Just before Halloween, around 3,000 young Italians gathered in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the northern city of Modena. For two days straight, they partied hard, blasting heavy techno deep into the morning—until locals tipped off the authorities. As dawn broke on the third day, a battalion of black-uniformed riot police swept in. The officers took names, rifled through cars and backpacks for drugs, and impounded a 150,000 euro ($155,000) sound system.
That same weekend, not far from Modena, another group assembled for a very different kind of celebration. Dressed in black and holding aloft a tricolor Italian flag, 2,000 travelers marched through the small town of Predappio, in the Emilia-Romagna region, to commemorate the centenary of the March on Rome by Benito Mussolini. Predappio was the birthplace of the dictator and has long been a pilgrimage site for his followers—even though fascist demonstrations are theoretically illegal in Italy. But unlike at the rave, the officers present just stood there, observing.
The weekend triggered a forceful response from Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, recently appointed by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who ascended to power in September at the head of a far-right coalition with links to Mussolini-era fascism. In a series of speeches and comments to the press, Piantedosi took a hard line against certain gatherings involving 50 people or more, describing them as “invasions” led by meddling “foreigners”. He debuted a tough new bill, pledging to punish organizers and promoters with up to 10,000 euros ($10,400) in damages and six years in prison.
The penalty would apply, of course, solely to the illegal raves. The illegal fascist march that occurred simultaneously was a “farce”, Piantedosi said—but it “wasn’t comparable”.
The new law was seen by the opposition as grossly disproportionate, evidence of a pernicious double standard. But it was also a reflection of the difficult balance that the Meloni government has had to strike in its attempts to mediate between two conflicting goals. On the one hand, it must play to its base by pursuing culture war propaganda victories—targeting migrants and young partygoers, for instance.
On the other hand, it must keep international opinion onside. Meloni’s initial solution has been to stow her more overtly hard-line allies at the margins of government while stocking key ministries with supposedly moderate officials who will stick to the establishment line on fiscal policy and Ukraine. But this is an illusion: Almost all hail from the far right.
The so-called moderates include figures such as Piantedosi, political mainstays with troubling histories who can nevertheless be sold as politically neutral. Piantedosi, formerly a civil servant, was widely seen as an essentially timid “bureaucrat, a weather vane who goes where the wind blows—a species that’s always existed in Italian civil service”, said Francesco Galietti, a former Italian finance ministry official. The sudden attack on raves, from a man pitched as a pliant party functionary, came as a surprise, and it was understandable that he tempered the law’s more ideological justifications with overtures to commerce and public safety.
But Piantedosi’s policymaking has long been colored by a reactionary, disciplinarian streak. As a civil servant, he worked hand in glove with hard-right firebrand Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party, when Salvini himself was interior minister in 2018-19. Together, the two worked—possibly illegally—to block NGO rescue ships full of vulnerable migrants from disembarking on Italian shores.
After the League did poorly in the last election, Salvini was demoted from his previous role into the more obscure role of infrastructure minister. Nevertheless, Piantedosi continued his predecessor’s work on his own steam, attempting to block two more NGO rescue ships within his first week in office. Only pressure from Brussels forced him to let the migrants disembark, though that didn’t prevent a woman aboard one of the ships from dying of hypothermia soon after. On almost every front, the new government is constrained by international norms, and it is already starting to lash out at more manageable, domestic targets—hence the attack on raves. “It’s a weapon of mass distraction”, Galietti said.
This radicalism is also shared by Meloni’s “high-profile” choices for the most politically sensitive ministries—those she hopes will keep the establishment onside. Giancarlo Giorgetti, the new finance minister, has so far strained to soothe markets with a budget of limited spending that won’t strain the deficit (and trigger a U.K.-style financial meltdown). Giorgetti was wheeled in after two well-heeled central bankers declined the role and, despite having served in the previous Mario Draghi government, is no wet centrist. He has been the primary enforcer of the League since it was a northern secessionist movement steeped in strange, pagan mythology and has supported the same presidentialist political system favored by Meloni, who would like the kind of authority France’s Emmanuel Macron has.
Elsewhere, Carlo Nordio, the former magistrate who made his name during the corruption investigations that brought down Italy’s venal “First Republic” in the early 1990s, is now being welcomed as a potential reformer of the country’s interminably slow and inefficient legal system. But no moderate magistrate would hop on the Meloni bandwagon: Nordio has long been a vocal opponent of same-sex civil partnerships and equates homosexuality with pedophilia.
Meanwhile, new Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who has been busy recently assuring Brussels of continued Italian support for Ukraine, spent his youth as an avowed monarchist who agitated for the return of the Savoy dynasty and declared that “Mussolini also did good things”. Junior minister Valentino Valentini, a former personal assistant to Silvio Berlusconi, maintains such a fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin that he has been carefully squirreled away in the newly renamed Ministry of Enterprises and Made in Italy where he can do minimal harm.
These choices are the closest Meloni was able to get to the “technocrats” she had hoped to attract when assembling her cabinet—that is, esteemed public figures with professional experience who could be presented as nonpartisan executors of policy. To be sure, even conventional technocrats are often closeted ideologues wearing neutrality as a convenient disguise. But this government hasn’t even been able to put together a very good mask.
Compared with parts of the administration, however, this sketchy group looks positively restrained. Meloni has bought in a group of flagrant, truly terrifying right-wing hard-liners, surfaced from the very bottom of the political barrel. Alongside a smattering of Berlusconi-era figures, mired in financial scandals and conflicts of interest, the new administration includes those nostalgic for the fascist years and weaned in far-right youth camps; the children of former Mussolini lieutenants; and militants who engaged in violent campaigns against the left for two decades during the bloody Years of Lead.
One dramatic example is Isabella Rauti, a newly anointed undersecretary in the defense ministry whose father, the late Pino Rauti, led the “postfascist” Italian Social Movement, which spawned Meloni’s own party, Brothers of Italy. Pino was determined by the Italian judiciary in 2010 to have borne “moral” responsibility for numerous lethal neofascist terrorist attacks in the 1960s and ’70s, and his daughter maintains a long-standing filial devotion.
Yet even these unquestionably radical figures have a tendency to present themselves as moderates—perennial victims, even, of the far left. The younger Rauti, for instance, following her arrival in office, gave an odd speech claiming that with Meloni’s victory the right would finally be able to come out in the open—that it would no longer be “criminalized”.
“Yes, neofascists were ‘criminalized’ because they were bombing trains”, said David Broder, the author of Mussolini’s Grandchildren, a forthcoming book about the far right in modern Italy. The new government, he added, “seems to be under the strange impression that neofascism was ‘criminalized’ by others rather than ‘criminal’ when its members planned terrorist attacks and coups”.
Many of the far-right politicians have always been present in Italian politics, albeit in less prominent—and less overtly ideological—roles. Rather than being oppressed, figures such as Vannia Gava and Francesco Paolo Sisto, new junior ministers who have close relationships with the League and Berlusconi, respectively, both served under Draghi. Vittorio Sgarbi, the ultraconservative and vulgar new undersecretary for culture, was previously a senior minister—amid long stints as an art critic and a talking head for broadcast media, naturally.
A rare exception here is Orazio Schillaci, the new minister for health, a rather unassuming, professorial figure from the Tor Vergata University of Rome who was on various health committees and subcommittees during the COVID-19 crisis. A radical nonentity, Schillaci was an interesting choice: It is likely that Meloni, a critic of the previous government’s “ideological” approach to vaccines and lockdowns, selected him to lend credence to the view that she, unlike her predecessor, is only following the “science”.
Schillaci is already dutifully delivering on said “science”, having this month allowed the earlier return of the thousands of health workers suspended for not getting vaccinated. The move swiftly caused widespread chaos and confusion in the Italian health care system, only compounding the drama around warehouse raves and migrant ships. But perhaps that’s the entire point. With Meloni’s new coalition of enablers, extremists, and extremists-in-denial, the work of scoring reactionary wins will be done—whether out in the open or under the guise of apolitical moderation.
Ben Munster is a journalist covering finance and Italian politics. He has written for the New Yorker, the Financial Times, and Private Eye, and is the semi-regular author of the “Zero Knowledge” column at Decrypt, a cryptocurrency news site. He lives in Rome.