You could be forgiven, if your experience of Italian politics is limited to an early morning skim through Italian Twitter for thinking that it is a barrel of laughs. Men in Zorro masks hanging banners from balconies. Rude slogans about Leghista Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini. Upside down slogans.
Why! It is almost as though the UK elected a right wing buffoon Prime Minister, and the country then corpsed itself in a snort of collective derision. That may be a fair comparison. Because like Boris Johnson, Salvini's public persona is that of amiable buffoon while, behind the scenes, he is working hard to take Italy rightwards, fast.
And over the last few weeks, cutting through the forced bonhomie has been something else, something far more sinister that resembles nothing less than a serious attack on democratic values in Italy. The politicisation of the police, combined with a growing willingness by state organs to clamp down on any protest.
It begins with buffoonery: the notion, perhaps, that a man who is so easy to mock cannot constitute a real threat. This is the side of Salvini that right-on comedians love – as they love Trump for his shameless fibbing, or Boris Johnson for his studied gaucheries. You cannot take seriously a man – an Interior Minister, no less – who, as one part of his country suffered a major earthquake, and the mafia gunned down an informer supposedly hidden within the witness protection programme, took to Twitter to post breakfast selfies, telling all and sundry how he loved nutella: yes, #nutella now comes loaded not just with added hazelnuts, but with political meaning, too!
Or take #VinciSalvini (“Win with Salvini”), which is his hashtag and gameshow style podcast encouraging supporters to like his posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter: winners get their pic promoted to his six million social media supporters.
Both tone and proposition smack of ridiculousness.
Zorro to the rescue
Then there was the revelation, in a recent official biography – on page one no less – that he was still sad because someone stole his Zorro doll in nursery. The comics have had a field day with that one. For the last few days, media, social and mainstream, have been awash with Zorro memes, Zorro jokes, Zorro images. Not surprisingly, anti-Salvini activists have been popping up across the country dressed as Zorro!
It all plays to another couple of hashtags out there on Italian Twitter right now: #sfottisalvini (“sfotti salvini” = “take the piss out of salvini”); and the slightly ruder #fottisalvini (“fotti salvini” = “screw salvini!”). Salvini gives the impression of liking a laugh. But not when he is the butt of the joke, as became clear when a young woman embarrassed him during another of his endless stream of selfies a week or so back: “do that again”, he told her and “we'll break your finger”.
Because poke the surface and you will find something much darker within. Italy abounds with memories and symbolism. It suffered from fascism, during the war, in a way unimaginable in the UK. In Britain, #antifa is about marching, and maybe milkshakes. There it was about deadly repression. Thousands of partisans, precursors to the modern anti-fascist movements, ended up tortured, injured, dead. And when the day of reckoning came, it was time for payback. There is not much dignity to the death of Mussolini: shot, and then displayed publicly, his body hanging upside down in Milano's Piazzale Loreto.
That is why it matters when Salvini is less than enthusiastic about celebrating Italy's Liberation Day, ( 25 April).
That is why it matters when Salvini is less than enthusiastic about celebrating Italy's Liberation Day, ( 25 April): or when Lega officials claim that Bella Ciao, for long almost an alternative national anthem – and certainly a partisan anthem – is divisive and should not be taught in schools.
That is why it matters when, at a public meeting in Forli, Salvini chose to address his own supporters from a balcony once favoured by Mussolini: a balcony overlooking a square from whose lamp-posts Mussolini once hung those who opposed him.
That, too, is why, when you see a Tweet with Mussolini – or Salvini – printed upside down, or a banner hung upside down, it is no accident. Rather, it is stark reminder that Italy has removed fascists before and, if Salvini should prove such, there will be little mercy offered.
The temperature is rising. And this was before revelations from the last couple of weeks that the government, increasingly determined to stamp out overt mockery of their leader, is using the police and other state organs to clamp down on protest.
Earlier this year, a teacher in Palermo suggested her class put together a powerpoint for Holocaust Remembrance Day. They did so, creating a presentation that likened Salvini's proposed security decree to Mussolini's race laws. Outrage! A complaint was made to a junior government minister: the inspectors were called and... the teacher was exonerated of wrong-doing, beyond a finding that she should have more closely supervised her pupils' work.
Matters turned serious when she received a visit from the Digos (Divisione Investigazioni Generali e Operazioni Speciali/ General Investigations and Special Operations Division). For the Digos is an elite unit, more usually assigned to investigating serious organised crime and terror. But apparently criticising the government is now part of that remit.
This month, a resident of Milano also received a visit from the Digos. Their serious crime? They had hung a banner from their balcony with the slogan “Salvini: friend of the mafia, enemy of the poor”. According to the Digos, the 8 agents sent to deal with this matter, just went round to have a friendly word. The resident says otherwise, claiming they threatened to break their door down if they did not comply.
A week or so later, the fire brigade turned up at a private apartment in Bergamo to take down a similarly anti-Salvini banner.
So far, the heavy-handed attempts at censorship have had quite the opposite effect to that intended. Across Italy, anti-Salvini banners have been springing up on balconies. In Milano, it was back to an earlier meme as a man dressed as Zorro unfurled a banner with the words “restiamo umano” (“we are still human”) from a balcony overlooking another Salvini public meeting.
This, too, was quickly removed by the authorities.
Ready for the European elections
All great fun. Or maybe not. Reading the more sober commentators, there is a worrying closeness between police and the far right in Italy. Leonardo Carella, currently researching a MPhil in European Politics at Oxford University observes how police have been used to seize phones from demonstrators at Salvini's request: how Franco Gabrielli, chief of the State Police, has been all too happy to allow Salvini, a civilian, to wear police uniform and to use police social media accounts to rebuke anti-Salvini commenters on social media.
Franco Gabrielli, chief of the State Police, has been all too happy to allow Salvini, a civilian, to wear police uniform and to use police social media accounts to rebuke anti-Salvini commenters on social media.
And last month, Salvini's spin doctor was equally happy to circulate a picture on social media of Salvini, holding a police automatic weapon and observing that “we are ready” for the European elections.
Comic accident? Yet more buffoonery? Perhaps.
The truth, though, is that in the last month, behind the smiling rhetoric – on both sides – Italian politics just got a whole load darker.
And with Lega beginning to fall back in the polls, the willingness of various arms of the state police to act as Salvini's personal censors bodes ill for the future.
Buffoons are taking over the court: the danger of modern politics as spectacle