Giorgia Meloni is the impending new Italian prime minister of the right whose defense of traditional faith and family, and critique of gender ideology, has drawn plaudits from some American conservatives and claims of fascism from some progressives.   A 2019 video of her punchily making these points circulated widely after the election.

Although the genealogy of her early political career can trace back to Mussolini-like themes, Meloni is not a fascist, affirms democracy, professes to be pro-American and, unlike the European far-right, affirms NATO and support for Ukraine against Russia. But neither should she be unreservedly celebrated as a Catholic champion of Christian civilization.  She is of course a politician who pushes the right buttons for her constituency. Her victory rally included on the stage former Italian Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, now age 86 but with dyed hair and stretched skin, in whose government she served.  He also championed Christian civilization especially in the wake of 9-11, contributing Italian troops to the U.S.-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.  And he was infamous for his personal debauchery at “bunga-bunga” parties, with underage girls, amid shady finances.

Meloni seems to be, like other figures of the European new right, a rhetorical friend of “Christian” identity without necessarily being religiously devout herself or particularly shaped by the church.  She has a small child with her unmarried “partner,” a politically left-leaning male television journalist who works for Berlusconi’s network.  Meloni’s apparent cohabitation with him and having a child out of wedlock, at odds with Catholic teaching, does not appear to have been very controversial or to have impaired her appeal among voters of the right in secularizing Italy.

For over four decades after World War II, Italy was led by the Catholic-informed Christian Democratic Party, which has since dissolved, leaving little traceable Catholic influence in the center of Italian political life.  The Christian Democratic Party’s chief adversary for 40 years was the Italian Communist Party, which has since shattered into new less ominous parties of the left.  The Italian Communist Party was founded in 1922, the same year as Mussolini’s new National Fascist Party seized power and established dictatorship that later disastrously aligned with Hitler.  Amid the retreat of public Catholicism in Italy, much of the remaining Italian new right has at least remote if traceable ties across decades to the old Fascist right, which does not mean contemporary rightists are Fascists. 

Meloni ran on the slogan of “God, Country, Family,” which critics especially in America rushed to equate with fascism.  It’s true that Italian Fascism and other far-right WWII era regimes, like Vichy France and Franco’s Spain, touted slogans about God, country and family.  But, obviously equating support for God, country and family to fascism is absurd.  Yet it’s also unwise to equate Meloni’s political movement, and other continental European rightist movements, with Anglo-American conservatism.  The latter traditionally stresses liberty and limited government, with less equation of national identity with ethnic or religious identity. The former is much more statist, corporatist, and nationalist both ethnically and religiously.

In the widely circulated 2019 video clip, Melon demonized “financial speculators” as subverters of family, faith and country.  Some harsh critics speculated ominously about a potential euphemism for Jews.  This allegation is unfair without other evidence.  The quote instead recalls that the European continental right, whether new or old, is not as friendly to commerce and capitalism as Anglo-American conservatism, which is more typically wedded to classical liberalism and free markets.  In America and Britain, demonizing financial speculators is traditionally more popular on the left than on the right.  During the Depression FDR, citing Theodore Roosevelt, disparaged “malefactors of great wealth.”  

FDR clarified that he was not disparaging most business or wealthy people but a “minority which includes the type of individual who speculates with other people’s money…and also the type of individual who says that popular government cannot be trusted and, therefore, that the control of business of all kinds and, indeed, of Government itself should be vested in the hands of one hundred or two hundred all-wise individuals controlling the purse strings of the Nation.”  Unnamed “speculators” are an easy villain in populist politics.  Who will politically defend the “speculators?”

FDR likely didn’t fully believe his own rhetoric about financial speculators in this case.  And perhaps Meloni does not either.  Politicians of all stripes and cultures across the ideological spectrum insist the general population is virtuous but victimized by unnamed elitists who are depriving the people of the endless benefits they really deserve.  Margaret Thatcher, the first female premier of her nation just as Meloni will be of hers, was a rare leader who resisted this pandering and told voters they must work to deserve the fruits of their labor, with government chiefly getting out of the way.  

Thatcherism worked for Thatcher but rarely works for other politicians, who more successfully appeal to resentments and fears.  Hopefully much of Meloni’s rhetoric in this regard is mostly showmanship and she governs pragmatically, not as a crusade of resentment.  More somberly, she has promised a pro-American, Atlanticist Italy that is “trustworthy, loyal, serious, starting with the defense of the Ukrainian people from the Russian invasion.”  This promise does not dazzle crowds hungry for red meat, but it signals potential sobriety.