Jonathan S. Tobin
(JNS) The latest parliamentary elections in Italy have sent many in the chattering classes in both Europe and the United States heading for their smelling salts. The victory of Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy Party means that the right-wing bloc is likely to lead the next government. Since the Brothers of Italy traces its origins to supporters of Benito Mussolini’s Fascists and postwar successor groups, the assumption on the part of many, if not most, commentators is that her success is part of a general trend in which democracy is being threatened by a new generation of authoritarians.
In this way, Meloni is lumped together with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and former U.S. President Donald Trump, as well as, in some versions of this thesis, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Like a league of villains in a comic book alternative universe, these figures are assumed to have a common goal and to be set on subverting democracy, liberalism and decency by fair means or foul.
Hence, articles in The New York Times about the trepidation faced by European Union leaders or the Biden administration all revolve around the belief that those, like Orbán and Meloni, who are skeptical about the globalization of the world economy, central authorities that seek to undermine national sovereignty (like the E.U. or the U.N.)—as well as about contemporary liberal woke ideas concerning gender identity and the family—are incorrigible fascists.
The same kind of thinking links Meloni to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party. Like Netanyahu, Meloni and Orbán are believed by many on the left to be anti-democratic, even when they are clearly supporters of democracy.
At a time when all too many liberals have confused opposition to their particular ideas about both politics and society with authoritarianism, any election in which right-wingers win, like the 2016 Brexit referendum in Britain, a recent vote in Sweden or this week’s Italian contest, is shoehorned into an end-of-the-world narrative about wrong-thinking conservatives seeking to smash democracy, if not to recreate the Axis powers of the Second World War.
This is largely false. But a competing narrative put forward by some on the right, according to which Orbán and Meloni are comrades in an international war on wokeness and all bad things emanating from the neo-Marxist left, can be just as misleading. That’s because a key truth that most of this new generation of conservatives embrace—about the right of nations to preserve their own national culture and nationalism in general—also teaches us that each of the aforementioned countries and their leaders are very different.
There may be some elements of commonality between Hungary’s Fidesz and the Brothers of Italy, and even with the Likud. But the notion that these factions are or can be part of some larger international coalition, or that Meloni is necessarily a natural ally or foe of the Jewish state, is more fantasy than fact.
At the core of all of this discussion is a debate about nationalism. What happened in Germany and Italy in the first half of the 20th century made many people question the whole idea of politics rooted in notions of national identity. That inspired blind faith in international organizations like the U.N., despite their being vehicles for tyrants and anti-Semites, and to damn all those who resisted the centrifugal forces of global trade as somehow the successors of the Nazis and Fascists.
As despicable as the fascists’ criminal regimes were, that history doesn’t invalidate every expression of national pride, patriotism and the belief that individual sovereign countries have the right to celebrate their own languages, cultures and right to self-determination. While nationalism can be a vehicle for evil, it is just as easily seen as an expression of the rights of people to preserve their identity against powers that would crush them.
We have seen in the last year how the willingness of the Ukrainian people to resist Russian invaders has led to a celebration of their brand of nationalism by some of the same forces and individuals who are quick to condemn it in other contexts. That’s ironic, because Ukrainian nationalism has been directly linked to some of the most regressive and anti-Semitic traditions and practices in Europe. Yet, this wasn’t enough to dim the universal admiration for contemporary Ukraine’s plucky fight to preserve its independence against Putin’s illegal and brutal invasion.
The Ukrainian example is a reminder for those clutching their pearls about the Italian election that generalizing about nationalism is as ignorant a distortion of history as it is foolish. Americans or Britons who wished to defend their national sovereignty and identity — including icons of the cause of liberty like Winston Churchill—were also nationalists, even though they also sometimes advocated collective action in defense of freedom.
As with controversies surrounding Orbán, the case of Meloni is a complicated one. Any party that is the spiritual descendant of the Fascists should be given close scrutiny. Still, political parties do change over time. After all, we don’t hold it against Democrats that their party was a bastion of support for Jim Crow racism for a century, and that the last vestiges of that brand of politics died only a generation ago.
Moreover, dislike of being ruled by unelected bureaucrats in the E.U. headquarters in Brussels is not fascist. Nor is the willingness to put down the opposition of Orbán and Meloni to woke ideas about race and gender, or to the notion that all borders must be open—and that no country has a right to preserve its national character when faced with mass migrations of Middle East refugees—in any way authoritarian.
It’s equally problematic to try to put Fidesz or the Brothers of Italy in some neat box where anti-Semitism is concerned. Some Americans and Europeans braying the loudest about threats to democracy from the right are among those least interested in defending Jews.
There is a tendency on the left to see the conflict in the Middle East through the prism of critical race theory and intersectionality. This has led to widespread sympathy for the Palestinian war to destroy Israel and tolerance for anti-Semitism.
By contrast, many who identify with the nationalist right in Europe now see Israel’s struggle as somehow linked to their own battle to preserve their nations. Meloni, for example, now claims to be an ardent supporter of Israel, though only a few years ago, she was following the elitist European fashion she now despises in condemning Israel’s self-defense campaign against terrorism from Gaza.
What conclusions should we reach from this? It’s hard to know what to think about a person who, along with others on the Italian right, has always drawn her chief inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings book series and what she believes is its conservative philosophy. She even attended “Hobbit Camp.”
This is certainly odd. But it’s less concerning than if she were an adherent of Marxism, which leads inevitably to tyranny.
Indeed, those on the right whose philosophy favors the nation-state and resists the forces of global corporatism allied to leftist ideologies are defending democracy, not destroying it. National causes, whether in Europe or in Israel—where Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people—deserve a vigorous defense, not opposition in the name of a faceless universalism that often goes hand in hand with oppression.
We don’t know what Meloni will do in office or how long her government will last since, in Italy, most are short-lived. Those who assume that she is an enemy of liberty should wait and judge her on her deeds, not on a theory that seeks to demonize nationalists everywhere; not on what her party once stood for; and certainly not on her taste in fantasy fiction.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.