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Populist victory in Italy's election has lessons for U.S. | Trudy Rubin

Uber-populist Steve Bannon thinks the victory of Italian populists and neo-fascists lights the way for America. He's wrong.

Leader of the League party, Matteo Salvini, smiles before casting his ballot at a polling station in Milan, Italy, Sunday, March 4, 2018.
Leader of the League party, Matteo Salvini, smiles before casting his ballot at a polling station in Milan, Italy, Sunday, March 4, 2018.Read moreLuca Bruno / AP

Steve Bannon went to Italy to root for the neo-fascists and populists who trounced Italy's traditional parties in this week's election.

Donald Trump's ex-chief political strategist, who avidly encouraged the president's most populist and nationalist instincts, now sees Italy as the model for the American future.  He claims that Italy's antiestablishment, anti-immigrant parties — which avidly embrace conspiracy theories and idolize Vladimir Putin — light the road that America must follow.

"The Italian people have gone farther, in a shorter period of time, than the British did for Brexit and the Americans did for Trump. Italy is the leader," Bannon crowed to the New York Times on Friday.

Yet I believe the lesson of Italy's election for Americans is the polar opposite of Bannon's fantasy: The Italian example lays bare a nightmare Americans still have the chance to avoid.

A word about why I am quoting Bannon: He is toast in D.C. (and was dumped as editor of Breitbart, the  alt-right "news" site).  Yet Trump still swears by Bannon's worldview. And despite stark differences in U.S. and Italian history, culture, and constitutional systems, Italy's populist pivot hints at where our politics are heading.

So what exactly happened in Italy and how does it relate to the United States?

Italian voters' anger at economic inequality and massive immigration flows from Africa led to the total repudiation of Italy's traditional center-left and center-right parties.

On the center-left, the governing Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi dropped from 40 percent in the last election to around 18 percent, having failed to deliver on economic promises.

On the center-right, the Forza Italia party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was crushed at 14 percent. The aging business tycoon, beset by sex and financial scandals, was often compared to Trump in his antiestablishment ethos. But despite his pledge to throw out the country's 600,000 undocumented migrants, he was not seen as populist enough.

The big winner, with 30 percent of the vote, was the decade-old, antiestablishment Five Star Movement, which controls a network of wildly successful websites and social-media accounts that traffic in conspiracy theories and fake news. They have peddled claims that the U.S. was secretly funding traffickers bringing migrants from North Africa to Italy, that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, and that vaccines are dangerous. Stories have often been sourced to Kremlin-owned sites such as Sputnik; the Movement is highly sympathetic to Putin and highly critical of the U.S. and EU leaders.

This year the Five Star Movement capitalized on high youth unemployment, which hovered at 20 percent in 2017.  By promising stipends to the poor, it won huge support in the underdeveloped regions of southern Italy.

"Ordinary people feel unprotected after nine years of [economic] crisis," I was told by prominent Italian journalist Lucia Annunziata. "The best and the brightest find no chance for upward mobility," she said, so tens of thousands of young people leave the country for better opportunities elsewhere.

Meantime, massive migrant inflows from Africa fueled gains by the far-right, anti-immigrant, and anti-EU League Party (which took about 17 percent of the vote).  As the first country to receive boatloads of immigrants brought in by smugglers via Libya, Italy was inundated with 600,000 migrants in the last four years, most single men, which has led to crime and retaliation. Other European countries refused to take their share.

"Because we were the first border of Europe, we are supposed to accept everybody," says Annunziata.  "Every [Italian] city hall has to collect a quota. What did the EU do for us? Zero."

In the last year the Renzi government paid Libya to prevent migrants from sailing, sharply cutting the inflow, but it was too late.

The League's leader, Matteo Salvini, is an ally of Marine Le Pen's far-right National Party in France, an avid Trump supporter, and an admirer of Putin.  He promises to "cleanse" Italy of migrants.  Since no Italian party won sufficient seats to form a government, it's unclear whether a far-right or populist coalition will wind up running the country – or whether new elections will have to be called.

But here is the lesson I see in these elections for Americans concerned about the rise of the populist far right:

Italy's plight is like an exaggerated version of the current U.S. situation.  Its traditional political parties are further along the road of collapse, its economy is in far more trouble, and its migrant problem is far more extreme than ours.

The U.S. system still retains the innate strength to address economic inequalities with a bipartisan effort at fixing health care and renewing infrastructure.  There is no excuse for not focusing on serious job retraining and vocational education. There is every possibility – as we have seen in more sane times – of devising a bipartisan solution to secure our southern border and resolve the situation of illegals.

None of this is happening, because an irresponsible, populist president and a hard core within Congress reject any serious efforts. But Italy's present foreshadows America's future if we don't elect politicians who will stop dithering.

In other words, Steve Bannon is correct about Italy as a role model, unless we take the steps to prove him wrong.