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Once upon a time, in a political landscape far, far away, a fascist buffoon said, “Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice, it is a fallacy. You in America will see that someday.”
The buffoon’s name was Benito Mussolini.
Now, as Trump appoints his cabinet of ultra-right-wing ‘deplorables’, thugs are emerging from their enclaves to openly commit despicable acts of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and homophobia because, in their own view at any rate, the election result has given them permission to do so. Just like President-elect Donald Trump has a beautiful plan for the United States, Mussolini had a beautiful plan for Italy. One can only wonder if Trump has decided that he can succeed where Mussolini failed. If that seems far-fetched then consider the similarities in their leadership journeys and then decide for yourself.
Originally more left leaning than right, Mussolini was an advocate of the class struggle and a rejector of nationalism and imperialism. No lover of the Catholic Church in his earlier career, he tactically embarked on a marriage of convenience with the Vatican after taking power, and subsequently introduced measures against artificial contraception, abortion, and homosexual acts among adult men. Likewise, Trump was, in a past life, pro-gun control, pro-choice and a Democrat to boot. Might his pre-election bluff about protecting the Second Amendment have simply been a ruse to convince those baseball cap wearing, saluting, slogan shouting supporters of his conservative credentials?
Trump’s stance on abortion has evolved over time from pro-choice to saying on the campaign trail that there should be “some sort of punishment” for women who have abortions. He went from being a registered Republican to being a registered Democrat in 2001, even donating money to such Democratic notables as Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, but returned his allegiance to the GOP in 2009. But back to Italy for a moment.
As unemployment and inflation soared, Mussolini’s message seemed attractive to a cross-section of society thoroughly disillusioned with the existing establishment. Urban and rural working classes who feared becoming modern day sans-culottes; industrialists threatened by the impact of union activity on productivity and profits; artisans threatened by the march of industrialization; fiercely patriotic World War l veterans who were unhappy with the peace settlements and who wanted to build up the military. And then there was always the kind of people who wanted to restore ‘law and order’, rid society of ‘undesirables’ and return to a delusional time of ‘greatness’. The most interesting group of disaffected though, were the lower middle class fearful of becoming working class. Nothing like a touch of ‘status anxiety’ then, to goad you into action.
It is interesting that Trump supporters come from a similar disillusioned cross-section. Look at the Rust Belt supporters who put him in the White House. Disgruntled industrial workers or former workers from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin dream of a day when they can return to the assembly line or work bench and carry on where they left off before globalization and computerized automation. This industrial heartland employment landscape ceased to exist almost thirty years ago but still the dream persists. What Trump plans to offer them is a mystery; he cannot after all, undo the technology revolution of robotic manufacturing assembly. What these voters need is education; the type of education that will equip them to work and survive in different spheres of employment.
In 1920’s Italy, the lower middle class who had hoped to improve their lot were instead becoming poorer – feeling trapped between two ideologies that did not suit them, they were becoming increasingly angry and distrustful of both labour activists and the wealthy. Conventional political and economic solutions were not fixing their problems or addressing their concerns. The relentless march of industrialization coupled with post World War l economic difficulties was pushing them to the brink; they were determined not to become working class. They desperately needed a saviour; someone who would snatch them from the jaws of both socialism and big business. They thought their saviour was Mussolini’s fascism that offered an alternative to an ineffective government and an establishment that was seen to have lost touch with this large and disgruntled middle section of society. Even Muriel Spark’s otherwise intellectually discerning school teacher, Miss Jean Brodie, was taken in by the fascistic theatricals. “Mussolini has performed feats of magnitude and unemployment is even farther abolished under him than it was last year,” she informs her impressionable charges.
In recent years, the same complaints re-emerged from another generation of the forgotten middle who hope that their saviour will be Trump. Like their earlier Italian counterparts, they lost faith with the establishment, with consensus politics, with political correctness; they lost patience with empty promises and empty towns, with broken down promises and broken down factories and, worst of all, the threat of sliding down the social ladder. When you have nothing left to lose but your class identity, ‘who you gonna call?’ An old-school politician or a reality TV star with a penchant for bling? An establishment policy wonk or a brash property tycoon who utters the byte sized banalities of a schoolboy bully?
Finally, you think – someone who articulates your thoughts and delivers them in words that you actually understand; your political representative has been pimped, and that’s the way you like it. Trump is a fixer; he will fix your state, your town; he will fix you; you will be beautiful, employed, well paid, and all those nasty foreigners who took away your potential will be swept back to wherever you think they came from. The steel mills will churn out steel wool and the rust will be scrubbed off the belt. Now it will be a shiny belt with ‘shiny happy people’ living the dream. This is what Trump has promised; it’s called making America great again.
Nothing like a touch of ‘status anxiety’ then, to goad you into action.
Mussolini’s idea of making Italy great again was equally delusional; he wanted to recreate the Roman Empire. But was fascism an ideology or simply Mussolini being opportunistic? It was his pure braggadocio that camouflaged his inconsistencies or lack of substance. Like Trump, he was a colourful contrast to the dull establishment. Stephen J. Lee says that Mussolini’s career “has been presented as one of bluster and bluff – in huge proportions” and that he “applied all his journalistic skills and tricks to attract popular attention and support.” He was, in effect, acting his way into power and there was a willing audience of the disaffected ready to cheer him on and bay for more; a startling similarity to ‘Cirque du Trump’. Trump took the easy route and harnessed social media, the preferred news outlet for the lazy, non-reflective, unenquiring, susceptible and impressionable citizen; but this is not to say that all Trump supporters fall into this category. Notwithstanding, have we not learned from history that a personality cult is not enough to fix a broken country?
A gallery of rogues is delighting in Trump’s victory. Still basking in the glory of Brexit, Ukip’s interim leader, Nigel Farage has already paid the triumphant Trump a sycophantic visit. The leader of France’s National Front party, Marine Le Pen congratulated the President-elect and the ‘free American people’. More tellingly, considering the chilling thread of coincidences between Mussolini’s and Trump’s ascendancy, Italy’s Northern League leader, Matteo Salvini, now feels more upbeat than ever about his candidacy for prime minister. Buoyed up by Brexit and Trump’s victory he said at a recent rally in Florence, “If Brexit teaches us something, if the election of Donald Trump teaches us something, (it is that) today we get going to take power.” When Salvini visited Trump last April, they mutually supported each other’s ideas about immigration. Other European right wing politicians who are ecstatic at Trump’s victory are Viktor Orbán, the hard-line nationalist leader of Hungary, Frauke Petry, the lead of Germany’s right wing populist Alternative für Deutschland, Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Austria’s right wing populist Freedom party, the Dutch far-right leader and MP Geert Wilders, and Greece’s Golden Dawn.
E is for Egotism, the kind that takes advantage of Economic disintegration, the Educational deficit of desperate and naïve voters, Elections that take advantage of them, and Empires built on sand. The world now holds its breath in anticipation of Trump’s dealings on the international stage, especially his dealings with Vladimir Putin. In Mussolini’s case, it was foreign policy that dismantled the puppet theatre; Hitler was, after all, his artistic director. So, when the bully boys fight it out, who will emerge as the puppet master? Trump or Putin? As the next four years unfold, Americans can decide for themselves if the democracy that is beautiful in theory is indeed, as Mussolini believed, a fallacy in practice.
A version of this article appears on Old FIlibuster, Berni Dwan’s blog. Her current project, from which this is taken, The A to Z of Historical Misadventures can be read here.