Can Europe Make It?

Italy: real weapons of mass distraction

Matteo Salvini’s rhetoric is getting ever more worrying as we approach the EU elections.

Alessio Colonnelli
10 May 2019
The Italian Minister of Internal Affairs tv show guest, January 2019.
The Italian Minister of Internal Affairs tv show guest, January 2019.
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Insidefoto/PA. All rights reserved.

In a land of former vast pastures, where green still stands for northern secession from a shrivelled up south, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini – an erstwhile separatist and now a nationalist – is the most effective communicator we’ve seen in a long time. His weapons of mass distraction are deadly. His every tweet – one shot one kill. You’d call him a chameleon if he weren’t actually dangerous.

Salvini’s chief occupation is steering people’s attention away from the facts normal individuals couldn’t possibly stomach. Italy is faring badly again: the only Eurozone country going through a recession, with unemployment growing (at 10.7 per cent in February, two points more than France’s, with youth unemployment at 32.8), in a context of an ever-ageing population.

But the green-and-black-shirted man – flirting with the extreme-right is never a one-off mistake – perpetually talks about the dangers of immigration and how monstrous the EU is.

A so-called friend of Vladimir Putin – yet to me, more of a shrewd Trumpian. The coming ashore of some desperados is magnified by Salvini’s lens in unexpected ways – beyond the laws of physics. To show he was standing his ground, he forbid 47 migrants to disembark the Sea Watch 3 boat at Syracuse (Sicily) for 6 days at the end of January. He’s currently under investigation for that and, if eventually challenged in court, he’ll no doubt turn it into a show. Mostly through an avalanche of selfies.

This minister is astute. There’s no counting the number of times he’s avoided talking about Italy’s economy. Instead, he prefers to attack people, apparently at random. He picks a fight with journalists – Mafia-threatened Roberto Saviano is Salvini’s favourite target (“We will assess whether he still requires police protection ”) – or city mayors, with Five Star’s (the despised government coalition partners) Virginia Raggi in Rome being accused of plunging the capital into oblivion. As if she’s solely responsible for the capital’s critical state of affairs, a chronic condition aggravated by many administrations before her.

But the Interior Minister’s signature dish is to studiously pick one target at a time. A carefully chosen public face… to deface. He’ll show you on the internet who to hit. Problem solved. (Never mind all the other issues.)

The Interior Minister’s signature dish is to studiously pick one target at a time. A carefully chosen public face… to deface.

And if you think he does it all by himself, think again – on Easter day, Salvini’s spin doctor and government consultant published on Facebook the photo of the Interior Minister holding a machine gun. He wrote that il Capitano‘s followers (the Captain, Salvini’s nickname) are arming themselves. Was it a blatant instigation to commit a crime? You’d be forgiven for thinking it was. In fact, this post was reported by thousands of Facebook users. But guess what? It’s still there.

So, although Salvini doesn’t have the economic clout of Silvio Berlusconi – Italy’s most powerful media tycoon – he is lucky enough to have social media-savvy advisors unafraid of testing global platforms’ limitations and degrees of wilful blindness. Berlusconi had to create a network by himself. It took him time. The Interior Minister doesn’t have to. Effective demagoguery on the cheap – a novelty.

With the added bonus of creating new distracting material on a daily basis: tweets with him eating the chocolate spread Italians love for breakfast, hugs with his new lefty girlfriend (the daughter of a mainstream right-wing politico), tasting polenta after testing a rifle. It never ends.

Meanwhile, public debt and unemployment keep going up; and Italy’s international standing, down.

This piece first appeared on the author's blog.

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