Italian Populism 2.0 -Op Ed II

In a world overrun with constant political scandals, internet debates and conspiracies, the results of the Italian election this month has largely blended in with all the other headlines here in North America. However, this headline in particular should not be ignored. The result of the election was that approximately 55% of the voters chose right-wing populist parties who based their platforms on xenophobia, Euroscepticism, and anti-establishment policies. This may come as a shock to some, especially as it contradicts the image of an idealistic multicultural Europe, but this outcome did not come out of nowhere. For one, the results are definitely related to the underlying causes of both the Brexit vote and the 2016 American election. However, the current rise of populism in Italy can also be directly linked to the rise of Mussolini in the 1930s.

This is not the first immersion of 21st-century populism in Italy either. For many years, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was the face of Italian populism. His big promises for Italy made him popular despite many scandals and corruption accusations. However, he was ultimately ousted from power in 2011 and barred from holding office following a tax fraud conviction. It would be easy to say his influence has largely diminished, especially considering his Forza Italia party polled poorly in the recent election. In reality, his influence in promoting populism has become bigger than him, with his more extreme right allies and opponents winning more power.  The two parties most notable for performing well this election were The League, an extreme right party known for their xenophobic views, and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

So, why did these parties do so well this election? For one, economic problems are a huge factor. Time and time again, economic hardship leads to disgruntled population, which in turn leads to the rise of populism. In the 1930’s, this was mainly due to the aftermath of WW1, which led to high debts, unemployment, and inflation. It’s no coincidence that Italy is also currently plagued by high unemployment, debt, and other economic troubles. The Five Star Movement received a large percentage of votes from youth in the South, an area in which youth unemployment is incredibly high. There is a sense of the necessity for change, which coincides with anti-establishment ideals. The League, on the other hand, is more Trump-like as they put the blame on the left, immigrants and the European elite.

This leads to another commonality; hyper-nationalism and the need to blame an “other”. In the 1930’s and 40’s, fascist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler infamously promoted antisemitism in their parties. Europe had had a long history of tensions between Christian and Jewish populations, and as such, Jewish people made for an easy scapegoat at the time. Nowadays, the primary scapegoat in Europe is Muslims. Recent terrorist attacks in Europe, as well as the refugee crisis, has lead to rampant Islamophobia across the continent. Italy is no exception. The sheer amount of refugees from the Middle East has only exasperated Italy’s problems even further, which makes them a convenient target for the right. Indeed, the League, in particular, has been promoting “Italian First” anti-immigration policies, many of which call for mass deportation. Both parties also look to blaming the EU in order to promote nationalistic ideals. There are a number of reasons why Europe itself makes for a good scapegoat. For one, the adoption of the Euro in Italy means it cannot rely on inflation and devaluing its currency as a tactic for an economic boost. There is also the sentiment of unfairness, as countries such as Germany are doing better economically and are seen as having more political power.

In the end, all of these factors create a perfect storm for the rise of the populist right. It may seem hasty to compare the current parties to Mussolini’s government. However, the circumstances are certainly similar. The parties platforms are certainly similar. Perhaps most importantly, the hatred permeating into politics is certainly the same.

First Responder: the Radical Right in Multicultural Europe

This week, the readings reflected on European multiculturalism. The question was not IS Europe multicultural but rather WHAT has been the backlash to Europe being multicultural. All of the readings address the surge of right-wing populist groups within recent years, whose platforms are a combination of xenophobia, nativism, Islamophobia and (in contract to Fascist dictators of the early 20th century) democratic values.

These groups first began to take form in the 1980’s when immigrants and minorities in Europe became less secluded and more “visible” in society. Their purpose was to preserve the “us” (usually white Christians) from “them” (minorities). It should be noted that the “them” does change depending on the country. For example, antisemitism can be found in groups from the east but typically not in the west. Meanwhile, Islamophobia is most common throughout Europe.

In any case, these groups have become much stronger in recent years. While there are many reasons, the readings suggest this is mainly due to a combination of the weak traditional elite, the refugee crisis, and recent terror attacks. These recent events have caused general discontentment to come to a boiling point, which is a recipe for popularity in radical ideologies. This is especially due to the left and more moderate rights having few tangible ideas for how to address such problems. In conclusion, while there is lack of a blueprint on how to confront these issues (in addition to other issues that arise from multiculturalism such as debates on the burka or Black Pete), the radical right will continue only to gain traction at the expense of a multicultural Europe.

The Reality of Reality: Omarosa Manigault on Celebrity Big Brother

Since the explosion of reality television at the turn of the 21st century, they become perceived as a lighthearted form of entertainment lacking in any credibility whatsoever. However, with the election of reality star Donald Trump, reality shows have become more intertwined with politics than ever before. This is certainly evident with the appearance of Omarosa Manigault, former Director of Communications at the White House Office of Public Liaison, on Celebrity Big Brother.

Although this is the first American celebrity season, Big Brother has been on the air in the USA since 2000. The premise involves contestants being locked in a house under 24/7 surveillance. Every week they compete and one contestant is evicted, with the last remaining contestant winning a cash prize. Although the show has had its share of controversy (see: Big Brother 15 racism controversy), casting a celebrity with such a publicized political background is very new for the show. This has brought new interest, but also new problems of using a reality show as a source of political news.

Last week, news broke about a conversation Omarosa had in the house with fellow contestant Ross Mathews. In it, she described the current state of the White House, stating “it’s bad” and “It’s not going to be okay”. She has since warned fellow contestants that if Vice President Mike Pence became president, they would be “begging for the days of Trump” as Pence “thinks Jesus tells him to say things”.

The public has reacted to these claims with both concern and outrage on both sides of the political spectrum.

There are three main ways of looking at these statements: 1) she’s lying as part of the game, 2) she’s exaggerating, using the show to get personal revenge or 3) she’s telling the truth.

In my opinion, the reality is a combination of all three.

First of all, one has to remember that although Big Brother has 24/7 cameras, it is fundamentally a competition show.

Unlike U.K. version, the public has little impact on the game; essentially meaning only the other contestants matter. It is actually closer in format to Survivor in that lying is imperative for success. It it no coincidence that the most prolific players are noted primarily for being deceptive.

Therefore, the very nature of the reality show makes it a not very credible source. What is said on Big Brother is not the modern Watergate, considering the contestants signed up for the show and are aware of the cameras. It is more comparable to a traditional televised interview, except if the interviewee were also trying to compete with the interviewer.

Omarosa, a veteran of The Apprentice, is no doubt savvy to the gameplay aspect of Big Brother. Her only real chance in the game is to distance herself from Trump. The fact that her audience in the first conversation was Ross Mathews (of Rupaul’s Drag Race) who explicitly stated he didn’t understand people who support Trump, only supports the theory that she said it to play the game.

However, as reality show veteran, she must also be very aware of the consequences of such remarks. She may be currently isolated, but from her personal experience, she must know how one comment can ignite a firestorm. There is no doubt her remarks have done this.

Regardless of her intent, in the wake of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury her comments have gained traction to the point of even being addressed in White House press conferences. Once released from Big Brother, she has to defend what she said. Would she really risk her reputation over a lie in a reality show? I’d argue no.

While her comments certainly serve the purpose of gameplay and may be an exaggeration due to her uneasy relationship with the Trump administration, I don’t think she would go all in on such comments if they did not have at least some truth to them. The reality show context complicates the use of her comments as a source of information, but that does not mean they are completely invalid. Rather, in the era of “fake news,” we should just be even more careful to evaluate new sources of information than ever before.

First Responder: It CAN Happen Here

Well, it has finally come time to directly talk about the “greatest nation on earth”.

The topic of the week is supposed to be specifically about 1930’s America. However, considering Linda Gordon’s article “What Do We Mean by Populism? The “Second” Klan as a Case Study” directly addresses the 2016 election and Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” is currently being advertised on as “The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal.”, I don’t think it’s presumptuous to believe that most readers will relate these directly to the current political scene.

Indeed, this is a very important comparison to make. However, it is because it is so important that it is not to be taken lightly or haphazardly.

First, one must understand one fundamental aspect of America. In America, one of the first things every child learns is that they live in the greatest nation on Earth. This is not up for debate, this is just a fact. You live in the land of freedom, opportunity, and incorruptible democracy and should be proud.  We foreigners may scoff at this abundant confidence, but such patriotism is one of America’s greatest strengths.

That being said, it’s also its greatest weakness.

As the title suggests, the idea that totalitarianism “can’t happen here” references a false sense of security amongst Americans. The power of the book is that it totally can happen here, as the fictional Buzz Windrip rises to absolute power not by European invasion but within the American political system itself.

The reason he is able to do this is primarily due to the sense of resentment amongst the American people. When you are told from birth that you live in the greatest place in the world, whenever reality doesn’t live up to this it leads to major discontentment. Of course, it is very hard if not near impossible to completely give up on your ideology. And thus, people look to pass blame upon the “others”; foreigners, minorities, political parties, the press, etc. As Gordan points out, it is important to understand that this does not usually stem from a hatred of a particular group, as much as general resentment taking form in hatred towards a particular group. It matters little which group is blamed, as long as there is someone to blame.

This is why we should take caution in making such comparisons. The important aspect of such dangerous groups like the KKK or the fictional Windrip supporters is not the specifics of their ideologies but the overall trends. An American dictatorship can happen, and we cannot be blinded into thinking it cannot because it would take a slightly different form than a European dictatorship. In that same note, however, we should also understand it would be different than a Windrip-style American dictator from the 1930s. It is only by acknowledging the fundamental differences that one can build a strong case for why the similar overall trends are so dangerous.




Repost: Week 2 Medieval Imagery In Hate Groups

Note: I wasn’t able to post on the Hate 2.0 blog the first week of responses, so I posted it on my own blog. Since I now have access to write on this blog, I was asked to repost it. Sorry for interrupting the excellent week 5 responses!

This week, the readings were regarding the use of medieval symbolism by groups like the Nazi party and the KKK. It is interesting that such hate groups would latch onto the Medieval period, or at least, their perception of the Medieval period for ideas. However, once you reflect on it, it is not that surprising. Groups such as these are angry at the way things are, and thus it makes sense that they seek to go back to the way things were previously. Well, not how things actually were, but how they’d like to think they were. They seem to view the medieval age with rose-colored glasses, ignoring anything historically bad about the age in order to glorify what supports their cause. Part of it seems to be a sort of nostalgia for a “golden age”, similar to how one might view the 50’s, 20’s, or the Victorian era as the perfect time period. Medieval times does get romanticized a lot; particularly the idea of brave chivalrous knights and beautiful subservient princesses waiting to be rescued. There is something alluring to being the knight in shining armor. However, I think it is clear there were other more sinister aspects of the medieval era these particular groups idolized. For one, the strict feudal society replicates what they wanted; a hierarchy decided by birthright. Being white men, they believed they should remain at the top of society with everyone else beneath them. Of course, there were plenty of white peasants, but that did not matter to them. In the case of the Nazis, they also used medieval imagery to promote nationalism. Being such a fledgling party, they needed a way to legitimize themselves and connect with the German people. By harkening back to their heritage, it allowed them to simultaneously form a bond with the white Germans while demonizing outsiders. In the end, I think they chose the Medieval era because it served their ideologies, not the other way around. These groups could have just as easily chosen Ancient Rome and morphed its image around their causes. Ultimately, I think the image of the Medieval era was just the most convenient fit for them.

Sweeper: Italian Fascism

Hello, it’s your friendly neighborhood last minute sweeper here to comment on the discussions this week regarding the Italian Fascist state.

Now, the first responders have pretty accurately summed up both the similarities and differences between different fascist states (notably Italy and Germany). Of course, there are many similarities, and there is no doubt that the rise of Mussolini influenced the Nazis. The circumstances were also similar, with the population being so desperate to regain a sense of belonging and nationalistic pride that they were willing to give up freedoms and overlook (and participate in) violence. However, I think this also points to one of the reasons why they differ.

We should not be lulled into thinking that Italian fascism was “nicer” than German fascism. Rather, due to the nationalism being the core of fascist ideology, the form fascism takes will vary depending on the country. They may turn to fascism due to a similar sense of desperation, but each country has a different past, different problems, different resources, different social views, etc. It is only natural that the focus of each fascist regime reflects that. As others have pointed out, Italy was certainly not “nice” in Ethiopia. However, their anti-Semitic policies were not as extreme as Germany because that was less of a concern for them.

I think this is something to keep in mind for future weeks. While Italy might have made the blueprint for future fascist states, these new states can never be direct copies of Italy, or the Nazis, or any other previous fascist regime due to the uniquely nationalistic core of its ideologies.