It was the end of the summer, Italians were getting back to their routines and on the evening of September 5th, many found themselves watching a live message on Facebook from the Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini. Nothing special had taken place, but the minister’s staff announced Salvini’s on-line speech with great anticipation on social networks. The minister appeared punctually with a theatrical prop:
“Let’s open together the letter I received from the Palermo tribunal, I wonder what is inside. We Italians don’t like receiving correspondence from state institutions”. The letter, Salvini knew, contained a letter notifying him of a criminal investigation opened against him.
Salvini used the occasion to launch a populist call to arms against the “liberal political culture” pervasive among judges. “I think that the overwhelming majority of Italians would be confused: This means that one state institution is now investigating another.” “The difference between the two branches of government,” Salvini said from his ministerial desk in central Rome, “is that you elected this minister. You asked him to restrict arrivals and expel illegal immigrants. I consider you to be my friends, my supporters and my accomplices. Whereas others, he said in reference to the judges, “have not been elected by anyone and are not accountable to anyone.”
“Anyone who touches you will face us next”
Anybody familiar with the “witch hunt” refrain used by President Trump to describe the Mueller investigation on Russian meddling in the American electoral process might find this un-statesmanlike attack familiar.
It is not the first time that politicians and judges have clashed: former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi did battle with the Italian judiciary for decades. The case of Salvini is different: he is not being investigated for his private behavior but for his policies as minister, namely leaving dozens migrants on a boat for days. The reaction of ministry’s fans – it has 3.1 million Facebook followers – has been confrontational and agressive: for example, “Anyone who touches you will face us next”, “We will stop the Communist judges who want to stop you”.
The next day #complicediSalvini (Salvini’s Accomplice) a hashtag launched by the politician’s social media strategist who was been instrumental to the Lega’s leader success. One analyst, Luca Alagna, noted that the most intensive use of the hashtag and retweets appeared to come from the United States between midnight and 5AM, while most Italians were asleep.
The 45-year old Matteo Salvini has led the Lega through its metamorphosis from a regional-localist-pro EU party and key ally of Silvio Berlusconi, into a nationalist, anti-European and xenophobic parliamentary block whose strength seems likely to keep growing through next year’s European elections. Salvini had never before served in government and had no experience in the rural backwaters of Lombardy and the Veneto where the Lega first took root as a fiscal-cultural revolt against Rome and the Italian South. Salvini comes from the big city, Milan, and since his days hosting call-in shows on the party’s Radio Padania, he has been single-mindedly focused on immigration, not North-South relations.
Salvini is surfing on a wave of resentment: the Italian middle and working class have been weakened by globalization since the 1990s and have had a gloomy outlook of the future and a bad attitude towards immigration for a long time. Both Pew Research Center and Eurostat surveys have shown that Italians have strong prejudices against Jews, Muslims and Roma/Sinti, and they generally believe that migrants have not integrated and have a negative impact on cities where they live.
Salvini’s audience has been primed by a prolonged recession, a weak economic recovery and an iron fist in Brussels on Italian national spending have made things worse. The refugee crisis also played a role in making this Salvini’s moment. The European Union is seen as a set of institutions that dictated harsh austerity policies and then stood by idly while Italy experienced its its own migration crisis.
The NIM Index combines 22 answers to questions on Nationalism, Immigration, anti jewish or nationalist sentiment, according to it, Italians are mos likely western europeans to express nationalists, anti immigrant or anti-minority sentiment.
Given the perceptions, prejudice and convictions prevalent among Italians in 2018, it is no surprise that Salvini has adopted the rhetoric of Donald J. Trump and Steve Bannon. The Lega leader is Trumpian in his communication style and Bannonian in ideological terms. Like Trump, Salvini uses outlandish rhetoric to help the Lega set the agenda. Its coalition partners (though not quite “allies”), the 5 Star Movement, follows along while the left opposition, led by the Democratic Party, indicates few signs of life and no alternative narrative.
In the hope of following Donald Trump successful path to the top spot, Salvini has adopted similar tactics – simple-minded and/or incoherent policy solutions, using patriotism as a cudgel, denouncing fake news. Choosing a similar political path to the one traced by Steve Bannon and Donald Trump does not necessarily mean that Salvini has formed “Pact of Steel” with these men. Their shared interests helped their message resonate in their respective national societies but Bannon’s European engagement places himself and his nationalist ideology at the center. His fame has opened doors in European press and television even though he is more of a pundit or agitator than a transnational leader and ideologue.
Like his Facebook livestreams, the announcement of a new foundation — “The Movement” – which is presented as a way to serve to serve as a counter-weight to George Soros and the Open Society Foundations, is another way to stay relevant and remain an on-screen presence without spending a dollar or an euro. This strategy has helped Salvini occupy the central part of the stage in the Italian political landscape and to make his party, which came third in march 2018 political elections, set the agenda.
Luca Morisi and “La Bestia”
Even if there is no Right-Wing International, the parties still talk to one another. Far-right Republicans like Iowa representative Steve King, have met with Europe’s principal xenophobic leaders, and others have received them in Washington. Salvini and Marine Le Pen have also used the European Parliament, ironically, to forge a strong relation, and the two also share an admiration for Russia.
During the campaign Morisi and his team developed a tool the call “La Bestia”, the beast, which they used to monitor supporters’ sentiments and reactions to every internet posting and adjust accordingly. Morisi and his devoted staff have found fast and clever ways to spread the message: “Vinci Salvini” — win a dinner with Salvini – rewarded the fastest commenter on Salvini’s Facebook page with a meal. That meant that every post got an immediate boost in visibility from hundreds of comments as soon as it appeared. This required no sponsorship, just the clever use of the algorithm.
For the past six years, Morisi has advised Salvini to use Facebook rather than Twitter to address Italians directly. Facebook can be used to address a political theme with a meme, with videos and also to “be yourself”, showing where you are, what you eat, whom you meet, what you like and what you don’t like. When former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was the tech-savvy golden boy on Twitter, Salvini became the “tell-it-like-it-is” guy you meet at the bar, sometimes tough, sometimes vulgar, sometimes sweet with his children and sympathetic to Italians who got robbed by immigrants or whose house was destroyed by an earthquake. He talked like the average guy, while Renzi and his cool circle looked out of touch with a society which was (is) angry and in disarray.
As elections season entered the final weeks, Salvini’s political message and social media strategy was increasingly polarizing and rough-hewn. Perhaps it was The Beast that told Morisi & Co. to behave in this manner: they saw a market for resentment politics and they fed it one post at a time. Along with the resentment and anger there was always a positive message: We will solve this, We will get rid of them, We will do a great job. Why? Because we are like you and we know how it feels, while the globalist, leftist, pro-European and pro immigration NGOs who rescue migrants and get money from George Soros do not care, do not know how you feel and have done nothing to solve your problems.
Salvini successfully floods the airwaves, the Internet and various news and social media with his presence. When it’s vacation time, Salvini is posing on the beach for a selfie. When it’s time to go shopping, there is video of him visiting a market, eliciting applause, shaking hands. When he eats out, he posts pictures of his food. At every critical political turning point, there was Matteo Salvini, live on Facebook. Salvini described every town he visited as having given him an “enthusiastic” reception even when this was not the case — another Trumpian reflex. The political advisor Morisi calls it “Tv-Web-Groundwork” (TRT, Tv-Rete-Territorio), Salvini’s trinity of electioneering. A perfect example of this strategy can be read in the following Tweet: “I have never stopped walking the streets to tell you what we are doing as a government. Your enthusiasm and affection gives me strength and helps me carry on. Thanks my friends!” Here we see the positive message – with a musical soundtrack – that accompanies the party’s blaming of the powerful and the foreign. The electoral appeal is not simply fear: Salvini is selling kinship and a way out.
🔵 Da quando siamo al governo non ho mai smesso di scendere in piazza, portandovi di persona i risultati ottenuti in questi primi mesi.
Trasmettendomi il vostro affetto e il vostro entusiasmo, dal Piemonte fino alla Puglia, mi avete dato la forza di non mollare.
Grazie Amici! pic.twitter.com/G0bboing1p
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) 13 agosto 2018
The Lega leader’s Tactics did not change overnight when “the captain” became Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister in 2018. Salvini has stood by his choice not to become too “institutional”: he intends to remain “the people’s voice.” His ministry prevented an Italian Naval vessel that had rescued dozens of migrants from docking for several days and later kept the migrants on board under the beating sun. When the migrants declared a hunger strike, Salvini’s answer was: “They can do what they want. In Italy there are 5 million people in absolute poverty who go on a hunger strike every single day and there is no one – not amongst the politically correct, no journalist, no leftist — who cares”.
Immigrati della #Diciotti in sciopero della fame?
Facciano come credono.
In Italia vivono 5 milioni di persone in POVERTÀ assoluta (1,2 milioni di BAMBINI) che lo sciopero della fame lo fanno tutti i giorni, nel silenzio di buonisti, giornalisti e compagni vari.#primagliitaliani pic.twitter.com/Y4Ld2STvTr
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) 24 agosto 2018
This leaves open the tantalizing possibility that Salvini has in mind a solution for combatting poverty in Italy. In reality, he is only implying that giving shelter to the migrants would be a further burden on the Italian poor.
As for racism, did Donald Trump mean that all Mexicans immigrants are rapist and “bad hombres” when he used those formulations? If so, he only hinted at it. The video below shows a scene in Naples where a someone interrupts the halal butchering of a goat for the Eid al-Hada. Salvini’s comment was: “Today, Muslims celebrate the Feast of the sacrifice that contemplates the cutting of the throat of animals. This kid was saved, but around the country thousands have been butchered with no pity”.
Salvini is implying that Muslims are pitiless brutes, but he does not say so directly. As for his own behavior, he has posted innumerable tweets and live videos involving food and show him at a barbecue, or defending hunters and attacking “metropolitan sofa environmentalists”. The Lega even recently organized a bear barbecue on behalf of protection of bears in national Parks in Trentino Alto-Adige.
Oggi in tutta Italia i fedeli musulmani hanno celebrato la #festadelsacrificio, che prevede il #sacrificio di un animale, sgozzandolo.
A Napoli questo capretto è stato salvato all’ultimo ma nel resto del Paese centinaia di migliaia di bestie sono state macellate senza pietà. pic.twitter.com/yXGkwjPgJU
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) August 21, 2018
Being Trumpian means implementing radical right wing policies while avoiding other crucial and important issues. The ruling coalition in Italy has made a series of huge promises and does not know how to deliver. The “Perils of Perceptions” survey by Ipsos found that Italians have the least accurate perceptions among all European countries surveyed. Both Eurostat and Eurispes also found a huge overestimation of the presence of immigrants (and Muslims in particular) in the country. Traditional and social media have exacerbated these misperceptions. Nonetheless, Italians are more convinced than others that they don’t live in a news bubble.
Being Trumpian on immigration
On immigration, Salvini proposes the abrogation of the humanitarian protection status, new limits upon the acquisition of Italian citizenship and more money for deportations. It is not a policy that will deter people from traveling across the sea, but it says “I am tough on these fake refugees.” Crime is another area where misperceptions are high: crime and murder rate have been down for years, but the current Lega-5 Star government adopted one of Salvini’s proposals: easing access to guns, including automatic guns, and ammunition.
There has been talk of an Italian version of a “stand your ground law”: trespassers are fair game. At the annual Hit Show fair in Vicenza (a weapons convention), Salvini promised to write the new legislation together with the gun producers association. This mirrors a process in many republican controlled State legislative assemblies in the United States where ALEC and the NRA have helped local legislators author pro-gun laws.
On Europe, Salvini has created a tight bond with the Hungarian leader Viktor Orban. His group voted against the censure of Hungary at the European Parliament. The decision was explained using the same argument used against the Italian judges: you don’t condemn an elected government. Left unspoken was whether having a direct mandate from the people was a good enough reason to disregard the rule of law. The Lega leader used a similar reasoning when he clashed with Luxembourg Foreign Minister Alsselborn: his words at the meeting with other european ministers were meant to be heard buy his people, not to present possible solutions to the so called migrant crisis. As every other clash with pro-european leaders, the incident was a propaganda tool on social media. Salvini’s instinct tells him what the survey’s confirm: “Europe” is unpopular.
While Salvini and Trump may deploy some of the the same ideas and have a similar colloquial tone, there are important institutional differences. Trump faces a strong opposition and inhabits a two party system. This means he needs to mobilize core supporters who are probably too radical for the rest of Americans. The Italian leader’s views, meanwhile, overlap with those of a large portion of Italian society. He acts as a parliamentary leader in a multiparty system that has proportional representation. This gives Salvini a huge advantage over the competition – it makes his adoption of the Trump-Bannon swagger a sure hit.
Photo: TIZIANA FABI / AFP