Giorgia Meloni in Trento, Italy, on September 10, 2022. Image credit: Pierre Teyssote / Shutterstock
Following the September 25 elections in Italy, Giorgia Meloni will become the country’s next Prime Minister. A major drop in voter turnout signaled deep disillusionment among the Italian public. Brothers of Italy (FdI) benefited from the historic prospect of Meloni’s leadership, as she is set to become the first ever woman head of the Italian government. FdI also profited from being the only party in opposition to Mario Draghi’s technocratic unity government, although its rise can be dated earlier.
Beyond these important themes, a less obvious transnational story permeates Meloni and FdI’s success. In a successful bid to destigmatize her party’s image, Meloni consistently emphasized her ties and similarities to the American GOP and other governing conservative parties—a means of projecting a normal, nonthreatening profile.
At the same time, FdI advocated a robustly transatlantic approach to foreign policy within a country and a political tradition (“post-fascism”) that have both been either lukewarm or actively opposed to the American-led European security order. Both of these developments reflect significant historical breaks in the trajectory of the European Far Right.
Traditionally, the European Far Right was anti-American. The United States was not just the enemy responsible for defeating historical fascism, it was the most vivid representative of cultural values opposed by diverse strands of far-right activists and intellectuals. While largely abandoning the anti-capitalism of fascism’s movement stage, the postwar Far Right remained indebted to the fascist critique of materialism, identifying the United States as the primary bearer of a decadent materialist culture.
In a study analyzing the ideology of far-right parties in the European Parliament from 1989 to 1994, political scientists Fennema and Pollmann found anti-American attitudes to be ubiquitous. One member of the European Parliament for the Italian Social Movement (FdI’s precursor) even temporarily left the party because it was not anti-American enough for him. The leader of the Group of the European Right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, gave an interview in 1989 in which he identified the United States and Japan as the primary threats to Europe. Le Pen, fierce defender of French colonial rule, later opposed the first Gulf War.
Geert Wilders—now a marginal figure in Dutch politics—was one of the most important figures in effecting a move toward a more transatlantic far-right politics. Rather than fascist ideologues, Wilders’ heroes were Churchill, Reagan, and Thatcher. His most important political ally, Martin Bosma, studied at New York City’s New School for Social Research during the 1990s and used his time in the United States to immerse himself in the works of Republican media strategists and neoconservative thinkers. Another of Wilders’ comrades, Bart Jan Spruyt, boasted an expansive network among the GOP elite, and took Wilders on a trip to the United States in 2005.
The release of Wilders’ 2008 anti-Islam film Fitna made him an international celebrity. Conservatives invited him to screen the film at the US Congress and the British Parliament. He became a popular speaker within the Islamophobic “counter-jihad” movement that emerged in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. American right-wing activists like Pamela Geller, Daniel Pipes, and David Horowitz offered him patronage or direct financial contributions. Wilders became—as an article published in Foreign Policy artfully put it—“America’s favorite Islamophobe.”
Wilders saw Jews and Israel as natural allies, and other far-right Europeans copied Wilders’ anti-Islam, pro-Israel stance. The most stunning example of this was a multilateral far-right delegation that visited Israel in 2010.
Wilders’ pivot to the US caught on. The “Europe of Nations and Freedom” (ENF) group in the European Parliament, the product of a partnership between Wilders and Marine Le Pen, sent a delegation to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2016, hoping to meet Trump. Their trip was paid for using European Parliament funds for “fact-finding missions.” One constituent party of the ENF, Austria’s Freedom Party, pushed this angle further, partying in Trump Tower on election night, and attending the 2017 inauguration at the invitation of Iowa Congressman Steve King.
Since then, even far-right parties that were once vehemently anti-American moved towards a more transatlantic posture. France’s Rassemblement National sent Marine’s niece Marion Maréchal Le Pen to CPAC in 2018. There, the younger Le Pen delivered a speech in English, claiming: “I want America first for the American people, I want Britain first for the British people, and I want France first for the French people.” Increasingly, the French Far Right as a whole demonstrates engagement with American themes. They imported a culture war script attacking wokisme and promoted unfounded claims of election fraud accompanied with exhortations to “stop the steal.”
Giorgia Meloni now represents a cadre of European far-right leaders whose views are fully legible to the American Far Right.
Consider for example the softball interview with Meloni conducted by Maria Bartiromo in early August on the Fox Business TV channel. Throughout the interview, the dark history of Meloni’s party was never brought up. Instead, emphasis was placed on Meloni’s prospect of becoming Italy’s first woman leader, her previous service as Italy’s youngest cabinet minister, and her associations with mainstream conservatives in the European Union and the United States.
At one point, Bartiromo erroneously referred to Meloni as the president of “the European Conservative Party,” an entity that does not exist. The actual referent of this remark was no doubt the “European Conservatives and Reformists” (ECR) party. The ECR has been conventionally understood to represent softer eurosceptics and conservatives to the right of the Christian Democrats (although not the Radical Right). Traditionally home of the British Tories, the ECR changed substantially in recent years.
Today, the illiberal Polish Law and Justice party dominate the group, which now includes not only Meloni’s FdI, but also the Sweden Democrats, and Spanish VOX. The group elected Meloni as its president in September 2020.
Later in the interview, Bartiromo highlighted Meloni’s American connections, saying: “I know you’ve been a friend to the United States, having traveled here many times, met with leadership—you were even at CPAC last year!” And indeed Meloni was; she was an official speaker at CPAC in both 2019 and 2022. Clips from these speeches were liberally shared by the CPAC Twitter account last on September 26 as Meloni’s triumph came into focus.
Several aspects of Meloni’s more recent CPAC speech are noteworthy. First, she skillfully drew parallels between the situations in Italy and the United States, asserting “it’s the same all over the world.” More concretely, she explicitly compared the situation at the US border to Sicily, the latter of which serves as a major point of entry for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe by boat.
Identifying the enemy, Meloni invoked a global elite working against the interests of “conservatives” in Italy, the United States, and beyond, saying: “And we know, that our adversaries [are] operating globally, applying the same tactics and the same ideology to destroy our identities and what makes us who we really are.” She even mentioned “RINOs” and threats to the “education of our children.” All that was missing was an attack on “groomers” and a call to boycott Disney.
Perhaps Meloni’s most important break with the traditions of the Italian Far Right is her strong support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion. It would have been easy for FdI to exploit the Draghi government’s aid as one more point to distinguish itself as the sole opposition party. While this move can also be interpreted as a means of drawing a favorable contrast with her historically pro-Putin coalition partners, for the moment, Meloni seems more than comfortable with the American-led security order in Europe—something that was always a concern for more Russophile parties like the Rassemblement National, Austrian Freedom Party, and Italy’s own Lega.
Equally remarkable is Meloni’s recorded video, distributed to the international media on August 10th. Meloni is a polyglot. Besides Italian, she’s fluent in French, English, and Spanish, quite an impressive feat for any politician, let alone one of the Italian Far Right. In the video, Meloni sought to capitalize on this linguistic prowess by moving between the latter three languages with ease. In her video, Meloni cast her party as a peer of “the British Tories, the US Republicans, and the Israeli Likud.” She also attempted to distance her party from its neo-fascist roots, claiming that “the Italian Right has handed fascism over to history for decades now, unambiguously condemning the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws.”
The underlying logic uniting these various media performances is the use of transnational affiliations as a resource for projecting a respectable image of normality. Although FdI is rooted in the tradition of Italy’s distinctive “post-fascist” political scene, it holds the advantage of being something of an unknown quantity on the international stage. Long-established, highly visible parties like the French Rassemblement National and the Austrian Freedom Party bear the stigma of long-established extremist reputations that they must continually manage. The FdI, much like its partner VOX, is a newly prominent party. This allows for more maneuverability in terms of strategically framing its image. This election was a critical juncture for the party and the payoff for locking in a more positive reputation could prove to be high.
Although one might assume that Steve Bannon, who took great interest in Italian politics (and European politics more broadly) a few years back, made an impact, the truth is that there is no need to posit a shadowy conspiracy of operatives working behind the scenes to secure the success of the Far Right internationally. The transnational dynamics that matter—including the reputational laundering of justly stigmatized actors—are occurring right here in public.
But it is also true that the entry of American actors into the field of the global Far Right is an event of great historical significance. The American conservative movement commands unparalleled access to the international English language media, and boasts an institutional apparatus and war chest dwarfing even the most successful far-right parties of Europe. The role of the GOP and American activist groups as increasingly central nodes within the global far-right network accelerates the process of normalization that Meloni’s FdI so clearly illustrates.
Lucas Dolan is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of International Service and an Associate of the Illiberal Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.