Remember When America Loved Mussolini?
But are they ready for the mango version?
“We pledge to you that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, that lie and steal and cheat on elections!”
Donald Trump’s reference to his political enemies as “vermin” has drawn inevitable comparison to a certain Austrian corporal and his Italian fascist mentor. Those resemblances are nothing new, of course, but Trump’s rhetoric lately seems . . . purposeful.
Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes that “calling people ‘vermin’ was used effectively by Hitler and Mussolini to dehumanize people and encourage their followers to engage in violence.”
“Trump is also using projection: note that he mentions all kinds of authoritarians ‘communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left’ to set himself up as the deliverer of freedom,” Ben-Ghiat told the Washington Post.
“Mussolini promised freedom to his people too and then declared dictatorship.”
This seems like an important cautionary note.
But here’s another one: Americans once loved the guy.
In the early 1920s, Mussolini had his enthusiastic fanboys in business, labor, Hollywood, and the media. After the sanctimony and infirmity of Woodrow Wilson, millions of Americans felt a frisson of excitement from the cut of Il Duce’s jib, or as we might say now, his vibe. Conservatives saw him as a bulwark against bolshevism, and a champion of traditional values. At the same time, as Jonah Goldberg has pointed out, progressives had an affinity for many of the ideas that have come to be associated with fascism (eugenics, the centralized state).
But most of all, his fans admired Mussolini’s style. Whatever they might have thought of ‘fascism,’ they were attracted by his strutting man-of-action persona, his promise of discipline, and even his thrilling embrace of violence.1
In his upcoming history of illiberalism in America, Steve Hahn notes that “Mussolini himself was widely lionized and assimilated to a number of American values and icons. He was not only a ‘great man’ but a ’self-made man,’ the son of a blacksmith. And he seemed intent on affirming the virtues of ‘duty,’ ‘obedience,’ loyalty,’ and ‘patriotism.’”
Mussolini also knew how to put on a show.
For many Americans, Mussolini was not merely a violent dictator, he was a celebrity, a precursor of a type that would become familiar over the next century. Shortly after his march on Rome, the Birmingham Age-Herald wrote that Mussolini looked “like a movie star.” Writes Hahn:
The cult of personality that Mussolini nurtured played to an appreciative audience, and he, aware of the cameras and public fascination with feats of daring, drew comparison to the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Lionel Barrymore, and Jack Dempsey. He was a man of action not words, a problem solver, a warrior, and a devoted Italian nationalist.
Mussolini’s rise to fame, writes historian Giorgio Bertellini, “coincided with the full development of Hollywood star culture, which often paid surprising homages to his popularity.”
In February 1927, for instance, Motion Picture Magazine published a photograph of Hollywood’s power couple, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, doing what we would consider today unthinkable: making the Fascist salute. The accompanying caption explained that their gesture was a personal tribute to Il Duce, whom they had met the year before in Rome, and closed with an expression of their admiration: “There’s nothing like going to an authority!”
Mussolini was also lauded by both business and (some) labor leaders. After visiting Italy, American unionist Samuel Gompers gushed that fascism was “capable of decisive action on a national scale” and that Mussolini was “rapidly reconstructing a nation of collaborating units of usefulness.”
U.S. Steel’s Elbert Gary proclaimed that “The entire world needs strong, honest men,” and that Americans could “learn something by the movement which has taken place in Italy.”
American journalists also gushed over the celebrity dictator.
By the mid-1920s, a review in the Smithsonian Magazine found, “Mussolini was a darling of the American press, appearing in at least 150 articles from 1925-1932, most neutral, bemused or positive in tone.”
The Saturday Evening Post even serialized Il Duce’s autobiography in 1928. Acknowledging that the new “Fascisti movement” was a bit “rough in its methods,” papers ranging from the New York Tribune to the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Chicago Tribune credited it with saving Italy from the far left and revitalizing its economy. From their perspective, the post-WWI surge of anti-capitalism in Europe was a vastly worse threat than Fascism.
Ironically, while the media acknowledged that Fascism was a new “experiment,” papers like The New York Times commonly credited it with returning turbulent Italy to what it called “normalcy.”
Fortune magazine devoted an entire issue to Mussolini's corporate state. describing the fascist movement as exemplars the ancient virtues of “Discipline, Duty, Courage, Glory and Sacrifice” — with the added benefit of blocking communism and socialism.
In Portland, the Morning Oregonian, explained Mussolini’s rise to power as a “revolt against socialism and return to individualism as the way to bring cost of government within revenue and to reduce it further in order to reduce taxes…”
The enthusiasm extended deep into the heartland. In 1922, the Duluth New Tribune, reported: “The Fascisti success in Italy marks Europe’s turning toward the middle classes.”
As Bolshevism was an attack against all classes by the Russian workingmen, so the Fascisti movement is an attack against both the idle rich and overpaid laboring classes by the white collar men.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram explained that “Fascism originally sprang from the disgust of the moderate conservative elements at the government’s failure to uphold the laws when the workmen seized the factories two years ago and at the apparent powerlessness of the government to repress the communist violence which followed.”
The paper noted the strong support for Mussolini in the military and the working class who wanted “to put an end to the undignified feebleness and vacillation which have marked the Italy policy, not only internal but especially external, ever since the armistice.”
In 1922, the Kansas City Star declared that “The Fascisti’s ideals consist of 100 per cent nationalism,” with a generous dose of clubbing and other forms of violence.
They believe in applying patriotism with force; they not only have no patience with 50 per-cent Italianism, but they believe also in clubbing “50 per centers.” They have no special theory of government but want the best government that is obtainable. For the time being they are monarchial, but if tomorrow they should see that a republic would be better for Italy they would be republicans.
“What they want is the greatest well-being and the maximum prosperity for the nation, not by class struggle, but by co-operation among the various classes.”
In December 1922, the Grand Folks Herald reported that “An interesting letter has been received from Mrs. Gerda Hellberg Castelli of Rome . . . written of the conditions and especially the ‘Fascisti’ in Italy, to Mrs. R. D. Campbell of this city. Mrs. Castelli and Captain Castelli will be remembered as residents here some years ago. . . .”
“We, both my husband and I, are great ‘Fascisti’ and bless Mussolini who swept away the clique of rotten and selfish and incompetent politicians! . . .
Both peasant and workman of the saner type were glad for and desired the change, as it was felt everywhere Italy had no government at all! And chaos cannot last for long.
And really it is quite a spiritual movement as well as patriotic, and idealistic, and we needed that badly after all these years of demagogism and party Socialism, and the world everywhere needs a bit of ‘Fascism,’ it seems to me.
“Always yours sincerely,
—“Gerda Hellberg Castelli.”
Exit take: In 2024, will America be ready for the Mango Mussolini?
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The “banality of crazy” revisited.
As Brian Klaas notes, “Trump continues his deranged authoritarian outbursts, which, due to the ‘banality of crazy,’ will garner virtually no mainstream coverage. Americans deserve to know this stuff. Trump’s authoritarianism is the most important political story in America—and nothing else is close.”
Meanwhile…. Via Axios:
Below is a sampling of Trump's online rhetoric over the last 24 hours:
Nov. 28, 11:13 pm: Called on the government to "come down hard" on MSNBC and "make them pay" for its critical coverage of Republicans, after previously vowing to investigate parent company Comcast if elected.
Nov. 29, 8:26 am: Warned that his indictments have opened up a "very big and dangerous Pandora's Box," building on recent suggestions that he will use the Justice Department to prosecute his enemies if elected.
The GOP’s Humiliation Kink
On Wednesday’s podcast, former RNC chairman Michael Steele and I discussed some weird political fetishes, Kevin McCarthy’s mission of mercy to Mar-a-Lago, and the Koch network’s endorsement of Nikki Haley. (Plus, we dove into a genuinely dystopian scenario for the 2024 election.)
You can listen to the whole thing here. Or watch us on YouTube.
1. McCarthy privately recounts terse phone call with Trump after ouster
Really. You. Have. To. Read. This. Via the Wapo:
During a phone call with McCarthy weeks after his historic Oct. 3 removal as House speaker, Trump detailed the reasons he had declined to ask Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and other hard-right lawmakers to back off their campaign to oust the California Republican from his leadership position, according to people familiar with the exchange who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose a private conversation.
During the call, Trump lambasted McCarthy for not expunging his two impeachments and endorse him in the 2024 presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the conversation.
“F--- you,” McCarthy claimed to have then told Trump, when he rehashed the call later to other people in two separate conversations, according to the people. A spokesperson for McCarthy said that he did not swear at the former president and that they have a good relationship. A spokesperson for Trump declined to comment.
2. Yes, Trump Is Disqualified from Office
A president who tried to use force and fraud to stay in power after losing an election should not be allowed wield the power of office ever again. And we need not and should not rely on the democratic process alone to combat such dangers.
3. Schumer delivers landmark Senate speech on rising antisemitism
In a Senate floor speech that lasted for nearly an hour on Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called out the wave of antisemitism that has followed the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks on Israel, denouncing anti-Israel protesters, young people, the media, erstwhile allies and others whom he said had were helping to propagate antisemitism, and who have abandoned or failed to grasp the scope and severity of the crisis Jewish Americans are experiencing.
“Vitriol against Israel in the wake of Oct. 7 is all too often crossing into brazen and widespread antisemitism, the likes of which we haven’t seen for generations in this country, if ever,” Schumer, who is the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history, said. “I want to explain through the lens of history, why this is so dangerous: The normalization and exacerbation of this rise in hate is the danger many Jewish people fear most.”
In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks, Schumer lamented, “the solidarity that Jewish Americans initially received from any of our fellow citizens was quickly drowned out by other voices.” He lambasted anti-Israel demonstrators who have supported, justified, excused or denied the atrocities committed by Hamas on Oct. 7.
Some, he added, “skipped over expressing sympathy” for the victims of the attack, “in their haste to blame the attack on the past actions of the Israeli government.”
The current wave of antisemitism, he emphasized, isn’t coming primarily from the far right, but from “people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers” — people whom Jewish Americans had joined in protests against other forms of hatred and discrimination — “but apparently… in the eyes of some, this principle does not extend to Jewish people.”
Real Man of Genius.
In fairness, the Americans were not alone in their hero-worship of the absurd Italian: The Surprising Fans of Mussolini and his Trip to London in 1922 - Flashbak
In late 1931 while he was touring Europe, Gandhi accepted an invitation to visit Mussolini in Rome where he even reviewed a black-shirted Fascist youth honour guard during his stay. Regarding his visit with Il Duce, Gandhi wrote in a letter to a friend: “Many of his reforms attract me. He seems to have done much for the peasant class. I admit an iron hand is there. But as violence is the basis of Western society, Mussolini’s reforms deserve an impartial study…My own fundamental objection is that these reforms are compulsory. But it is the same in all democratic institutions.” Gandhi would also hail Mussolini “one of the great statesmen of our time.”
George Bernard Shaw once declared of the Italian dictator, “Socialists should be delighted to find at last a socialist who speaks and thinks as responsible rulers do.”