Gelato Populism: The Rise of Matteo Salvini

“We made Italy. Now we must make Italians” is a phrase commonly misattributed to either Giuseppe Garibaldi or his namesake, Giuseppe Mazzini, the two architects of 19th-century Italian unification. Actually written by Piedmontese politician and Sardinian Governor Massimo D’Azeglio in his memoirs that were published posthumously in 1867, it succinctly made clear the enormous task that lay ahead of that era’s Italian nationalists who managed to cobble together widely disparate parts of the Italian Peninsula into one whole. These internal contradictions stemming from regional differences, whether historical, cultural, linguistic, economic, and even ethnic, would go on to color the politics of Italy for the next century-and-a-half and continue to do so today.

It was the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini who, through brute force, took to heart D’Azeglio’s words and put them into action. Ridding the country of its nascent parliamentary history, his fascists toured the country up and down, promoting Italianism to a largely illiterate population, still speaking various dialect-heavy forms of Italian or Italian-adjacent languages such as Friulian in Northeastern Italy. 

Combined with a significant program of public works such as the draining of the Pontine Marshes near Rome and the clampdown on the Mafia in Sicily by way of the heavy-hand of Mussolini-appointed Prefect Cesare Mori, a Pan-Italian consciousness began to take root where once only Romagnol, Venetian, Campanian, or Calabrese and other various regional identities were predominant. 

Mussolini’s disastrous alliance with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany ended this window of opportunity to complete the task of creating Italians.

Postwar Italy was a rickety parliamentary democracy barely holding onto its existence thanks to the ever-present threat of Western Europe’s largest and most popular Communist Party. Punctuated by spurts of violence from groups such as the Marxist Red Brigades or unreconstructed fascists, the country averaged one new government every 11 months. Plagued by endemic corruption in every single aspect of governance, thanks in particular to the all-powerful Sicilian Mafia, the rotting edifice fell apart with the collapse of the ruling Christian Democrats in 1994.

Silvio Berlusconi and his newly formed party Forza Italia (“Go Italy!”) took hold of the dropped baton and dominated Italian politics for close to the next two decades. 

Now tainted by scandals, both economic and personal (especially his notorious “Bunga Bunga” parties involving young women of loose morals and powerful men with even fewer scruples), many have quickly forgotten that his era brought relatively stable governance to the country for the first time since fascism and without the baggage of that failed ideology. 

Yet Italy struggled economically during this period, weighed down by a bloated bureaucracy, high public debt, a lack of market competitiveness, and its poor southern provinces. Combined with adopting the Euro, Italians felt shackled to a sinking ship over which they had no control.

In 2011, the Berlusconi government was removed in a soft coup by the European Central Bank and Italian politicians affiliated with Goldman Sachs, a colorless and technocratic government was put into place to try and right the Italian economy which by this point was teetering due to various reasons including its shaky banking sector. Already in crisis thanks to the Greek bailouts, Italy—a country with an economy larger than the UK’s when the gray and black economies are factored in—was deemed “too big to fail.”

Enter Matteo Salvini

The 2008 financial crisis hit Europe hard and Italy harder than most other countries. With its significant banking sector on the verge of collapse due to exposure—not just at home but elsewhere—Italians saw their economy grind to a halt and for the first time in decades, began to see notable numbers of their countrymen and women leave for work in other parts of the world. 

A second punch in the gut came shortly thereafter when France’s Nicolas Sarkozy teamed up with British Prime Minister David Cameron (with President Barack Obama famously “leading from behind”) to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Prior to that, Gaddafi and Berlusconi had reached a successful agreement to stop the flow of migrants from Libya to Italy. With Gaddafi’s ouster, the floodgates were opened.

Feeling powerless due to decision-making being transferred to Brussels and the ECB thanks to Italy’s membership in the European Union and its adoption of the Euro, a crisis in legitimacy of the ruling parties set in and Italians began to look for answers outside of the ruling parties. This was exacerbated by the huge numbers of African migrants washing ashore on the tiny island of Lampedusa near Sicily. 

These migrants, almost all Sub-Saharan Africans, quickly would be ferried to mainland Italy where they would begin to fan out across the country as the EU debated what to do with them. EU dithering meant that these migrants would stay stuck in Italy, largely unemployable, and turning to criminal activity such as drug-dealing and prostitution. 

Italians not only felt abandoned by their elitist politicians who insisted that they embrace this new demographic reality, but also rudderless in an economy that they saw only servicing those same condescending elites. Like in much of Europe elsewhere, the scene was set for populism to make a grand entry onto the national stage.

Matteo Salvini is a larger-than-life character. A product of a Milanese business executive and a stay-at-home mother, he exudes a boyish charm that tempers his sometimes hostile pronouncements where he spares no prisoners. Born in the Italian Industrial capital of Milan, he has been a life-long politician, steadily climbing through the ranks of the then Lega Nord Party (Northern League, but now just Lega), accruing experience not only at the local level as a city councilor but also at the European level where he served as a representative and sat on several committees such as trade and agriculture.

Milan is the center of the Lombardy Province which sits in the north of Italy. The north serves as Italy’s economic engine, where finance, banking, agriculture, fashion, and automotive manufacturing are just some of the sectors that make this region second only to the Rhine-Ruhr in Europe. This massive wealth created a lot of resentment among Northern Italians, who felt that they were unfairly subsidizing not only the federal government in Rome (seen as bloated and inefficient), but also the very poor south of Italy. It was this resentment that saw Lega Nord rise in popularity in the north, with its push for both economic and political autonomy. The base of this party is comprised of the middle and upper-middle classes of Veneto, Piedmont, and Lombardy, who felt that excessive taxation hurt their competitiveness, particularly in the ever-growing EU.

Lega Nord was also a largely nonideological party, encompassing people from the far-Left to the far-Right. Seen as flirting with fascism due to an increasing anti-migrant stance, the party moved to take advantage of the anti-establishment sentiment now proliferating in the country. Remaining fiercely loyal to the League despite having differences of opinion on fundamental questions such as its insistence on remaining a purely regionalist party, Salvini actively built coalitions with divergent groups within the party itself at the local, provincial, and European levels, eschewing the open fratricidal warfare all too common in Italian politics. Salvini managed to take control of Lega Nord after years of internal struggle between those seeking a harder line on autonomy (to the point of wanting an independent country in the north to be known as “Padania”) and those seeking to distance themselves from the EU, especially the Euro.

With his capture of Lega Nord and the expulsion of his rivals within the party, Salvini now had a free hand to take advantage of the prevailing political winds to catapult Lega Nord into government around three issues: economic reform, relations with the EU, and mass migration.

From the Fringes to Center Stage

Italy was not spared from the post-2008 collapse in support of the center-left social-democratic parties in Europe and the condition of the PD (Democratic Party) was not helped by the rise of the Five Star Movement (M5S). Beppe Grillo, a famous comedian, launched M5S as a non-ideological mass movement seeking constitutive change in Italy, incorporating concepts such as direct digital democracy to overturn the ossified parliamentary democracy that more and more people felt was systemically unresponsive to the citizenry. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, M5S managed to thrash PD at the polls, heralding a new era of populist politics under its leader, Luigi Di Maio. M5S then turned to Lega to form a government that would be a clean break from the previous generation in which both Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and PD dominated the political scene.

This was the opportunity that Salvini had been relishing throughout his entire career. 

Oozing charisma, Salvini has capitalized on his outsized personality by employing a team of social media experts who track, report, and post his every move. Constantly on campaign, he marches up and down the Italian peninsula, taking selfie photos with grandmothers at the market, boys playing soccer in small towns, and crowds of party-goers on the beaches in Rimini on the Adriatic Coast. A natural at being the center of attention, Salvini strikes a “common man” approach, often appearing on social media eating the most Italian of foods, often those associated with the lower classes such as Nutella. Even though he grew up in relative wealth, his opponents grudgingly concede that he has a way with people which only adds to his popularity. Salvini also strikes a defiant pose when dealing with a hostile media, never missing an opportunity to hit journalists on “behalf of the common man.”

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Salvini quickly rebranded Lega Nord, dropping the “Nord” suffix from its name in order to broaden the appeal of the party in the south. Despite residual anti-Southern sentiment within Lega, the party began to poll strongly in provinces that former party officials would criticize in the harshest and most bigoted terms possible. Salvini himself issued a mea culpa for his previous attacks on southerners and their “laziness” and “corrupt nature.”

Lega began to make inroads in places once thought impossible to persuade. To illustrate this miracle, think of the Republican Party threatening to win California or Massachusetts in a U.S. presidential campaign. Salvini also opportunistically began to court disaffected Italian Catholics, who saw their increasingly-liberalized church tend more to political-cultural trends rather than to their own Italian flock. Salvini went as far as to clutch a rosary on live TV to display his newfound “piety,” earning groans from rival politicians who saw only a cynical play for votes.

With little outward enthusiasm, President Mattarella blessed the coalition between M5S, Lega, and Fdl (a far-right party) with law professor Giuseppe Conte selected as a neutral and nonpartisan premier. Salvini was given the coveted portfolio of Interior Minister where he quickly outshone both Premier Conte and M5S chief DiMaio despite his party being a junior member of the governing coalition. Once again engaging in a non-stop media campaign amplified by his massive presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, Salvini took on his newfound role with gusto. Being filmed tearing down gypsy encampments in a bulldozer, or photographed lounging in the pool at a house seized from a Mafioso, he projected the image of a hardworking, regular Joe finally doing what the government was supposed to be doing all along. But his spectacle would always be with the migrant question.

“What Kind of Italy Do We Want?”

By the time of Salvini’s rise, several governments had come and gone, none of them having been able to tackle the matter of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who now reside in Italy while the EU fails to reach agreement with its members over what to do not just with these ones, but with the more than 1 million migrants that Germany’s Angela Merkel has allowed into that country in a fit of (misplaced) humanitarianism.

Salvini immediately went to work, informing Italians that their country would no longer serve as a “flophouse” for economic migrants who were making economic reform all the more difficult. On June 10, 2018, Salvini announced the closure of Italian ports to migrants (Porti Chiusi!) and followed that up with the “Salvini Decree” that not only made it more difficult to claim refugee status but also made it easier to deport migrants.

Salvini’s hardline approach immediately bore fruit as migrant arrivals dropped by 80 percent, according to the United Nations. Lega’s polling began to skyrocket as Salvini’s constant media presence boosted the party’s popularity and that of the party as well. He began to cast a shadow over DiMaio and M5S who were struggling with how to approach the EU regarding its stringent guidelines on national budgets.

Going from strength to strength with his party riding high in the polls, Salvini began to think of what lay ahead for his party in a future government where they would be the senior partner. Heeding the calls of his base Salvini began to push for a flat tax regime to spur economic growth, influenced by the success of Fidesz in Hungary. Beyond that, Salvini met with the Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban in order to strike a de facto coalition of populists (despite Fidesz being a member of the center-right EPP in the European Parliament, where Lega is a member of the nationalist-populist ID group). Orban hailed Salvini as his “hero.” Salvini then went on to strike a more formal agreement with Poland’s ruling party PiS on the European level, thus striking a major presence on the continent’s biggest political stage.

By August 2019, M5S and Lega were at odds with one another on various issues and Salvini seized an opportunity to push a no-confidence measure against Premier Conte in order to bring down the government and capitalize on the party’s stratospheric polling so as to call a new election. Conte resigned his role but surprised many by brokering a new governing coalition between M5S and PD, thus leaving Lega and Salvini out of power. Smiling Matteo had failed during his most ambitious attempt for political power.


The marriage of convenience between M5S and PD is a transparent one, with the overarching goal of simply keeping Lega out of power. M5S’s cynical clinging to office has seen them punished in the polls as Lega’s fortunes continue to rise. The all-too-predictable cracks in the coalition have already surfaced, with issues ranging from judicial reform to lowering the number of lawmakers in parliament.

PD has already suffered one major defection, with former Premier Renzi splitting off to form his own neo-liberal centrist party (albeit, still in government). Other PD factions are already signaling that they may find the compromises asked of them by M5S to keep the government afloat too much to swallow. M5S is suffering its own string of party defections, as one senator has been expelled for voting against the governing coalition, and another has crossed the floor to join Lega along with two MPs from the House.

Looming over the current government is the specter of Salvini and a Lega-led government alienating “proper and polite Europe” over its handling of migrants and taking a hardline stance against the EU’s insistence of budgetary discipline. Worrying the already-discredited but entrenched Brussels elites is a Lega-led party in league with Poland and Hungary, setting Europe further aflame with the fire of national populism.

Italy is firmly located in the EU firmament, with Lega’s anti-EU faction humbled (despite continued significant anti-Euro sentiment). Having learned from Marine Le Pen’s loss to Emmanuel Macron, which in part was blamed on her anti-EU stance, Salvini has reversed course, embracing the organization in much the same way both EU bad boys Hungary and Poland have done.

Salvini has signed Lega up to the Orban vision of a Europe as a “community of sovereign nations.” Having shown that a hardline stance against migrants can be implemented quickly and successfully and having won Italians over to the idea of a Europe of sovereign nations, Matteo Salvini has positioned himself to complete the task of “making Italians” assigned to Italy by D’Azeglio a century and a half ago. 

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About Niccolo Soldo

Niccolo Soldo is a writer, speaker, geopolitical risk consultant, and shepherd roaming the Dinaric Alps, V4 and beyond. Follow him on Twitter @espressosoldo.

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