Is this America’s Mussolini moment?
NAPLES, Italy — At a massive fascist rally on October 24, 1922, a black-shirted Benito Mussolini promised to drain the swamp of the political establishment and restore Italy to greatness on the world stage. “We are going to strangle the old Italian political class,” he told the crowd. They responded by shouting, “Rome, Rome! Four days later, more than 30,000 squadrons— fascist squads engaged in political violence — marched on the capital.
Thus, a hundred years ago – more than a decade before Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party took control of Germany – the first fascist regime was established in the cradle of European civilization. Adored by millions, Mussolini would boast of having buried “the putrid corpse of freedom”. Biographer Paolo Monelli compared the embrace of the Italian people at “Il Duce” to that of the stars of the opera: “As one does with the tenors, they enjoyed his good long notes and the melody without paying the slightest attention to the words, but if they had listened more carefully, they would not have been surprised by the disaster later.
The same could be said of Donald Trump, whose refusal to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election looks like much of an assault on liberal democracy. There are various reasons for Trumpism’s resilience, but the most important reason – fear and loathing of political alternatives – demands our attention. This is what brought Mussolini and the Fascists to power.
Italy was on the winning side of World War I and its post-war economy was not as desperate as Germany’s. Yet his domestic situation was ready to be exploited. Veterans returned to a moribund economy; strikes and civil unrest had become the norm. The sense of disillusionment – 650,000 Italian troops killed with little evidence – deepened national divisions. Add to that the 1918 flu virus, which killed an estimated 466,000 Italians and contributed to national unrest.
Enter Mussolini, who presented himself as the only man capable of shaking up the system, rebuilding the economy and putting an end to the “paralysis” and “parasitic encrustation” of the Italian state. Like today’s cynics of the American electoral system, Mussolini derided the Italian parliament as “the plaything of the people,” ripe for revolution. “What do we fascists want? he asked the crowd. “We answered quite simply: the dissolution of the current House, electoral reform and elections shortly.
King Victor Emmanuel invited Mussolini to become prime minister not because of his political goals, but because of the possibility of a complete breakdown of the rule of law. The rise of communism in Italy – which terrified much of the population – had a lot to do with it.
In the aftermath of the war, the local soviets, districts under communist control, spread rapidly. Strikes and riots broke out across the country. Fascist mobs, armed with knives and pistols, clashed with Communists, Socialists and their sympathizers. Fascist candidates for the Chamber of Deputies in the October 1919 elections obtained only 4,000 votes; their socialist adversaries received forty times more. Mussolini, ridiculed as a political corpse, rechristened himself.
Former socialist and left-wing editor Avanti declared itself the only force capable of saving Italy from Marxism-Leninism. Mussolini forged an image as a champion of the poor, veterans and social justice. Perhaps most importantly, he developed a style of eloquence – colorful, brutal, pompous – that made him a captivating orator, regardless of his disregard for facts and logic. Luigi Barzini, who covered Mussolini’s rallies as a journalist, said he had “an instinctive ability to ride the emotional wave of the day, whatever it was, to know what people wanted tell them, and by what low collective passions they would do it more easily”. be taken away. »
The government’s inability to maintain law and order seemed to confirm the claim that Bolshevism could only be stopped by “salutary violence”. Fearing the militant atheism of the Communists, many Catholics supported Mussolini, who spoke with respect of the Church and of the “spiritual values” of the Italian people. Like no other political party, the Fascists seemed to be “on the side of freedom against tyranny”, writes Christopher Hibbett in Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of the Duce. “And so the virus of fascism was able to spread.”
Trump and his conservative supporters are often accused of taking a page from the fascist playbook. According to this view, the January 6 insurrection was a botched version of the march on Rome. History will pass judgment on Trumpism. Yet a lesson from Italy’s fascist past should not be missed: the radical and utopian schemes of the political left have fueled a cultural backlash. Communist contempt for capitalism, private property, traditional values, patriotism, Italy’s cultural heritage, all made Mussolini’s political vision plausible, even appealing.
“Let it be known,” he declared shortly after taking power, “that fascism knows no idols and is not a worshiper of fetishes. He has already trampled, and if need be, will still trample, the decomposing body of the goddess Liberty.
In truth, Mussolini, along with Marx and Lenin, inaugurated the idolatry of politics. Thus, the disease of totalitarianism – the submission of the individual to an omnicompetent state embodied in a cult of personality – was unleashed. Although fascism is associated with the political right, its mentality can be found on the political left as well. And, as we have seen, politically motivated violence defies mere partisan labels.
Whatever the ultimate fate of Trumpism, America’s Mussolini moment is far from over.
Joseph Loconte is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Grove City College and Senior Fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of God, Locke and Freedom: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West.