December 8, 2023

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Can Giorgia Meloni Govern Italy?

Updated at 8:40 a.m. ET on February 13, 2023

Italy’s first far-right leader since World War II—and the first woman ever to lead the country—is small, blond, fierce, street-smart, working-class, and Gen X. Raised by a single mother in Rome after her father took off for a new life in the Canary Islands when she was a toddler, Giorgia Meloni came of age in far-right youth movements. Now 46, she has been a professional politician since she was a teenager.

Her victory in September’s national elections unsettled the political establishment elsewhere in the European Union, of which Italy is a founding member, and throughout the democratic world. That her Brothers of Italy party has roots in postwar incarnations of the fascist movement, and that her supporters include some modern-day admirers of the dictator Benito Mussolini, would until recently have been enough to prevent someone like Meloni from leading a Western European government. More so than any recent Italian prime minister—including the center-right populist Silvio Berlusconi—she has built her politics around stark appeals to traditional national identity.

At a rally three years ago in Rome, Meloni delivered what has become her most famous speech. “I am Giorgia. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am Italian. I am Christian,” she proclaimed to the crowd from a lectern draped with an Italian flag. “They have to take away everything we are,” she continued, without quite defining they, “because when we no longer have an identity, when we no longer have roots, we won’t have a conscience anymore, and we won’t be capable of defending our rights.” She went on to declare, “They want us to be parent one and parent two”— instead, presumably, of mother and father. (In reality, Italy—like Hungary and Poland but not France or Germany—still generally prohibits same-sex couples from adopting children.) An Italian DJ set Meloni’s speech to a peppy dance beat, quite possibly as a joke, but it became a popular rallying cry; the video has more than 13 million views on YouTube.

two Meloni stand with closed flags in their hands looking serious
Supporters of Meloni’s political party, Brothers of Italy, rally in Cagliari in September.

In line with her neo-nationalist counterparts in the United States and around the world, Meloni has a conspiratorial bent. Her standard targets would be familiar to viewers of Fox News: Before taking office, she regularly singled out the European Union, multinational corporations, and “the banks.” She has decried globalization, even though Italy’s economy depends on exports; she rails against political correctness and cancel culture, even though both are in short supply in Italy. Her government has tried to impede humanitarian ships’ ability to dock at the closest Italian ports after rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean and sought to regulate groups that operate such vessels.

Meloni can’t steer Italy in dramatic new directions, because she is bound by the confines of the euro, EU budget regulations, and Italy’s membership in NATO, all of which she has pledged to uphold. She may not be able to offer Italy a bright future—an outlier in Europe, it has struggled to grow for decades—but she can reposition the Italian right as a political counterweight to technocrats in Brussels and as a force for remaking Italian society. And she can offer a culture war based on triggering key words: Borders. Family. Roots. Identity. Immigration. Us. Them.

Meloni is a skillful politician who channels anger without coming off as unhinged—a talent that helped her break the glass ceiling in one of Europe’s most misogynistic cultures. As she writes in Io Sono Giorgia (“I Am Giorgia”), her 2021 autobiography, she’s a self-starter from Rome’s equivalent of the outer boroughs who struggles constantly with her weight, attributes her temper to being a Capricorn, and keeps a very tidy house—she organizes the knives in her cutlery drawer in perfect sequence, alternating blades and handles.

Her spirituality is more sentimental than traditionalist Catholic. She collects statuettes of angels. Though she is a staunch defender of the traditional family, she’s not married to her 6-year-old daughter’s father, a television journalist, and didn’t move in with him until giving birth. Having children outside of marriage carries almost no stigma in Italy, although Meloni raised some eyebrows when, after the recent funeral of Pope Benedict XVI, she brought her partner and her daughter to meet Pope Francis. Then again, Italians have been rolling their eyes at political hypocrisy for millennia—there’s ancient graffiti on the walls of Pompeii to prove it.

When she was pregnant, Meloni considered a bid for mayor of Rome. In her autobiography, she recalls her anger at fellow right-wing politicians who discouraged her because they feared the mother of an infant wouldn’t be up to the job. She also describes her guilt about working such long hours with a small child. Her candor is part of her appeal. In the book, she jokes about her hairdresser, who once made her a bit too blond and called her “chubby Barbie.” She’s not afraid to make fun of herself. On Facebook just before the elections, Meloni posted a picture of herself smiling next to a defaced campaign poster on which someone had blacked out a few of her teeth, with the caption “Always respond with a smile! (Or at least as long as it lasts.)”

Meloni taking a selfie with fans
Supporters surround Meloni during her 2016 campaign for mayor of Rome.

Meloni’s combination of ferocity and relatability helped Brothers of Italy place first in the elections in September with 26 percent of the vote, up from 4 percent in 2018. Meloni positioned herself as the voice of a middle class that feels left behind by elites. Brothers of Italy won among public-school teachers—once a solid center-left bloc in Italy—as well as among public-sector employees, factory workers, and shopkeepers. In contrast, the center-left Democratic Party prevailed among university graduates. It placed second in the elections and is now in the throes of its umpteenth identity and leadership crisis. Pietrangelo Buttafuoco, a writer and friend of Meloni’s, describes the outcome as the victory of Coccia di Morto over Capalbio, Italy’s equivalent of the triumph of the Jersey Shore over the Hamptons.

In a sign of discontent, September’s elections had the lowest turnout in modern Italian history. But because of Italy’s complex electoral law, which often produces fragile coalitions, Meloni didn’t need a majority of the electorate to control a majority of Parliament. So far, her government seems adrift and defensive. Just past her first 100 days in office, she has struggled to turn her small circle of loyalists into a first-rate administration and has been caught unprepared by growing public anger over rising gas prices. At first, she blamed the hikes on market speculation, but her own government had removed a tax break on fuel. She has mostly pushed symbolic issues, such as when she urged Italian diplomats to “defend the depth of our culture” by using fewer English and French terms.

Like many others on today’s European and American right, and unlike more moderate conservatives, Meloni draws inspiration from the French thinker Renaud Camus’s “Great Replacement” theory, which posits that nonwhite and non-Christian immigrants will eventually supersede white Europeans. Before coming to power, she spoke and tweeted about a “planned and deliberate” strategy of “ethnic substitution.” She also accused the financier and philanthropist George Soros of enabling mass immigration to Europe.

For decades after World War II, the raw legacy of the Holocaust cast disrepute on parties fixated on upholding their country’s ethnic order. But to this day, Mussolini is not as toxic in Italy as Adolf Hitler is in Germany, in part because many Italians saw Naziism’s evils as a strictly German enterprise. Issues of historical memory barely registered in last fall’s election campaign. Over the years, Meloni has largely shied away from questions about her party’s political heritage, saying she was born long after World War II and has nothing to apologize for. Still, she has refused to remove a flame representing the spirit of fascism from the Brothers of Italy symbol. It was only after she became prime minister that she condemned Mussolini’s dictatorship more strongly than ever before, declaring in her first speech to the lower house that his 1938 racial laws, which banned Jews from public life, were “the lowest point in Italian history, a shame that will forever mark our people.”

The mainstreaming of Italy’s far right was already well under way in 2011, when I first saw Meloni speak. She was 34, a youth minister in Berlusconi’s center-right government—the youngest cabinet member in Italian history—and one of the only women in the cabinet who hadn’t previously been a showgirl on the real-estate-and-media mogul’s TV channels. At a conference of young Italian industrialists in bespoke suits, heirs to the small family businesses that are the backbone of the Italian economy, Meloni, already a rising star of the National Alliance party when it merged with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party two years earlier, debated Matteo Renzi, then the center-left mayor of Florence and later the country’s prime minister. Both were quick on their feet, skilled, snappy. There was an energy in the room. It was like watching a good tennis match.

Meloni’s presence there underscored Berlusconi’s role in giving mainstream respectability to conservatives like her. In the 1994 election, his vaguely populist, market-friendly Forza Italia had led a center-right coalition that also included the Northern League, then a small party dedicated to fiscal federalism—that is, to letting the prosperous regions of Lombardy and Veneto keep their tax revenue rather than sharing it with Italy’s more economically retrograde south. (This party, led by Matteo Salvini, is now known simply as the League.) Fatefully, Berlusconi’s coalition also included the National Alliance, which had emerged that same year from a merger of older far-right parties, including the neofascist Italian Social Movement.

Meloni in profile in BW
Berlusconi in parlement
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2013

During the Berlusconi years, Italy’s economic growth lagged behind that of its European counterparts. In 2011, a debt crisis raised fears that Italy might default on its obligations and bring the rest of the eurozone down with it. At the height of that crisis, Berlusconi, who for years had been mired in sex scandals, stepped down under pressure. He was replaced by Mario Monti, an EU-blessed technocrat whose government imposed austerity measures, including raising the retirement age. Bank credit dried up. Italians became poorer.

The following year, Meloni split with Berlusconi and founded Brothers of Italy. Named after the opening line of Italy’s national anthem, it was, from the outset, more sharply ideological than Forza Italia or the League. Giovanbattista Fazzolari, Meloni’s ideas guy, longtime close adviser, and now a cabinet undersecretary, told me Brothers of Italy was an attempt “to respond to a great Italian anomaly, which is the absence of a party that puts the national interest front and center.” Meloni’s party was a minor player in the 2013 national elections, which yielded no clear governing majority, and in the 2018 elections, which produced a strange coalition of the League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

Then, through a lot of complex maneuvering during the coronavirus pandemic, the center left wound up as part of technocratic coalition governments without actually having won elections. Meloni’s immediate predecessor, Mario Draghi, a widely respected former European Central Bank president, led a national-unity government that was popular with voters but fell apart anyway. When that happened, in July, Meloni was opposition leader and in a position to benefit.

In the resulting election, Meloni’s party ran alongside the League and Forza Italia. When she placed first, she became the leader of that conservative coalition. Meloni now governs a rich country that is at best stagnating, a country of haves who more and more feel like have-nots. She is the young face of an aging country with the highest pension spending in the industrialized world, a country that sees its coastline as a risk—a place from which invaders in boats arrive from afar, this time in the form of migrants from Africa and Asia seeking a better life in Europe. Meloni and other neo-nationalists are eager to debate who has a right to gain entry, and who belongs in the polity.

Instead of attending university, Meloni began working as a political operative straight out of high school. She tends not to discuss politics in philosophical terms. But in the past few years, her advisers have been building an intellectual foundation for her politics somewhat after the fact. In her first speech to the lower house, Meloni approvingly noted the British conservative political thinker Roger Scruton’s support for environmental protection. Scruton, whom she also cites in Io Sono Giorgia, is best known for his defense of the nation-state and of sharply defined national identity. The “real price of community,” he once argued, is “sanctity, intolerance, exclusion, and a sense that life’s meaning depends upon obedience, and also on vigilance against the enemy.”

Meloni’s frequent inveighing against illegal immigration, with unspoken racial undertones, is a crucial part of her platform and electoral success. Soon after taking office, she set off a diplomatic crisis with France when Italy refused harbor to an NGO boat that had rescued migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, forcing it to dock in France. Tangled up in its own immigration controversies, France was reluctant to allow the boat to land. Meloni scored points with her base—We stuck it to snobby France! Let them see what it’s like to deal with these boats!—at the cost of damaging Italy’s relationship with a key ally.

Since coming to power, Meloni has taken pains to portray herself as trustworthy and normal, even boring. Through her aides, she declined multiple interview requests, but in one of her only one-on-one interviews since taking office, she told the editor in chief of Corriere Della Sera that she led a “a modern right-wing and conservative government like many others in the West.” This may be true, but not because Meloni’s positions moderated. Conservative politicians and voters across the West have taken a stark nativist turn. The line between the right and the far right has been eroding.

After the elections last fall, I spent some time in and around Modena, an elegant city of porticoes and high incomes in a part of Northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region known for its balsamic vinegar and progressive politics. In September’s elections, the district of Modena voted for the right for the first time since World War II. That was partly the outcome of a redistricting that merged the more liberal city with its more conservative hinterland. But as I drove around to smaller towns that used to be strongly Communist, I sensed a deep fatigue on the part of center-left voters. The Democratic Party, people kept telling me, had become the party of the elites. Roberto Solomita, the Democratic Party mayor of Soliera, a town outside Modena, told me that the discontent went beyond politics. “People who feel threatened by the changes in the world don’t ask the left for answers, and we aren’t able to protect them,” he said.

Meloni’s us-versus-them approach plays on a feeling of insecurity that seems pervasive in many small Italian cities. In Sassuolo, a city of 40,000 outside Modena, I wandered into a newsstand while a man, apparently in mental distress, was screaming in the piazza outside. The shop owner, 52-year-old Katia Ferrari, pointed to that as a sign that the neighborhood wasn’t what it used to be. She told me she had voted for Brothers of Italy for the first time in September, out of curiosity. “Let’s give it a try,” she said. “I’m more for severity. We don’t need buonismo,” she added, using a term for being too nice that’s often associated with the Italian left. Ferrari told me she’d voted for the Five Star Movement in 2018 but had soured on its hallmark legislation: the “citizens’ income,” a monthly subsidy for unemployed people. She liked Meloni’s pledge to eliminate it. Why should some people get public funds to not work when she had to work? Ferrari asked me.

Diptych: Left- a young man in a barber shop. Right: people walking on a wide street surrounded by buildings.
Left: Okubor Prince, a Nigerian immigrant who recently opened a barbershop, in Sassuolo in October. Right: Residents walk by a square in Nonantola.

In a nearby bar, the owner, Monica Consiglio, told me she, too, had voted for Meloni to protest the citizens’ income. “We had trouble finding staff,” she said. At the counter, a customer was speaking Arabic into his cellphone. Italy has an aging workforce and needs migrant labor to function, but Meloni’s rise may make the labor shortage worse. Italian business associations have been asking her to increase the number of immigrants allowed into the country to work. In a nearby barbershop, a man from Nigeria and a man from Ghana told me they were concerned that life would not be easy for Black people in Italy under Meloni. “We’re worried, but there’s not much we can do,” Evans Amartey told me. He is 22 and came to Italy from Ghana to play soccer semiprofessionally and join his factory-worker father, but he didn’t see a future for himself in the country.

Meloni tends to talk about her own positions on contested issues as if they were inarguable common sense. Why should we tolerate illegal immigration? Why should we let gay people adopt children? Why should people be paid not to work? Yet despite some of her harsher rhetoric, Meloni’s party, like so much of the European right and far right, is to the left of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in its support for a welfare state. Meloni speaks often of how Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the West and one of Europe’s lowest female-employment rates. It lags far behind France and its other European counterparts in state support for families. She wants to implement better state child care so women can have kids and go back to work, boosting the economy. Meloni—who opposes abortion but says she won’t touch Italy’s broadly popular 1975 law legalizing the procedure—has proposed to offer funds for women who might otherwise end their pregnancy for economic reasons. (This issue is personal for her. Her mother was in her early 20s and in a rocky marriage when she got pregnant with Meloni and considered an abortion.)

In Italy, as in many European countries, left- and right-wing parties alike rhapsodize about the stability and social protections that past generations enjoyed. But when Meloni and others shift the debate to how to define and enforce national identity, the left struggles—and often refuses—to compete.

“I thank the conservative family for their trust,” Meloni declared on Twitter in 2020 after being elected president of the European Conservatives and Reformists, a bloc of hard-line parties in the European Parliament that resist immigration and oppose further political integration within the EU. “Let us continue to fight together,” she added, “for a confederate Europe of free and sovereign states.” Members of the group include Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party; Spain’s far-right Vox party, whose rallies Meloni has sometimes addressed; and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ethnonationalist Fidesz. I heard Meloni and Orbán speak in defense of Christian national identity at a conference of neo-nationalists in Rome in early 2020. The organizers included Francesco Giubilei, a close Meloni adviser, and Yoram Hazony, the Israeli author of The Virtue of Nationalism, a key link in this international fellowship.

In recent years, many conservatives across Europe have expressed affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a strongman whose ethnic chauvinism and attacks on LGBTQ people inspire admiration on the far right. In her autobiography, Meloni writes, “Russia is part of our system of European values; it defends Christian identity and fights Islamic fundamentalism.” Yet after Putin invaded Ukraine, Meloni quickly pivoted to make support for Kyiv a pillar of her party’s platform, going against her own base to do so. Italy’s economic ties to Russia are far more limited than Germany’s, but also more opaque, and Italians blame the war for rising utility prices. Because of her country’s treaty commitments, a large part of the prime minister’s job is to make sure Italy, which has seven NATO bases, doesn’t veer too close to Russia. Doing this means keeping in line Berlusconi, who has a longtime personal friendship with Putin, and Matteo Salvini, whose League party has been under investigation for its Russia ties.

Like some other neo-nationalists, Meloni has drawn inspiration from a more idiosyncratic source: fantasy fiction. In the ’90s, she co-founded the Atreju festival, an annual far-right rally named after the protagonist of The Neverending Story, Michael Ende’s 1979 book about a warrior boy who fights against a dark force called The Nothing. Guests at the festival have included the former Trump aide Steve Bannon and Orbán, whom Meloni admires and whom her advisers admire more. Meloni has also adopted J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in a quest to find new heroes for a conservative cultural identity. Tolkien and Ende “could seem superficial,” Meloni’s writer friend Buttafuoco told me, “but in fact they have a profound symbolic meaning in that they represent a break from the 20th century”—that is, from the discredited tropes of fascism.

Yet the dominant spirit of Meloni’s politics is a sense of unmitigated grievance. In her speech to the lower house, Meloni described herself as an “underdog,” using the English word to refer to her fight for the top spot from a cultural tradition that, as she put it, “was often relegated to the margins of the history of the republic.” Meloni routinely depicts herself as a victim of the snobbery of the left-wing elites, even though the center right has governed in Italy for most of the past three decades. (It’s reminiscent of how the Catholic Church, which dominated Europe politically and culturally for the better part of 2,000 years, today depicts itself as a victim of the secularizing forces of the EU.)

In my conversations with Meloni’s advisers, I was struck not only by the content but the tone—a feeling of having been slighted, of having been left out; an almost paranoid sense of persecution. This emotional conception of conservatism as not just a set of policy ideas but as payback to entitled elites transcends national boundaries. Meloni’s speech last year at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, showed this intense defensive stance. “We live in a time in which everything we stand for is under attack,” she said. “Our individual freedom is under attack, our rights are under attack, the sovereignty of our nation is under attack, the prosperity and well-being of our families are under attack.” She added, “The only way of being rebels is to preserve what we are. The only way of being rebels is to be conservative.”

Today, Meloni has her hands full managing her two junior coalition partners. Berlusconi and Salvini both crave the spotlight and envy Meloni while also relying on her to stay in power. Salvini is an excitable wild card who loves posting selfies and brought down Italy’s last two governments. When he was interior minister, he oversaw the police and ran a high-profile social-media campaign against immigrants. Meloni, who drew many votes away from Salvini in the elections, tried to defang him by appointing him deputy prime minister and infrastructure minister—a less flashy role despite the billions of euros in public funding that his agency disperses.

Silvini taking a selfie with a very large crowd
Matteo Salvini, leader of the League political party and now the deputy prime minister, takes a selfie with his supporters in 2019.
Berlusconi in a black car
Berlusconi waves to his supporters.

Meanwhile Berlusconi, now 86, is back in the Senate after a conviction for tax fraud. (His prison sentence was commuted to community service.) He has not taken kindly to answering to his onetime underling. He was caught on camera in the Senate chamber last fall with a paper on his desk listing dismissive terms for Meloni, including “patronizing” and “bossy.” When an Italian TV reporter asked her to comment on that, she snapped back, “An adjective is missing: that I’m not blackmailable,” implying that her scandal-plagued former political benefactor was.

Meloni is still finding her footing in government. She lacks a classe dirigente, high-level bureaucrats experienced in governance and diplomacy. Italy’s establishment, skilled in survival, is already making its accommodations to the new order. In Rome, I spoke with Francesco Verderami, a prominent columnist at Corriere Della Sera. “This is the most difficult moment in the postwar period,” he told me. Of all the parties on the scene at the moment, Meloni’s, in his view, is best-positioned to lead and hold the country together. The situation “needs to be managed by a right-wing government. It’s the end of a taboo,” he told me. “Italy doesn’t only risk an economic crisis, but our entire productive system is at risk. There’s inflation, war, an energy crisis. There is a very strong risk of social fracture.”

And yet Meloni has been heightening divisions rather than soothing them. She named as speaker of the lower house Lorenzo Fontana, an archconservative loose-cannon lawmaker from the League, perhaps best known for co-hosting an anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage gathering in Verona. She appointed as president of the Senate a former defense minister whose middle name is Benito and who, incidentally, keeps a sculpture of Mussolini in his home. For her culture minister she picked Gennaro Sangiugliano, the author of a hagiographic biography of Putin and a former television-news executive with a history of stoking fears of illegal immigration. His signature initiative so far has been to raise ticket prices at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery on the grounds that Americans can afford to pay more.

Meloni caught in a camera light with people surrounding her
Meloni after a September rally in Cagliari

Meloni often reminds me of a right-wing version of Alexis Tsipras, the leftist leader of Greece’s Syriza party, who turned out to be a stronger opposition leader than head of government. For all the talk of a new conservative movement, much of Meloni’s program is prosaic, more defensive than expansive. She raised the ceiling on the size of cash payments, a move that seemed to acknowledge the realities of Italian tax evasion. She proposed harsh prison terms for people who organize illegal raves, which critics have called an overreach that could affect the right to assembly. She has adamantly pursued defamation suits against journalists. “The real risk is this: illiberal democracy,” Valentina Desalvo, an editor at the center-left daily La Repubblica, told me. “You think you’re a majority, so minorities don’t exist—to progressively eliminate dissent and to build consensus not through things that bring about the progress of society but by shrinking the public space for adversaries. Which is what Trump did. This is Meloni’s real model.”

Meloni’s leadership could prove durable if no alternative majority emerges and if she matures in office. In a speech at a foreign-policy conference in Rome in December, she said Italy needed “more Europe”—meaning more support from the EU—to share the burden of contending with the migrants attempting to reach Italian shores. It was a clear request for help. There was no talk of how the EU deprived Italians of their identity. Meloni’s culture war may appease the aggrieved, but it’s not a plan of action.

In the end, the greatest obstacle Meloni may yet face is leadership itself—the quicksand of her native Rome, the city of bureaucracy, an ancient capital whose dominant energy is inertia. Ever since the long era of Berlusconi ended in 2011, nothing has depleted an Italian leader’s political capital faster than coming to power.

This article previously misstated Silvio Berlusconi’s punishment after a tax-fraud conviction.