ROME — “If this is to end in fire, then we should all burn together.”
These ominous words aren’t from an apocalyptic poem: They’re from a politician’s memoir. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, opened her 2021 book with this strange call to arms, eschewing the more prosaic style favored by most politicians. But then Ms. Meloni, whose party carries the symbol adopted by defeated lieutenants of the Mussolini regime and describes itself as “post-fascist,” is hardly a mainstream political figure.
At least, she didn’t use to be. Yet just two months after Ms. Meloni published her best-selling memoir, her party topped national opinion polls for the first time. Since then, it has continued to boast over 20 percent support and has provided the only major opposition to Mario Draghi’s technocratic coalition. On Wednesday, in a sudden turn of events, the government collapsed. Early elections, due in the fall, could open the way for the Brothers of Italy to become the first far-right party to lead a major eurozone economy. For Europe and the country, it would be a truly seismic event.
It would also mark a remarkable rise for a party that in 2018 secured just 4 percent of the vote. At its heart is Ms. Meloni, who skillfully blends fears of civilizational decline with folksy anecdotes about her relationships with her family, God and Italy itself. Conversant with pop culture and fond of referring to J.R.R. Tolkien — the line in her memoir, from an Ed Sheeran song on the soundtrack of a film in the Hobbit series, combines the two — Ms. Meloni presents herself as an unusually down-to-earth politician.
But the Brothers of Italy doesn’t just owe its success to toning down its message. It’s also the beneficiary of a much wider breakdown of the barriers between the traditional center-right and the insurgent far right, playing out across Western Europe and America. Heavily indebted, socially polarized and politically unstable, Italy is just the country where the process is most advanced. If you want to know what the future may hold, it’s a good place to look.
It’s not the first time Italy, whose elites often look abroad for national models, has actually led the way. It was, of course, the first country to be taken over by fascists, falling to Mussolini 100 years ago. If that experience revealed how liberal democracy’s defenses could crumble, Italy would go on to show how much change the category could hold. In the postwar period it pioneered Christian Democracy, a catchall centrism home to both conservative and more socially minded forces, and played host to innumerable innovations on the left.
The end of the Cold War brought perhaps the country’s most telling anticipation of the future: After the complete collapse of the previously dominant mass parties, the political landscape was soon conquered by Silvio Berlusconi. A billionaire who posed as an anti-establishment outsider, he used his media platform to gain a loyal base of supporters, sharply toxifying the terms of public debate.
Into this constellation comes the Brothers of Italy. It is, in many ways, unexceptional: Like other far-right parties across Europe, it is descended from a fascist or collaborationist original and for a long time existed on the margins of national politics. In the 1990s, under Mr. Berlusconi, post-fascists were allowed into junior government roles. Yet in recent years Ms. Meloni’s party has become the single leading force on the right, commanding the so-called center-right electoral alliance that also includes the hard-right League and Forza Italia. Central to that rise, for all the party’s focus on tax cuts and pro-business talk, is Italy’s endemic economic malaise.
While exacerbated by the pandemic, it’s been going on for a long time. Economic growth flatlined across the past two decades while eye-wateringly high public debt has forestalled efforts to revive the country’s fortunes. Youth unemployment is constantly high and regional inequality deeply entrenched. In this atmosphere of decline, where prosperity seems implausible, the Brothers of Italy’s message — that national salvation can be found only in the abjuring of migrants and defense of the traditional family — has found a receptive audience.
And not just in Italy. For example, the Vox party in Spain, a far-right force steeped in apologia for the Franco regime that has risen to 20 percent in the polls, regards Ms. Meloni as an inspiration. Appearing at a Vox campaign event in June she neatly encapsulated the contours of their shared politics, thundering in Spanish, “Yes to secure borders! No to mass immigration!” The speech — which reached its crescendo with Ms. Meloni shouting, “Yes to our civilization! And no to those who want to destroy it!” — could well have been given by Marine Le Pen, whose National Rally is now the chief force on the French right.
Even more than Ms. Le Pen, Ms. Meloni is at pains to assert her party’s mainstream credentials. This especially takes the form of a staunchly Atlanticist foreign policy — commitment to the European Union and NATO and firm opposition to Russia and China — even as the party pursues a nakedly reactionary agenda at home. Yet there, too, it makes occasional concessions to civility. When the neo-fascists of Forza Nuova violently attacked trade union offices last October, Brothers of Italy distanced itself from the group, abstaining on a parliamentary motion to ban it while condemning “all totalitarianisms.”
But there are also militant subcultures sheltering under the post-fascist label. Last fall, a documentary made national headlines with allegations of money laundering, illicit campaign financing and ties to neo-Nazis in the party’s organization in Milan. The film exposed the close collaboration of the leader of Brothers of Italy’s group in the European Parliament with Roberto Jonghi Lavarini, a neo-fascist militant known as the “black baron.”
Such unsavory connections aside, the party has brushed up its establishment credentials and extended its appeal far beyond the ranks of Mussolini nostalgists. Neo-fascist street violence is at far lower levels than it was in the 1970s, never mind the 1920s. Yet the takeover of the broader right by figures who explicitly regard themselves as heirs to the fascist tradition is an alarming development — one far from confined to Italy.
Perhaps we will not all burn together in the fire. But if the far right takes over the government, in Italy or elsewhere, some of us surely will.