June 2 was the Festa della Repubblica Italiana—the anniversary of the day in 1946 when Italians voted in a referendum for a republic over a discredited monarchy. This June 2 was also the day that Italians learned, almost three months after their election, that they finally had a coalition government and would not have to go back to the polls this summer. Just a week earlier the populist politicians who formed this coalition had threatened to impeach the president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, for rejecting their choice of finance minister. Now, somewhat awkwardly, Mattarella was hosting these same politicians at the Quirinal Palace and giving their new government his official blessing.
Most legal experts agree that the president was well within the bounds of his constitutional powers when he refused to allow the anti-Euro economist Paolo Savona to head the Ministry of Economy and Finance (something like this had happened before). Mattarella’s refusal forced the leaders of the two parties that were trying to form a government—the League’s Matteo Salvini and the Five Star Movement’s Luigi DiMaio—to come up with a new list of ministers. Finally, on May 31, Mattarella gave them the green light. The new prime minister is Giuseppe Conte, a little-known fifty-four-year-old lawyer and law professor with no real political leverage of his own. He was chosen by the League and the Five Star Movement to mediate between them.
This is an important moment in the history of Italy and the rest of Europe; it is the first time parties opposed to the European Union have taken over the government of one of its founding member states. The League (which used to be called the Northern League) has been known since the 1980s for its xenophobic views. It has received advice from former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon, who has been spending a lot of time in Italy lately, hosting political events and giving interviews about Italy’s role in the struggle against liberal “globalism.” The center-left Democratic Party that ran the country until recently is now totally marginalized, divided from within and unsure how to proceed as an opposition party.
The new government has been described in the Western press as “populist,” which is a notoriously equivocal term. After all, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been called “populists.” The binding agreement between the League and the Five Star Movement is a “contract” that promises a firm line against EU-enforced austerity measures, which populist leftwing parties throughout Western Europe also oppose. But the contract also promises to protect Italy from multiculturalism, religious pluralism, and immigration. The old neo-fascist movement, a party called Fratelli d’Italia, is not part of this coalition government, but their views are well represented in the new cabinet.
The Five Star Movement, which began online, wants to replace the representative democracy of Italy’s parliamentary system with a direct democracy. Its real leaders are its founders rather than the candidates it runs for office. Five Star has a Rousseauian idea of the ordinary Italian citizen as a “bon sauvage” damaged and humiliated by corrupt political institutions. Its message is: get rid of the political class, let the people decide, and all will be well.
But the real power in this coalition government belongs to the League, whose Catholic identitarian politics is just a cover for Islamophobia. When it was still the Northern League in the 1990s, the party flirted with neo-paganism and anti-Semitism. The League’s leader, Salvini, will be minister of the interior in the new government and promises to get tough with the European Union and crack down on immigration. In 2017 he signed a political alliance with the party of Vladimir Putin. The new government’s “contract” includes a racist proposal to remove Roma and Gypsy children—and only Roma and Gypsy children—from their families if they are not being sent to school, a plan ominously reminiscent of the fascist racial laws of 1938. The contract also promises to limit the religious liberty of Muslims in Italy in a way that is clearly unconstitutional.
The Italians who voted for the League or the Five Star Movement (both of which swore, before the election, that they would not form an alliance with each other) are not all racists. They voted as they did for several reasons, but two in particular stand out. The first is the economic and social anxiety of a country that feels it stopped benefitting from the European Union and globalization many years ago. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Europe’s social-democratic parties—in Italy, as well as in Germany and Britain—absorbed the neoliberal orthodoxy, favoring capital over labor and the private sector over the public sector. In response to this trend, the “contract” between the League and the Five Star Movement includes proposals for a “social” economy, proposals that would, for example, make it harder to fire someone or easier to afford a family. But the contract offers no details about how to fund such policies. The coalition government has proposed a “flat tax” to replace the country’s progressive income tax, but also a universal basic income. Together, these two proposals are both ideologically incoherent and fiscally impossible.
The second reason so many Italians voted for the League or the Five Star Movement is the decay of a shared political ethos. These two parties are deepening the damage already done by Berlusconi in the past twenty-five years, by exploiting and cultivating us-versus-them resentments—whether the “them” is institutions or foreigners. It is notable that the “contract” promises welfare-state services (such as child care) only for Italian citizens, but insists on taxing both citizens and non-citizen residents. As for undocumented migrants, they are targeted as an unwelcome burden foisted on Italy by the feckless globalists in Brussels.
This government represents a serious challenge for Italian Catholicism. Catholics are prominent in the new cabinet. Prime Minister Conte comes from Villa Nazareth, a cultural institution close to the Vatican. The embarrassment felt by some Roman cardinals at the sight of a Villa Nazareth alum becoming a proxy for the League and Five Star is palpable. The most visible Catholic in the new government is the minister for the new “department for the family and disabilities,” whose views about same-sex unions quickly made headlines. The same minister said in an interview given in 2016 that he preferred Cardinal Burke to Pope Francis. Salvini, for his part, has signaled hostility toward Francis’s outreach to Muslim leaders.
No wonder that the most important voices of the Italian Catholic establishment remain skeptical about this government. The president and former president of the bishops’ conference, the conference’s official newspaper, the Jesuits’ Civiltà Cattolica, and several other Italian Catholic organizations have all defended the president of the Republic in his stand-off with the League and the Five Star Movement and expressed serious doubts about the coalition’s policies. Together with the Community of St. Egidio, some bishops—including the president of the bishops’ conference—organized a special day of prayer for Italy and the Constitution. Meanwhile, neo-traditionalist Catholic circles (smaller and less influential than such circles in the United States) are already offering theological justifications for these same policies, in the vain hope that they will arrest, if not reverse, the secularization and cultural pluralism of Italy and Europe.
Whatever their motivation, the large number of Catholics who voted for the League or Five Star were at least willing to stomach what members of the new government have said about immigrants and refugees—the opposite of what Pope Francis and the church in Italy have said about “welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating migrants and refugees.” People associated with the League dream of something like a neo-Habsburg Catholic Europe, in which the new right-wing and populist governments of Italy, Austria, Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia can build a front against globalization, Islam, and what they see as the destruction of European culture. This kind of populism obviously draws more from Trump and Putin than from Bernie Sanders or Spain’s Podemos Party. It is as much cultural as political, and it could be with us for a very long time. The Italian left is now in disarray, squabbling over the crumbs of its old power. For now at least, the Catholic Church is the most important alternative voice to this populism in Italy. There has not been so much ideological distance between a pope and an Italian government in seventy years. While Francis preaches bridge-building, the new Italian government promises to tear down the old bridges between itself and its neighbors and to throw up new walls.