The normalisation of Lega’s rhetoric

Matteo Salvini’s far-right ideas are being normalised, and one very recent episode says it all, writes Italian translator and European affairs commentator Alessio Colonnelli.

Matteo Salvini’s far-right ideas are being normalised. One very recent episode says it all. A black player was booed in Verona on Sunday November 3rd during a Serie A match between Hellas, the locals, and Brescia. Rivalry between the two geographically close and similarly sized cities is well-known. They lie in the middle of the Po Valley, a vast area across northern Italy which Salvini’s party, Lega, likes to identify as ‘Padania’. Padania of course doesn’t exist. It’s not an official toponym; it doesn’t have specific borders. It’s a nationalistic ideal, of a secessionist kind.

Up until 2015, Lega’s main goal was to get Padania to secede from Italy; not through revolution or war, but via a muddled mix of initiatives ranging from unofficial referenda to demands for increased autonomy for regions in the north, much to the understandable annoyance of southern Italians. The whole thing never delivered anything tangible, what with centre-right Forza Italia (Silvio Berlusconi’s organisation) getting all the votes and being praised for its moderation – yes – by large swathes of the Italian middle-class, and so Lega eventually plummeted to the bottom of opinion polls and elections, local and national.

Salvini, still relatively young at 46 and with loads of political experience, has changed things around at an impressive speed (he was one of Milan’s youngest city councillors ever). This has been achieved by formidable talent, the quickness of social media and an equally fast, sharp tongue.

But how did he go about it all? First, Salvini re-branded his party: he polished its name and then expanded horizons by campaigning beyond the north into the Apennines. Today, Lega has its own local parties stretching as far south as Lecce. A stone’s throw from Greece.

Last summer, Lega (officially still Lega Nord or Northern League) rated nearly 50% in some of the polls, and even that was considered a conservative estimate by some analysts. “Salvini,” noted Pierluigi Battista, a well-known commentator for the Milanese Corriere della Sera (Italy’s main newspaper), “was once ridiculed backstage on a television programme because he declined to participate in a TV show boasting massive ratings as he could not bear to miss speaking at a rally in a Sardinian village of 300 people.” A few days later, “Lega gained 50% of the votes there.”

“Salvini,” highlighted Battista, “travels everywhere, literally occupies the territory, touches and lets himself be touched by people, shakes hands, multiplies the ritual of selfies with the many who queue up to be photographed with the leader, calls people by their first name, endorses local products, wears sweatshirts sporting the names of myriads of towns and villages.”

In a previous piece, Corriere underscored how the leftist Democratic party (PD), Lega’s arch-rivals, have lost all confidence as well as voters. “The [so-called] PD people – ‘il popolo del PD’ – has died out.”

Such an endorsement by Milan’s newspaper, however veiled and indirect, strikes one as surprising. How can a self-styled moderate title support what many analysts abroad call a far-right party? Because it is trying to get Lega’s rhetoric to be seen as acceptable: the result of conscientious analysis of Italy’s problems through on-field hard graft. Lega is thus being portrayed as the no-frills option for matter-of-fact people, away from the intellectual airy-fairyness of other organisations. Sensible. Moderate. Moderate not as in politically correct, but modern as in suitable for our fast-changing and post-Berlusconi (post centre-right) times. Modern as in the new, respectable centre ground with an admissible right-wing slant.

Not only has Lega changed. Italy has too. More and more black Italians testify to the existence of a new country. They’re often labelled ‘New Italians’. One of them is no less than a Lega senator. And then there’s the terrific footballer, Mario Balotelli. Yes, the one booed in Verona. The one targeted time and again – along with other players in the butt-of-all-jokes Serie A, some of them Italian – because he’s black.

“Is it normal to say ‘nigger’?,” asked La Repubblica, Italy’s second and left-leaning daily. It gets interesting here, because Luigi Manconi, a political commentator, compares the words of a Hellas’ leading ultrà – accused of deploying neo-Nazi sloganeering during matches – with those uttered by Salvini a few weeks ago. As reported by the paper, the former said yesterday: “We take the piss out of bald-headed players, those with long hair, or from southern Italy or black players, but without political or racist intentions.” The latter claimed: “If you hate people because of the colour of their skin, their football team, religion… if you say ‘drop dead’, it’s a serious insult, regardless of whether you say it to a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Waldensian, a Protestant, a Hare Krishna, a Muslim. There isn’t one particular insult worse than any other. If you attack a person, be that a man, a woman, a white, a black, a yellow, a fuchsia, you are a thug.”

So apparently there’s no difference between the great tragedies of history and so-called match banter. You can see where this all leads to: likening dictators and nasty ideologies to much-hated referees at best and stripping them of all their criminal responsibilities at worst. Normalisation it’s called, and increasing numbers seem quite happy with it.

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  • Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance translator, writer and commentator on European political and social affairs, and a contributor to publications that include The New Statesman, The Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here.

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