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A Specter Haunting America: Trump and Italian Fascism

Is Trump an American version of Mussolini? Reading Primo Levi, Umberto Eco and FDR helps us

mussolini trump
Like Italy in 1922 America is supposedly under siege by forces seemingly out of our control. The country is overrun by immigrants, mocked on the international stage, and losing its sense of superiority. Along comes Donald Trump who assures us he can restore us to greatness

Notwithstanding the daily admonition to “work with the new administration” and the appropriation of Lincoln’s eloquence to “bind our wounds”, the recent Electoral College victory of Donald Trump (who lost the popular vote) is the symptom of a deep-rooted pathology in American culture. A pathology that has already run through Italian society, not once but twice. First with Benito Mussolini then with Silvio Berlusconi.

We are witnessing what Sinclair Lewis supposedly said 80 years ago. “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

During the course of the Republican primaries and then the general election, Donald Trump often told his audience, “Only I can solve America’s problems.” In a May 2003 interview with the New York Times’ Frank Bruni, Berlusconi repeated his ominously warning, crafted during his entrance into politics in 1994, “Only I can save Italy from communism”.

Like Italy in 1922 America is supposedly under siege by forces seemingly out of our control. The country is overrun by immigrants, mocked on the international stage, and losing its sense of superiority. Along comes the deus-ex-machina who assures us he can cut the Gordian knot and restore us to greatness.

There could only be two possibilities regarding Berlusconi’s public remarks that only he “can save Italy from communism”: either he is deaf to the irony of his own rhetoric or his hearing is pitch-perfect and his comments are really a not-so-subtle reference to his own brand of “benign” fascism. When Mussolini came to power in October 1922, most political insiders and the public thought he would be contained by more sober and traditional forces in government. (The same was true of Adolf Hitler in 1933). With his most recent appointments, Trump leaves no room for hopeful speculation that his nationalistic authoritarianism can be contained. One is reminded of Marx’s observation, “History repeats itself: first as tragedy, second as farce.” George Santayana: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

If fascism was, as Piero Gobetti theorized, the “autobiography of a nation,” Berlusconism is the media-facilitated “selfie” of the Bel Paese. We now have a self-portrait of America as rabidly nationalistic, xenophobic, misogynist, paranoid, anti-Semitic, with a psyche that has not matured past the common junior high school locker room.

One gets the sense reading our history that Americans embrace fear and love to be afraid: the object of our fear is constantly transforming itself before our eyes: whether they be Native Americans, the British, Mexicans, Chinese, Irish, Italians, anarchists, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Communists, gays, or Syrian refugees. It seems that Americans desperately need something to fear in order to define themselves.

In the spring of 1974, at time when Italy was dealing with neo-fascism, Primo Levi wrote an essay in the pages of the Corriere della Sera titled “A Past We Thought Would Never Return”.

“Every age has its own fascism, and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.”

Un passato che credevamo non dovesse tornare più:

“Ogni tempo ha il suo fascismo: se ne notano i segni premonitori dovunque la concentrazione di potere nega al cittadino la possibilità e la capacità di esprimere ed attuare la sua volontà. A questo si arriva in molti modi,non necessariamente col terrore dell’intimidazione poliziesca, ma anche negando o distorcendo l’informazione inquinando la giustizia, paralizzando la scuola, diffondendo in molti modi sottili la nostalgia per un mondo in cui regnava sovrano l’ordine,ed in cui la sicurezza di pochi privilegiati riposava sul lavoro forzato e sul silenzio forzato dei molti”.

 

Since his entrance onto the political stage, I have been warning that Trump represents an American version of fascism. I am aware of Godwin’s Law which states that all political debate eventually ends with an analogy of Hitler. And I am sensitive to the difficulties of defining fascism, with many scholars insisting that fascism can only be defined by its historical moment in 20th century Italy. But I am more persuaded by the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when asked to define pornography: “We know it when we see it.”

On April 25, 1995, celebrating the 50 anniversary of the liberation of Italy, Umberto Eco delivered his most pointed political speech on “Ur-Fascism” (sometimes titled 14 Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt).

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism.

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.

4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. So disagreement is treason.

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity.

6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration.

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country.

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak.

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero.

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters.

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

Eco concluded his speech with this warning:

 Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances — every day, in every part of the world.

Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task.

Ignazio Silone had once wrote: “A deep knowledge of history makes fanaticism impossible.” While many have been saying that the values of Trump do not reflect America, the awful truth is that they reflect America all too well.

 


Stanislao PuglieseStanislao G. Pugliese, Professor of History, Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian & Italian American Studies Hofstra University. Dr. Pugliese is a former research fellow at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Oxford University, Harvard University and the inaugural Italian Scientists and Scholars of North America Foundation fellow at the Istituto Campano per la Storia della Resistenza in Naples. In 2005, the Association of Italian American Educators named him College Professor of the Year. A specialist on modern Italy, the anti-fascist Resistance and Italian Jews, Dr. Pugliese is the author, editor or translator of a dozen books on Italian and Italian American history. His first book, Carlo Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Antifascist Exile (Harvard University Press, 1999) has been translated into Italian, Russian and Romanian. Other books are Desperate Inscriptions: Graffiti From the Nazi Prison in Rome, 1943-1944 and an anthology, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and the Resistance in Italy. He edited a new English edition of Carlo Levi’s Fear of Freedom and the first English translation of Claudio Pavone’s landmark work A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance.  In 2009, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published his book,Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone which won the Fraenkel Prize in London, the Premio Flaiano in Italy and the Howard Marraro Prize from the American Historical Association. 

 

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