On June 5, his fifth day in office, Italy’s new vice prime minister and minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini, tweeted a link to an article with a quote by the football player Mario Balotelli. Born in Palermo to a Ghanaian family and raised by Italian foster parents, Balotelli gained Italian citizenship when he turned 18; Italy has no birthright citizenship. During a book event in Turin, the striker had responded to a question about the future of his career with a bitter joke: “Where will I [play next]? Only Salvini knows.” But Salvini, who is more responsible for the increasingly hostile tenor of Italy’s rhetoric on immigrants and foreigners than any other public figure, wasn’t chastened by the celebrity callout. “Dear Mario,” the minister wrote below the link, “‘birthright citizenship’ is neither my priority nor the Italians’. Good luck with your work, have fun chasing that ball.”
Despite transatlantic exposure to Donald Trump, Italians aren’t used to this brand of violent scorn from members of their government. Especially not on Twitter. Salvini is the first Italian politician to take full advantage of social media. The leader of the Lega has already displayed a mastery of drawing public attention to himself: he is a successful TV personality who has spent a good part of the last few years appearing on talk shows, and at the Lega’s annual happenings in Pontida, on the Po River, he plays the pied piper with great skill and ruthlessness. Still, Twitter is where he can color with his entire palette and receive the kind of exposure he wants—emoji-riddled and predetermined—while performing the role of a warm, down-to-earth man of the people: Italy’s #1 Dad. His tweeted provocations are now reported as news, amplified far outside his follower count.
Salvini’s tweet about Balotelli seems straightforward—and straightforwardly vile—but it has its subtleties. As is always the case but not always acknowledged, Salvini is playing a nasty, referential game. His studied dismissiveness has a lineage: it is a throwback to an Italian sentiment that has been dormant for decades but has now reentered the mainstream. Me ne frego—“I don’t care”—is a traditional fascist adage; Salvini is a master at referring to it without ever saying it outright. After taking office, he alluded to another adage—molti nemici, molto onore: “many enemies, much honor”—in a tweeted reply to a critical New York Times article: “more mud thrown from the ‘powers that be,’ more pride for me!!!” He often tweets Io non mollo—“I don’t quit”—when discussing his commitment to the struggle against the establishment and undocumented immigrants. This, too, is a reference, to another ur-fascist expression: boia chi molla—“he who quits is a scoundrel.”
Though he can come across as unhinged, Salvini knows exactly what he’s doing—unlike Trump, who only seems to stumble, periodically, into a message that resonates. Trump would never repeat criticism of himself without distorting it beyond recognition. Salvini, a fan of the suggestive retweet, confronts his haters head-on: last month he retweeted a La Repubblica piece that declared him “racist and a populist” and “like Mussolini” and a remark by a Democratic Party politician who said that “[Salvini’s] words sound like HITLER’s.” “Unbelievable! He should be ashamed,” Salvini replied, fully aware that his fans enjoy the frisson of the comparison. He used the hashtag #ècolpadiSalvini—“it’s Salvini’s fault”—when he retweeted a newspaper article titled “migrants revolt against Salvini.” Salvini understands the political utility of smug irony. The best way to persuade Italians that he is the uomo forte—the strong man who’s come to do the dirty work—is to be above it all while not being above anything.
Still, Salvini’s obvious savvy notwithstanding, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all this Twitter talk is little more than run-of-the-mill, Trump-era xenophobic political trolling with some local flavor thrown in—something Salvini might have picked up from Steve Bannon, a connoisseur of Italian fascism, who visited during the recent elections. “If it works in Italy, it’s going to show that we’ve broken the back of the globalists,” Bannon said recently, ever the vapid conspiracist. But what Matteo Salvini has accomplished is considerably more sophisticated than the familiar categories of trolling: he has crafted a truly new persona—one that can reconcile a family-friendly likeability and the sternness of a patriarch with cheap but carefully targeted insults. Salvini sent his “heartfelt thank you, as a minister and as a dad” to the Coast Guard for sending a group of Libyan asylum seekers back to their shores. On Father’s Day—a purely American holiday, by the way—he declared “Happy FESTIVITY to all DADS. Some VALUES aren’t negotiable: say NO to GAY ADOPTIONS, CHILDREN must be respected and protected.” Salvini lights fires, but only after building a warm, cozy fireplace. He is the post-troll.
Over the last few weeks, the new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, and Salvini’s fellow vice prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the 5 Star Movement, barely communicated with the public. You could find random tweets, official statements, and transcripts of speeches, but nothing in the way of direct-to-consumer marketing. In the meantime, Salvini tweeted hundreds of times.
Who knows if such an effective line of attack can be defused by the left-wing opposition. One thing is certain—Salvini’s approach has be studied carefully. With that in mind, I spent some time reading through a month’s worth of Salvini’s tweets in order to develop a taxonomy. Reading these remarks as a single text, what emerges is a sharp and utterly focused rhetorical strategy that relies on a short list of recurring elements: friends; enemies; values; and, of course, hot takes. Friends—the people—are always called on. Enemies’ arguments are transformed into the complaints of haters, the dying gasps of the old power structure. Values are alluded to in stern and uplifting tones, always using the same formulations, with a consistency George Lakoff would admire. And then amidst all the passion and congeniality, Salvini occasionally blows everything up, as he did with Balotelli.
Salvini’s followers and voters and supporters are called Amici, almost always with a capital A. “Goodnight Friends, if you’re in, I’m in.” “THANK YOU for your trust, Friends,” “I love you and you should know that I’m going to need you.” The next day: “Friends, it’s finally on!!!!! I love you.” “What a long day, now pizza!” He asks his Friends to stay involved in his Twitter life: “Will you help me spread the word?” “Follow and comment, if you will!” “Our Community’s so strong, friends!”
Salvini’s Twitter persona never gets worked up about his haters and his enemies: left-wing intellectuals and politicians. Instead, he uses quotations to project shame back onto those same haters. When the weekly magazine L’Espresso publishes an aggressive cover that illustrates his lack of humanity he replies, “And they call it ‘journalism.’” Even when a priest comes out against him he is unfazed: “Pray for this ‘priest,’ he needs it.” He’ll send a smile to Yanis Varoufakis, or start the day with a Buongiorno “to all, buonisti included.” Buonisti is a very charged word. The buonisti are the naive, “beautiful souls” of our era. He calls his critics “the International of BITTER HATERS” [rosiconi], “who’ve been on a steady diet of Maalox” since the elections. This might seem like a deliberate echo of Trump’s great pre-presidential masterpiece, from 2013: “I would like to extend my best wishes to all, even the haters and losers, on this special date, September 11th.” To Italians, though, this aggression flows seamlessly, carefully, even thoughtfully—may I say tactfully?—from the the robotic, clumsy invocations of values I’ll discuss next. Trump has none of this. He embodies a lot, but he never looks like a concerned Father.
Salvini insists on a limited and reassuring set of them: hard work; support for the police; national sovereignty against the EU; war against illegal immigrants, allegedly the sole source of crime and instability in Italy. He promises to “close the ports” and expel aliens, “cutting the costs of sustaining them and reducing the length of their stay.” “We’ll make sure less money and time is spent on clandestine immigrants.” He wants the “shameful business” of illegal immigration to become less and less “convenient” to the corrupt NGOs who supposedly help the immigrants land in Italy for lucre. “I intend my role as a minister as a tutor of safety,” but he’s not “a ‘hard liner,’ it’s just BUONSENSO.” Usually rendered in all caps, BUONSENSO is his most beloved slogan. It’s the Italian version of common sense. “ BUONSENSO is needed,” he writes when arguing that Europe must share the “non-refugees” issue with Italy. Always pointing out that he thinks like a father, he’ll demonstrate his good faith by tweeting, “Everyone has the right to love, grow up and build a family in the Country where they were born.” This means, of course, that illegal immigrants must go. “Am I wrong?”
4. The hot takes
All the buonsenso and the cheesy, friendly chirping is the fireplace Salvini has carefully built in order to not get burned when he tries his hand at more scorching takes. It’s as if, with every tweet in this category, Salvini is poking his fans to determine if we have, in fact, already entered an era when it’s OK to say taboo things, like insulting a player for having been born to African parents. Here are some of the things he has said, all of which outraged the opposition and failed to alienate his followers. “We need zero tolerance: expulsions of illegal aliens, our cities must breathe the air of legality again, this is my goal.” The assumption is that Italians already think that that legality has disappeared from our decaying cities—due exclusively to the presence of immigrants. “In order to protect our citizens we must protect our borders.”
This may not look like nuance and ambivalence, but that’s what it is. Salvini wants to sound strong, not crazy. And he wants to know if certain ideas and prejudices are ready to enter the mainstream. Once he gets his answer, he can try something a little nastier. In an appearance last month on the TV network Telelombardia, he declared that he intended to take a census of the Roma people. “The illegal aliens will be sent out of the country[.] The Italian Roma, alas, we have to keep.” That alas is the point. It inevitably elicited outrage from his enemies. A tweet later that day: “Somebody mentions ‘shock.’ Why though??? I’m also thinking of those poor children raised on theft and illegality.” This kind of statement is self-reinforcing: it is made only to prove that it has a place in regular, middle-class conversation.
How will the middle class respond to the census proposal, or to a selfie of Salvini and Heinz-Christian Strache, the far-right Austrian vice prime minister, with the caption “friends and allies to defend our peoples!”? We don’t have to ask the question, since it’s not a hypothetical. The middle class was unperturbed. Xenophobia is now officially a middle-class pursuit.
It’s hard to beat a fascism so tailor-made to the present moment, so well-adapted to the gaps in media coverage and the weakness of oppositional popular movements. Roberto Saviano is one of the few Italian figures with enough pop savvy and toughness to try. When the journalist criticized Salvini in the Guardian, Salvini responded as expected. “Roberto Saviano is the last of my problems,” he said on TV. “I’ll send him a kiss if he is watching now. He is a person who provokes so much tenderness and affection, but it is right to evaluate how Italians spend their money,” This, of course, was a reference to Saviano’s state-funded bodyguards, whom he’s had for more than a decade, ever since he was first threatened by the Camorra.
So far so typical. But what was surprising was Saviano’s response, which used the antagonist’s own currency, a hashtag: #ministrodellamalavita, minister of the underworld. The reason? A rally in Rosarno, Calabria, in front of members of two families attached to the mob. “The presence of these men [at the rally] was an endorsement,” Saviano told the Times.
If Salvini has taught us anything, it’s that this attack could only work if Saviano deployed the accusation constantly, with utter consistency. Saviano has only tweeted it three times. So far, he doesn’t seem to have absorbed his enemy’s lesson.