called on Rome to withdraw its ambassador from the Jewish state and suspend all economic ties.

But there are still a few stumbling blocks that the Five Star Movement must overcome on its road to power. One key difference with Trump’s movement is that Grillo’s party does not have a centralized leadership, and it is not clear if its comedian-founder will run for office. So far, Grillo has acted mostly as a spiritual leader and chief ideologue, while several young party members are vying for the leadership and a chance to be Italy’s next prime minister – a race that could tear the movement apart.

Italy’s traditional left and right parties could also band together in a coalition or engineer the new electoral law to make a Five-Star victory harder – but such political machinations are exactly what landed the establishment in hot water in the first place, and may backfire on them dangerously once voters get their say.

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