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Who Said That? Words From New Italian Leaders Echo Dark Past

Rhetoric coming from anti-establishment Five Star Movement and League evoke the words of historic tyrants like King Louis XIV, Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini.

Matteo Salvini walking into a day of government meetings
Matteo Salvini walking into a day of government meetings
Mattia Feltri

ROME — Addressing his followers in Rome, Five Star leader and incoming labor minister Luigi Di Maio insisted last week that his party "is now the state." His words — delivered on June 2, Italy's Republic Day — recall the famous "I am the state" declaration by King Louis XIV of France that became a symbol of absolute monarchism. Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, supposedly much admired by Five Star members, are turning over in their graves.

Maybe, like the rest of us, Monsieur Rousseau would have become inured to these statements by now. Statements like infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli's desire to establish "an ethical state." The field of ethics is profoundly misunderstood, and these misunderstandings are often manipulated by dictatorships that declare the state to be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and evil.

Maybe Toninelli just meant to call for an honest government with a clean criminal record that would enforce the law. Even then, his words bring to mind the bright lights of underground interrogation centers at the KGB's headquarters in Moscow's Lubyanka Square or Maximilien Robespierre's violent "Republic of Virtue."

More likely, Toninello knows of no other metric of morality than the national criminal record. And while it's difficult to imagine Di Maio taking up residence in Versailles, it's still shocking to hear these words — which recall disastrous moments in recent human history — bandied about with such youthful incognizance.

The League leader Matteo Salvini now seems to rely solely on the maxims of Benito Mussolini. "He who stops is lost," he said during the negotiations with Five Star to form a government. "Having many enemies comes with great honor," he said in response to criticism from the cartoonist Zerocalcare.

Five Star Movement activist Beppe Grillo protesting in Rome — Photo: Andrea Ronchini/Pacific Press/ZUMA

A few years ago, the goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was accused of sympathizing with the Neo-Fascist party for wearing a shirt emblazoned with the fascist slogan "boia chi molla", which loosely translates as "death to traitors." Nowadays no one seems to notice the similarities between the words of Salvini and Mussolini.

"Borders exist to be defended," declared Salvini. "Borders aren't discussed, they're defended," said Mussolini. Even when their words coincide, the opposition cannot afford to accuse the new government of fascism — the charge has been thrown about so often in the last few years that it has become almost devoid of meaning. We have become used to assuming that they are just a coincidence rather than a look into the inner workings of the anti-establishment coalition.

Here are a few more statements that shine a light on these troubling similarities. "Capitalist states use lies, fraud, and deception to deny their citizens the most basic rights, and care only about their own financial interests." Who said it, Five Star founder Beppe Grillo or Joseph Stalin or Matteo Salvini? It's hard to tell — but it was Adolf Hitler after all.

Here's another: "The selfish industrial and financial groups fear us and hate us as their worst enemy." Salvini or Mussolini? It was said by the latter. Try to tell the difference between "the party is not a place for discussions' (Stalin) and "if anyone doesn't recognize themselves within the movement they are free to leave" (Grillo).

Journalists are the walking dead.

These next two are difficult to pick apart: "A movement that aims to renew the world doesn't need the present but instead looks to the future" and: "We are forced to think of a new world. We have to redesign the world." One was said by Hitler and the other by Grillo, but you can decide for yourself whom each statement belongs to.

The alarming similarities continue in their criticism of the press. "Journalists are servants of the political parties, they are the true walking dead," said Grillo. "The so-called free press is the work of the gravediggers of the people," said Hitler.

We could debate the ideas of parliamentary democracy and what constitutes an enemy, but instead spare a minute to go on Youtube. Search for the video where Mussolini sets fire to certificates of Italy's public debt at Rome's monumental Altar of the Motherland in 1928, cheered on by the applauding masses. We keep seeing and hearing the same things, bootlegged and repurposed for our new era of liberation.

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