Matteo Salvini: The making of a modern despot?

03 March 2019 /

The wind of discontent that has been blowing from the United States since the election of Donald Trump has hit Europe, and Italy is no exception. Salvini is now holding the reins of Italian politics and first projections[1] show that he could “emerge as the bigger winner in EU elections”[2]. Here are some reasons behind Salvini’s growing success.

The Genesis of a Party

Matteo Salvini is incumbent deputy premier and interior minister since 2018, and the leader of the Lega party since 2013. Do not mistake this with Lega Nord, a completely different entity. Think of them as the Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde of contemporary politics. The Lega Nord party was created in 1991, under the leadership of Umberto Bossi. Born as a right-wing regionalist party, Lega Nord claimed to be the voice of the North, also known as Padania[3], and defended a simplistic narrative: the south of Italy is a bloodsucker, the EU is evil, the Euro is a “crime against mankind”[4], Rome is the capital of the mafia, and immigrants are a plague to eradicate. The equation was basically Padania versus the rest of the world.  For years, Lega Nord has been a minor party, mainly voted by workers frustrated with flatlining pay and local businesses owners broke by the ruthless competition. Southerners were not part of the scenario and because of that, Lega Nord never came to power. Until the unexpected happened.

The Game Changer

The revolution started with Matteo Salvini. After twenty years fighting alongside Umberto Bossi, he made it to the top of the party hierarchy. Salvini took the regionalism that distinguished Lega Nord from other political factions and ripped it apart – with no regrets.

Salvini took the regionalism that distinguished Lega Nord from other political factions and ripped it apart – with no regrets.

In fact, their communication strategy has been so effective that it leaves little room for criticism. Lega Nord became Lega, and the green that once distinguished the party’s logo, typical of the Po River Valley, was replaced by a neutral blue. The credo stayed the same, except for one considerable point. Since the support of the South was crucial to broaden its pool of voters, Salvini quickly realized that he needed to appeal to the very regions he had previously condemned. And he did so, by turning Lega Nord into a nationalist party, blaming the plague on somewhere even further south, beyond Italy. The new enemy lives across the Mediterranean, ready to sail and reach the shores of Lampedusa to rob Italians of all their rights and belongings. The darker the skin, the bigger the danger. So how is it that Italians, a people who have themselves experienced racism, dictatorship and emigration, could buy that kind of rhetoric?

Everything Now

Because it is easier. Matteo Salvini is offering gut-made decisions and illusory solutions to a nation that is urgently demanding major changes. Traditional policies based on long-term reforms are now rejected, mainly because they are not tangible and because their latest authors are held responsible for the decline of the country.

Salvini managed to do what few politicians can do: he made the people trust him.

To avoid the mistakes made by his former colleagues, Salvini chose to focus on secondary problems, which require less effort to solve and are at the same time more visible. “Who cares about brain drain[5] when a bunch of thieves and bank lovers calling themselves Eurocrats want to make law in my country”. In this way, he succeeds in diverting attention, one tweet after another, from the broader issues affecting Italy, such as the mafia, youth unemployment[6], demographic stagnation[7] and corruption[8]. Seeing is not believing in this case. So, since the elites of bankers, politicians and philosophers could not fix these problems, it is now up to a man who might be less qualified for the job but shows no fear of trying. And Italians follow him, blinded by charisma and good intentions of the one who dissociates himself from the establishment and becomes the voice of the oppressed. Salvini managed to do what few politicians can do: he made the people trust him.

History Repeats Itself

Does it ring a bell? In this government, Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega, is the authority figure. His party has surged ahead of the Five Star Movement, its coalition partner, and seized a commanding lead in opinion polls[9]. He is already the undisputed king of the Italian right. The opposition, especially the Democratic Party (PD), is now six feet under and does not seem to recover after the dreadful election loss[10] in 2018. Meanwhile, Salvini has been cultivating an autocratic image, combining reassuring classical Italian references to religion, friendship and traditional family with harsh attacks on his enemies: immigrants, opposers, journalists, the LGBTQ+ community, EU bureaucrats and bankers. The propaganda spreads through social media, especially Facebook, where he posts an average of six times a day, and where personal invectives and provocative statements go hand in hand. Salvini’s supporters seem to idolatrize him and feel legitimized to emulate their hero behaviour by repeating themselves the motto “Prima gli italiani” (“Italians first”).

Salvini’s supporters seem to idolatrize him and feel legitimized to emulate their hero behaviour by repeating themselves the motto “Prima gli italiani” (“Italians first”).

It is no wonder that Salvini’s rise to power has intensified concerns in Italy about the escalation of racist and xenophobic violence, and the dozens of attacks on black people that have been recorded in the last year. To him, anything is permissible, and everything is condoned. The common pattern with authoritarian regimes is unmistakable and while it might be too early to establish a perfect correlation, the foundations are terribly solid.

Barbara Pellegrino is a Master student in Legal Translation.




[3]  An alternative name for the Po River Valley, a major plain in the north of Italy. It has now a strong political connotation.

[4]  “Lega, Salvini contro euro: ‘Crimine contro l’umanità’ Retrieved 9 June 2015.







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