Want to Stop Right-Wing Populists? Then Don’t Do This

A banner reading “Salvini get out of Genoa” during an anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstration against Matteo Salvini in Genoa, Italy, in April. Credit Simone Arveda/EPA, via Shutterstock
A banner reading “Salvini get out of Genoa” during an anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstration against Matteo Salvini in Genoa, Italy, in April. Credit Simone Arveda/EPA, via Shutterstock

There’s a number of things any savvy politician who cares about liberal democracy should avoid: feeding the idea that the popular will is generally disregarded and political power is managed by unelected elites in smoked-filled rooms; forming politically incoherent alliances with the sole purpose of excluding populists; and fueling the perception that the most important decisions of a country are taken outside of its borders.

Italy’s political class is utterly disregarding all this. To oust illiberal demagogues from power, its mainstream parties are resorting to the same tactics and management styles that allowed populism to flourish, planting the seeds for its return. The country’s new government, which was all but confirmed on Tuesday, provides a cautionary tale for everyone engaged in combating the rise of right-wing populists.

On Aug. 8, Matteo Salvini, the far-right leader of the League and deputy prime minister, daringly prompted a government crisis, in the hope that the ensuing snap election would grant him “full powers.” In doing so, he put an end to the weak alliance with the anti-corruption Five Star Movement that ran the country for 14 months. The first fully populist government coalition in the West collapsed under the unrestrained ambition of its most popular leader.

Traditional political forces anxious to deny the League, which in May’s elections for the European Parliament became the country’s largest party, the chance to campaign coalesced to avoid elections. Embracing the old enemy-of-my-enemy philosophy, the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement forgot about their supposedly insurmountable disagreements and conceived of an alliance based solely on sidelining Mr. Salvini.

It was a textbook example of old-school political maneuvering, and a remarkable turnabout. The two parties previously viewed each other with loathing: Each considered the other not just a political adversary but a morally bankrupt and deeply divisive force. They traded accusations of being Mafiosi, subversive, hatemongers, Russian trolls, flat-earthers and everything in between.

Last year, Matteo Renzi, the former leader of the Democratic Party, swore never to be part of a government with the Five Star Movement. Now he is eager to strike a deal. The Five Star Movement, whose ratings plummeted while in government, is ready to do pretty much anything to stay in power. Those involved didn’t even pretend to engage in a debate about policy and ideas: They do not have a common vision to tackle Italy’s structural problems. Instead they acted in the most pragmatic way to seize the opportunity created by Mr. Salvini’s strategic misstep. They’ve bought time, but at what cost?

The political ramifications go well beyond Italy. The new unelected government was blessed by the European Union, and the conversations last month on the side of the Group of 7 summit in Biarritz, France, were decisive in shaping it. One of the first leaders to publicly rejoice was the bloc’s budget commissioner, Günther Oettinger, who despite the political neutrality imposed by his role welcomed the news with enthusiasm. In an interview on German radio, he said the commission would “do everything to make the job of the new Italian government easier when it takes office and so to reward it.” The president of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, promptly sent his congratulations; Peter Altmaier, the German economy minister, described it as “good news from Italy.” The financial markets relished a supposedly more credible, pro-European government. Even the Vatican supported it.

Giuseppe Conte, the resigning prime minister who is also tasked to lead the new Salvini-free government, instantly gained international credibility and personal gravitas, having spent the past 14 months as a pocket-squared puppet controlled by the populist coalition. In a matter of few days, Mr. Conte moved from Mr. Salvini’s useful idiot to Winston Churchill’s political heir.

President Trump’s endorsement of Mr. Conte wrapped the whole story in an additional layer of irony. Mr. Salvini’s main international sponsor Mr. Trump reportedly told him back in 2016, “Matteo, I hope you become prime minister of Italy soon” supported the leader who eventually betrayed him. And democrats now awkwardly stand together with a prime minister warmly approved by the populist in chief.

The goal of kicking Mr. Salvini out of power apparently justified every means. This may sound Machiavellian, but Niccolò Machiavelli also argued that men need to be either well treated or crushed: Lighter injuries generate revenge, and eventually backlash. “The injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge,” Machiavelli wrote in “The Prince.” Mr. Salvini is politically injured, but not crushed. He will seek revenge. And he may be empowered by the haphazard political coalition that trampled democratic practices under the pretext of saving democracy.

The enraged leader of the League now thunders against “the robbery of democracy” and has called his supporters to a rally in mid-October to protest a government that “was born in Brussels” to “exclude the first political party of Italy from the government,” as he said in one of his customarily direct videos. He may have a point.

To be sure, removing Mr. Salvini from the government has short-term benefits. The policies of the government he virtually controlled did nothing to bolster Italy’s stagnating economy nor to ease unemployment, which stands at almost 10 percent. What Mr. Salvini did instead was to pollute the public discourse with xenophobic rhetoric and anti-immigration policies predicated on contempt for migrants, promoting an “Italians first” mentality that reawakened racist instincts that had been mostly dormant.

And yet his opponents should be aware of the unintended consequences of their actions. Years ago, Cas Mudde, a leading scholar of populism, warned about using the politics of fear to stigmatize euro-skeptic leaders and their voters and to justify anti-democratic measures to counter them. Mr. Mudde predicted that in time it would erode not only the European integration process but also “the democratic basis of its member states.”

Italy’s umpteenth transition to a new unelected government proves his point. The flimsy coalition is likely to be just a stopgap before another populist wave, which may manifest itself in Mr. Salvini’s comeback or in another form we’ve yet to imagine.

Mattia Ferraresi is a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard.

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