Giorgia Meloni, the 45-year-old leader and co-founder of the Brothers of Italy Party, is set to become the country’s prime minister a month before the 100th anniversary of the infamous March on Rome that led to Mussolini’s fascist rule.
But unlike the jackbooted Il Duce, Meloni’s rise to power offers no bombastic displays of machismo.
Meloni wears warm pastel colors, rocks sneakers, is deeply inspired by Lord of the Rings (for all the wrong reasons), and flashes a charming smile in front of the camera. She presents as just a passionate Italian mother, promising Italians, “We won't betray your trust. We are ready to lift Italy up.”
She’s also proof that women can spout hateful, far-right rhetoric just as well, if not better, than men. Everything is coming full circle in Western politics, as the authoritarian playbook of the 20th century is getting a glossy, feminine reboot in 2022.
It’s worth noting that Meloni’s neo-fascist party was created as the heir to the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which was formed after the dissolution of the National Fascist Party. This was no accident. In her youth, Meloni was a youth activist for MSI. At the age of 19, she praised Mussolini as a “good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy.” This apparently includes aligning his country with genocidal Nazis in World War II.
However, that small mistake didn’t stop Meloni from borrowing his motto, “God, Fatherland, Family,” for her own party—nor did it stop her from parroting anti-semitic conspiracy theories about the “deep state” run by George Soros and Jewish “globalists,” or promoting her version of the white supremacist “replacement theory” by demonizing immigrants of color and Muslims for allegedly invading, replacing, and weakening Italian civilization.
She’s also spent a lot of energy attacking LGBTQ+ communities, marriage equality, and abortion rights. According to Meloni, these groups are existential threats to Italy that must be confronted, and one of her goals is to boost the birth rates to ensure her people’s demographic salvation.
Does that sound familiar?
If you’ve been paying attention to Fox News or right-wing politicians lately, these talking points could come straight out of a Tucker Carlson monologue, or from a speech given by any number of MAGA politicians. Unsurprisingly, Meloni spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2022. It’s no wonder that Meloni’s meteoric rise has been praised by her long-time ally Steve Bannon, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban—whose ultra-nationalist, authoritarian regime serves as a blueprint for American conservatives. She’s singing their exact tune, but in Italian.
Meloni’s rise also coincides with the emergence of far-right female politicians in America and Europe who are gaining political power and media attention despite doubling down on cruelty, nativism, and patriarchy. They are often a boon for right-wing movements that are, accurately, criticized for being aggressively anti-women, anti-feminist, and chauvinistic. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on authoritarianism, calls it “genderwashing,” and describes it as “female politicians adopt[ing] a non-threatening image to blunt the force of their extremism.”
Examples include Marine Le Pen of France, who has championed extremist anti-immigrant policies through her National Alliance Party. Shrewdly, Le Pen distanced herself from her father’s overt anti-semitism and Holocaust denialism, but otherwise kept all the racism, and added some Islamophobia for good measure.
There’s also the extremist Israeli politician Ayelet Shaked, who became justice minister in 2015 and whose youth and pretty features often gloss over her hideous anti–Palestinian racism and bloodthirsty politics. For her part, Shaked mocked her critics by appearing in an artsy, black-and-white ad for a fake “Fascism” perfume.
In America, Kari Lake, the GOP’s Arizona gubernatorial candidate and a former TV news anchor, said on Tucker Carlson’s show that she was “excited” by Meloni’s win. Lake promotes Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, stands against abortion rights, recently promoted an antisemitic candidate, and has come out against LGBTQ+ communities. Naturally, in reference to Meloni, she said, “This is someone I can relate to.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, promoter of QAnon and Jewish space laser conspiracy theories, also praised Meloni’s win.
Yale professor Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, wrote to me about the legendary author Toni Morrison’s 1995 speech, “Racism and Fascism,” in which she warned of “collaborators who can sanitize the dispossession process.”
Stanley added: “Fascism is a harshly anti-feminist ideology, demanding a world in which women’s choices about their bodies are restricted, and patriarchy determines their primary roles—rearing racially pure children, and homemaking. What better way to sanitize this ideology, to mask its threat to women, and its use of violence, than presenting it via a female leader?”
A woman as the figurehead becomes an instant shield for any legitimate accusations of misogyny. They also become cultural validators for the party’s regressive politics and talking points. In America, for example, white women have historically been “segregation’s constant gardeners,” as the author Elizabeth Gillespie McRae put it in her book, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy.
A majority of white women voted for Trump. It was white women who helped derail the Equal Rights Amendment, and currently, politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Kari Lake, and Rep. Lauren Boebart are championing the end of abortion rights.
In the 21st century, women will no longer be the handmaids or aunts, but rather the commanders of fascism.
Some pundits are coming out of their privileged D.C. cocoons and isolated think tanks telling us not to be hysterical or overly concerned about Italy becoming fascist again. In response, I’d like to take Doc Brown’s DeLorean back to 2008.
Alaska’s then-Gov. Sarah Palin, who was formerly a sports anchor, introduced herself to America at the Republican National Convention. She said she was simply a hockey mom who also participated in the PTA. She followed that up with the infamous quote, “You know they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”
Although she didn’t ascend to the White House, Palin’s political rise presaged the extremist Tea Party faction, whose right-wing populism gradually morphed into MAGA, which has entirely consumed the conservative movement. Before Trump, Palin was Steve Bannon’s original choice to trojan horse his right-wing, authoritarian movement.
With history as our guide, hopefully people can see that the only difference between a fascist male leader and Meloni is lipstick.