Italy’s Donald Trump
Matteo Salvini has become Italy’s most popular leader by attacking both immigration and the EU. What’s his goal?
Who is Matteo Salvini?
The far-right leader of the anti-immigrant League party isn’t Italy’s prime minister, but he is nonetheless the country’s most powerful politician. He entered the government in 2018, when the League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement trounced the traditional parties of the Left and the Right and formed a populist coalition with a figurehead prime minister. Salvini, 46, became deputy prime minister and interior minister, in charge of the police and the borders. He relishes the role of top cop and often wears a police or firefighter’s uniform at press conferences. A college dropout, he shaped his views in his first job, as a journalist with Radio Padania, where Italians called in to complain about immigration and the tyranny of European Union bureaucrats in Brussels. Though divorced and the father of a child born out of wedlock, he casts himself as the defender of family values and traditional morality. He’s an unabashed nationalist in the same mold as President Trump. “No longer would the European elites silence the Italian citizens,” wrote Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist, in Salvini’s bio for Time’s Most Influential People of 2019. “Matteo Salvini resurrected Italy’s national pride.”
How did he rise to power?
When Salvini became leader of what was then called the Northern League, in 2013, the party had just 4 percent of the vote. Back then, the party claimed to represent Celtic (or Northern) Italians against Latinate Italians, and its goal was to split the wealthier north of Italy from the poorer, Mafia-ridden south and form its own country called Padania. Salvini expanded the party’s national appeal by dropping the “Northern” and the secessionist goal and focusing on a fiercely anti-immigrant and anti-EU message. Echoing Trump, Salvini adopted the motto “Italians first,” meaning both Italians over immigrants and Italians over other EU members. Despite Italy’s massive debt—a staggering 131 percent of its GDP—he has called for Italy to cut taxes on the wealthy to boost the economy and create jobs. Salvini is an ardent user of social media, posting on Facebook up to 30 times a day. The League has become Italy’s most popular party, coming in first in Italy’s EU elections in May, with 34 percent of the vote. Its voters are fed up with large-scale migration and galvanized by Salvini’s pledge to defend Italy’s borders—with a wall, if need be.
Where are the migrants from?
Italy is the front-line destination for desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Professional smugglers pack migrants into makeshift boats in Libya and point them toward Lampedusa, an Italian island just 70 miles from Africa. Many of the boats sink on the way, and thousands of people drown every year. For years—long before the 2015 migrant surge—the Italian navy had been rescuing these people and pleading vainly for the EU to help resettle them. In 2017—before Salvini took office—Italy changed course and struck deals with the Libyan tribal chieftains to prevent migrants from leaving that country. The change was dramatic: Sea arrivals plummeted from a peak of 180,000 in 2016 to fewer than 24,000 last year. Still, Salvini closed Italian ports to rescue boats and made it much harder to claim asylum. Last week, one such boat, the Sea-Watch 3, defied Italy’s orders and docked at Lampedusa with 40 migrants aboard. A furious Salvini vowed to prosecute the captain. Italy, he said, is “tired of being treated as a dumping ground.”
Is Salvini a Roman Catholic?
Indeed, he considers himself more Catholic than the pope. At rallies, Salvini makes ostentatious displays of his faith, kissing a rosary and making frequent references to the Virgin Mary. That has drawn the ire of Pope Francis, who has strongly criticized Salvini’s crackdown on immigrants and the Roma, Italy’s biggest minority. Without mentioning Salvini’s name, Francis said of politicians who treat minorities as “second-class citizens”: “The real second-class citizens are those who discard people.” Ahead of the EU elections, Salvini took on the pope directly, saying, “I am telling this to Pope Francis, who said that we need to reduce deaths in the Mediterranean. Our government is bringing the deaths in the Mediterranean Sea to zero, with pride and Christian spirit.” At the mention of Francis, Salvini’s supporters booed.
How are relations with the U.S.?
Salvini has long admired Donald Trump. He met with Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and took a selfie, and this year he displayed a “Make America Great Again” cap in the background of a video thank-you message to supporters. Salvini sees himself as Trump’s soul mate on immigration and nationalism, and wants Italy to replace Brexiting Britain as America’s primary European ally. “At a moment when European Union institutions are fragile and changing significantly,” he said on a visit to Washington in June, “Italy wants to be the most solid, effective, coherent, and credible partner for the U.S.”
Pitted against Macron
Salvini has picked a major fight with French President Emmanuel Macron, who wants closer integration among EU members and a common defense and foreign policy. In a stunning act of interference in a neighboring country’s affairs, Salvini last year offered Italy’s moral support to the Yellow Vest protesters who were calling for Macron’s resignation. He called Macron “terrible” and “a president against his own people.” In the EU elections in May, Salvini explicitly cast Macron as the enemy and offered a competing vision of the EU as a looser confederation of proud, autonomous nations. His vision won: Not only did the League sweep the vote in Italy, but France’s far-right National Rally came in first in France. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon said Salvini will play a central role in the struggle to redefine Europe’s future. “You see the trend, and it’s definitely nationalist-versus-globalist,” Bannon said. The nationalists will win, he said, by laying siege to the European Parliament and blocking it from taking any action. “Every day will be like Stalingrad.” ■