April 25 was Liberation Day in Italy, a day meant to commemorate the end of fascism and the Nazi occupation of Italy. This Liberation Day, Matteo Salvini, the far-right leader of Italy’s Lega Nord party, chose not to celebrate but instead to come to Philadelphia to support Donald Trump’s campaign the day before the Pennsylvania primary.
Salvini is known for his large rallies, where some of his followers wave photos of Benito Mussolini and black Celtic cross flags, a common neo-Nazi symbol in Europe. Salvini himself praised Mussolini for his “efficacy” and “dedication” to Italy and his pension policies. According to the right-wing politician, Mussolini did “so many good things” before teaming up with Adolf Hitler. Salvini will also occasionally slip on a black shirt, perhaps as a tribute to the fascist dictator.
Ironically, Trump accidentally tweeted the Mussolini quote, “Better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.” When confronted later about it, he said it didn’t matter who spoke the words because the quote was “interesting.”
Salvini and Trump met on April 25 to talk about immigration reform and said they were in “total agreement” on closed borders. Salvini has criticized the pope and Angela Merkel for their positions on taking in Syrian refugees. “Matteo, I hope you will soon become the prime minister of Italy,” Trump said, according to ANSA news service.
Salvini posted a photo on Facebook of the two together with their thumbs up and the caption “Go, Donald, go!” He also lambasted Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi for supporting American Democrats, posting “Renzi chooses the disastrous do-goodery of Obama and Merkel, I prefer the legality and security proposals from Trump!” on Facebook.
Lega Nord was founded as a secessionist party in 1991 in northern Italy, but Salvini has since emphasized an anti-immigration and Islamophobic rhetoric. Salvini was elected to the party in 2013 and is becoming a rising political figure. With little more than 14 percent of the population’s support, Lega Nord is Italy’s third most popular party; however, Salvini’s approval rate is growing.
Salvini and Trump are a similar breed of politician, both charismatic celebrities who tap into blue-collar nationalism. Salvini, 42, posed shirtless for a magazine cover and is known to be popular with women. One of Salvini’s biggest admirers is Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France. Of Salvini, she said, “He sends me into ecstasy.” Le Pen, who called for an “immediate end to all reception of migrants in France,” endorsed Trump after he called for a shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S. After the Paris attacks last year, the far-right National Front ran many ads playing on people’s fears of terrorism, and Le Pen won 30 percent of the vote in her region last election.
Xenophobia is growing in Europe, with France, the United Kingdom, Austria, Greece, Denmark and Sweden all electing far-right nationalist candidates. Like Trump, they unite voters with a platform of blocking migrants from the Middle East and Africa. More blatant demonstrations of anti-Semitism flared up in Greece, with its Golden Dawn party donning Nazi-like uniforms and symbolism.
Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, commented on the parallels between European and American politics. “I see the phenomena as very similar. Trump is the functional equivalent of the far right in Europe; he performs the same functions in the political system, and attracts the same kind of support… white, nativist, lower-educated and very unhappy with the establishment.”
Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who founded the right-wing Freedom Party, also endorsed Trump, tweeting, “Make the Netherlands Great Again.” (Wilders, who is currently on trial for incendiary remarks, bears a weird physical resemblance to Donald Trump.)
Despite these connections, Trump has recently been careful to avoid linking himself with Europe’s far right. He has distanced himself from Marine Le Pen and rebuffed her supporters’ efforts to meet with him in March. But could his meeting with Salvini be the start of a dangerous alliance with right-wing Europe? Trump, like Salvini, does not conform completely to the far-right political groups, but rather a new mold governed by a cult of personality that appeals to moderates. Trump has also been compared to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the conservative media tycoon who rose to power and governed Italy for nine years.
With Trump likely to seize the Republican nomination, his endorsements from far-right groups in both Europe and the United States (Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke) will alienate him with voters in the general election.