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Italy’s far-right turn has been years in the making.
Giorgia Meloni, the founder of the far-right party Brothers of Italy, will be Italy’s first woman leader and the first far-right leader in decades, since the fall of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II.
Meloni’s party won about 26 percent of the vote in Italy’s snap general elections on Sunday, and will join with other right-wing parties to form a governing coalition with Meloni as prime minister.
Meloni’s rise to power and the retrenchment of far-right populism within her coalition is in some ways a resurgence and galvanization of far-right sentiment that Italian politics and political parties have never truly reckoned with. Despite Meloni’s and other right-wing figures’ insistence to the contrary — and despite the brutality of Mussolini’s fascist movement in Italy and across Europe — his influence never completely receded from Italian politics.
Meloni, 45, honed her reactionary views as a teenage political activist in her native Rome; at 15, she registered with the youth front of the Italian Social Movement, a group established by a former minister in Mussolini’s government.
On the campaign trail, she emphasized her womanhood and motherhood, though she is not a feminist. She has also taken a hard line against immigration — suggesting that the Italian Navy patrol the Mediterranean to keep migrants from arriving by sea. Meloni’s victory could portend rollbacks to minority rights, including the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and migrants. Her Brothers of Italy party uses an insignia and slogan — “Dio, patria, famiglia,” or “God, country, family” — which echo its fascist predecessors.
Meloni’s star has risen considerably since Italy’s 2018 elections, when her party received only 4 percent of the vote. Now, her coalition — with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s League party — have taken about 44 percent of the vote, enough for a ruling majority in a new, smaller parliament.
Meloni’s refusal this summer to support outgoing caretaker Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s unity government and her forceful opposition to his Covid-19 policies pushed her into the spotlight; her presentation as “strongly against the establishment, anti-elite and very, very conservative,” as Carlo Bastasin, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, described it to Foreign Policy, has galvanized her supporters.
Voter turnout appears to have reached historic lows, having just cleared 50 percent in the final hours of voting. That’s partly because the state of Italian politics has left many voters “disaffected, disappointed,” pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco of YouTrend told the Associated Press. “They don’t see their vote as something that matters.”
As Italy’s new leader, Meloni will have to contend with a series of major issues — some of which, like immigration, a tax system overhaul, and judicial reform, have plagued Italy for years, across many governments, seemingly without a tenable solution.
Italy’s right wing has been building up to this for years
Italian politics have a reputation for being messy, bureaucratic, and ineffectual; over the past four years, Italy has had three different governing coalitions — two under Giuseppe Conte, leader of the Five Star Movement, and one under former European Central Bank head Draghi. The Conte governments, “characterized by an unusual level of incompetence,” as Bastasin wrote in July, crumbled due to inefficiency in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as political maneuvering and power plays on the part of Conte’s colleagues in the Italian parliament.
In contrast, Draghi’s government enjoyed high public support and reassured European Union partners and other international actors that Italy was on track to manage the pandemic and responsibly spend recovery funds. Draghi prioritized critical economic goals and gender equity, as well as investments in clean energy and green jobs in his first speech as prime minister. He also stood firmly in support of the European Union and Italy’s place in it, notably in terms of supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion and in imposing sanctions on Russia, despite the domestic challenges of doing so.
However, Draghi’s tenure as an unelected technocrat depended on a unity government; Meloni’s party was the only opposition until Conte broke the coalition in July in response to Italy’s cost of living crisis, prompting the spectacular dissolution of Draghi’s unity government, his resignation, and finally, the right-wing bloc of Meloni, Salvini, and Berlusconi calling for snap elections.
According to Andrea Pirro, a professor of political and social sciences at the Florence university Scuola Normale Superiore who spoke to Vox over email ahead of the election, Meloni has benefited from her constant role in the opposition.
Other experts agree: “She’s the only leader the Italian electorate does not perceive to have already tested,” Pietro Castelli Gattinara, an associate professor of political communication at Université Libre de Bruxelles, told Vox’s Jen Kirby. “She is the only one that has not yet deceived the Italian electorate. That’s her biggest ace to play at the next election.”
Meloni’s party is also benefiting from “the 5 Star Movement’s entry to parliament in 2013,” which “shook Italian politics to the core,” Pirro said, “de facto questioning the traditional bipolar competition between a moderate-left and a right-wing bloc.” That power shift, in turn, positioned Salvini’s the League as the ”new gravitational center of the right-wing bloc (at the expense of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia), steering the right-wing coalition towards far-right territories.”
The mainstreaming of Salvini’s worldview, which has historically included support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and aggressive anti-immigration measures “was, in a way, much more important in paving the way for Meloni’s rise,” Pirro said. “When the League started losing support, many voters simply opted for the untried far-right alternative, Brothers of Italy.”
Meloni has gained support, as populists do, with an underdog appeal. Many of her supporters, including Meloni herself, identify with hobbits, a diminutive people from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, as the New York Times’s Jason Horowitz explained this week. “The feature that characterizes her, and the feature that is mirroring the sentiment of the Italian public opinion, is her insistence on victimhood,” Bastasin told Foreign Policy. “This is a very powerful emotional argument which goes down well for many populist politicians.”
The Italian populist, post-fascism lineage, of which Meloni is a part, has venerated the text as a “vision of spirituality against materialism, a metaphysical vision of life against the forms of the modern world,” former MSI member Umberto Croppi told the Times.
The nostalgia for a simpler time, in fact, defines and drives Brothers of Italy’s appeal, as well as the party itself. “While Brothers of Italy cannot be meaningfully labelled as ‘neofascist,’ there is clearly a share of nostalgics among party ranks,” Pirro told Vox, tracing the party’s roots back to the Italian Social Movement. “Meloni has done generally little to distance herself and her organization from these elements — or openly condemn fascism, for that matter.”
Italy’s left wing has also ceded ground to conservative parties, and even mimicked some of their policies and talking points. Although Italy did have a visible leftist movement in the post-war era, political aims were overshadowed by polarization and terror from the late 1960s through the ’80s — what Italians call the anni di piombo, Years of Lead.
Now, “the main reformist party, the Democratic Party, has long lost its social-democratic credentials by parroting the far right on security and immigration issues and embracing a neoliberal market agenda at the expenses of its traditional working-class voter base,” Pirro told Vox. Conte’s Five Star Movement “is currently presenting itself as a progressive force, but this is coming after years of ideological ambiguity and flirtation with far-right issues,” and anything resembling a truly left-wing party “has failed to capture sizable support in recent years.”
That’s because of a series of disappointments on the part of left-wing politicians, one Italian voter told Vox. “Politically, I’m a left-wing person, I identify with the left wing,” Gaia Celeste, a Roman left-wing constituent and community manager for a tech startup, told Vox. “We have a big center-left-wing party which is the Partito Democratico — the Democratic Party — which has not fulfilled many of the desires and the needs of the left-wing electorate.”
In fact, Celeste said, over the past decade those parties had responded much more to the “sirens” of right-wing rhetoric than to the needs of the people.
How would the Meloni coalition govern?
Meloni is likely to have a great deal of freedom to implement her party’s agenda with backing from Italy’s other right-wing parties.
“The far-right Brothers of Italy and the League are the two main ideological drivers of the right-wing coalition, so we should expect an additional crackdown on migration policies and the rights of minorities (especially LGBTQI+ people), and in all likelihood further barriers to accessing abortion, when Meloni comes to power,” Pirro told Vox.
Abortion, which became legal in Italy in 1978, is still quite difficult to access for many Italian women; the procedure is legal only up to 12 weeks of pregnancy in most cases, and the law governing it allows for doctors to opt out of performing abortions as “conscientious objectors.” As many as 71 percent of Italian gynecological health care providers identify as conscientious objectors, according to one study published in the journal Social Science Research in 2020.
While Meloni has said she would respect Italy’s abortion law as it stands, she has also made clear that she wants to emphasize a part of the law which is “about prevention,” although what that means in practice is unclear. Overall, Meloni positions herself as “pro-family” — meaning pro-traditional, nuclear family. Fellow coalition leader Salvini has praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for his family policies, including incentives for Hungarian women to have four or more children.
Meloni also opposes what she calls “pink quotas,” or quotas for women’s participation in government and on private-sector positions of power. Many Italian women support such quotas, the New York Times reports, particularly in a highly patriarchal society where “boys’ clubs” have dominated the halls of power.
Viviana Costagliola, an art historian originally from Naples, told Vox via WhatsApp that she’s concerned about the erosion of minority rights and abortion access under a potential Meloni government. She’s also “preoccupied with our position with the European community’s dialogue,” noting Meloni’s “proximity to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s thoughts and the Spanish extremist right parties.”
Though Meloni has recently voiced her support for the European project — especially critical so as not to threaten access to 191.5 billion euros in Covid-19 recovery funds — she’s previously expressed some euroskeptic viewpoints and openly admires Orbán, one of the biggest thorns in the side of the EU.
Meloni’s most salient political characteristic is her nationalism, highlighted with a nostalgic “traditionalism” that ties in her anti-migration, anti-equality, and debatably euroskeptic ideologies. As Castelli Gattinara put it:
What is really the core ideological tenet of [far-right] actors is nativism; is the idea that country states should be inhabited exclusively by so-called native people; is the idea that there are homogeneous communities and that any type of contamination from abroad would impoverish the sort of natural purity of the nation-state. And importantly, this applies to race or ethnic diversity. It equally applies to religion. It also applies to ideas.
In a certain sense, new ideas coming from abroad are considered a danger to the nation-state. We see that quite strongly when it comes to civil rights and, in particular, gender equality.
It’s less clear, however, how much of Brothers of Italy’s agenda Meloni will succeed in translating into policy, even if her coalition wins a strong majority.
In particular, given Italy’s challenging political system, and Meloni’s relative inexperience, opinions are mixed as to how much she’d be able to actually do as Italy’s leader. “I am afraid of incompetence, not the fascist threat,″ Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at LUISS university in Rome, told the AP. “She has not governed anything.”
On September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov saved the world.
Editor’s note, September 26, 2022: This article has been updated to reflect recent nuclear tensions between the US and Russia.
On September 26, 1983, the planet came terrifyingly close to a nuclear holocaust.
The Soviet Union’s missile attack early warning system displayed, in large red letters, the word “LAUNCH”; a computer screen stated to the officer on duty, Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, that it could say with “high reliability” that an American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) had been launched and was headed toward the Soviet Union. First, it was just one missile, but then another, and another, until the system reported that a total of five Minuteman ICBMs had been launched.
“Petrov had to make a decision: Would he report an incoming American strike?” my then-colleague Max Fisher explained. “If he did, Soviet nuclear doctrine called for a full nuclear retaliation; there would be no time to double-check the warning system, much less seek negotiations with the US.”
Reporting it would have made a certain degree of sense. The Reagan administration had a far more hardline stance against the Soviets than the Carter, Ford, or Nixon administrations before it. Months earlier President Reagan had announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (mockingly dubbed “Star Wars,” a plan to shoot down ballistic missiles before they reached the US), and his administration was in the process of deploying Pershing II nuclear-armed missiles to West Germany and Great Britain, which were capable of striking the Soviet Union. There were reasons for Petrov to think Reagan’s brinkmanship had escalated to an actual nuclear exchange.
But Petrov did not report the incoming strike. He and others on his staff concluded that what they were seeing was a false alarm. And it was; the system mistook the sun’s reflection off clouds for a missile. Petrov prevented a nuclear war between the Soviets, who had 35,804 nuclear warheads in 1983, and the US, which had 23,305.
A 1979 report by Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment estimated that a full-scale Soviet assault on the US would kill 35 to 77 percent of the US population — or between 82 million and 180 million people in 1983. The inevitable US counterstrike would kill 20 to 40 percent of the Soviet population, or between 54 million and 108 million people. The combined death toll there (between 136 million and 288 million) swamps the death toll of any war, genocide, or other violent catastrophe in human history. Proportional to world population, it would be rivaled only by the An Lushan rebellion in eighth-century China and the Mongol conquests of the 13th century.
And it’s likely hundreds of millions more would have died once the conflict disrupted global temperatures and severely hampered agriculture. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War put the potential death toll from starvation at about 2 billion.
Petrov, almost single-handedly, prevented those deaths.
Preventing the deaths of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people was a costly decision for Petrov. If he had been wrong, and he somehow survived the American nuclear strike, he likely would’ve been executed for treason. Even though he was right, he was, according to the Washington Post’s David Hoffman, “relentlessly interrogated afterward [and] never rewarded for his decision.”
After the Cold War, Petrov would receive a number of commendations for saving the world. He was honored at the United Nations, received the Dresden Peace Prize, and was profiled in the documentary The Man Who Saved the World. “I was just at the right place at the right time,” he told the filmmakers. He died in May 2017, at the age of 77. Two books about the Petrov incident and other nuclear close calls in 1983 (related to the NATO exercise Able Archer) came out in recent years: Taylor Downing’s 1983 and Marc Ambinder’s The Brink.
Petrov isn’t the only man who’s prevented nuclear war
Petrov was not the only Russian official who’s saved the world. On October 27, 1962, Vasili Arkhipov, a Soviet navy officer, was in a nuclear submarine near Cuba when US naval forces started dropping depth charges (a kind of explosive targeting submarines) on him. Two senior officers on the submarine thought that a nuclear war could’ve already begun and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo at a US vessel. But all three senior officers had to agree for the missile to fire, and Arkhipov dissented, preventing a nuclear exchange and potentially preventing the end of the world.
Even more recently, on January 25, 1995, Russian early warning radars suggested that an American first strike was incoming. President Boris Yeltsin was alerted and given a suitcase with instructions for launching a nuclear strike at the US. Russian nuclear forces were given an alert to increase combat readiness. Yeltsin eventually declined to launch a counterstrike — which is good, because this was another false alarm. It turns out that Russian early warning systems had picked up a Norwegian-US joint research rocket, launched by scientists studying the northern lights.
Petrov’s story means all the more with nuclear tensions today between the US and Russia maybe as high as they’ve been since some of the darker days of the Cold War. If anything, today’s nuclear calculus is even more complex — if Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to use short-range tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine out of desperation, it isn’t clear how the US will or should respond. Fail to react, and the world may see that a nuclear arsenal can be used as unbeatable cover for aggressive military action. React in turn, and no one knows how Putin might respond, or what could happen next.
That psychological uncertainty is inherent to nuclear brinkmanship, as Petrov himself demonstrated. Going by the book, he should have at least alerted his military superiors of the apparent US nuclear strike, even if the tiny number of missiles reported by the computer gave him reason to conclude it was a likely error. But while Petrov clearly showed admirable bravery — and everyone alive today should be thankful he did — his decision also underscores an unknowable question: When the moment seems to come, will a national leader or the officers below them actually push the button?
The fate of billions could depend on the answer.
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