J. B. Bosworth’s excellent “Mussolini’s Italy” illustrates the vast differences between the two right-wing populists
Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship 1915-1945, R. J. B. Bosworth, Penguin Press, 736 pages, 2006, $25.00 paperback
By George Howland Jr.
U.S. President Donald J. Trump should not be compared to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Commentators ranging from The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to retired four-star general Barry McCaffrey have compared the president to the Duce, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1945. While Trump is a very dangerous chief executive, Mussolini was a fascist who cleverly combined violence against the Italian population itself with deft manipulation of the existing political elites. Whatever his desires, Trump has not practiced the former and seems incapable of the latter.
A good jumping off point for examining the Duce in detail is Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945, by R. J. B. Bosworth, the renowned Australian scholar.
Fascism: from decentralization to dictatorship
After World War I, when the fascist movement began, its organization was highly decentralized. There was no single leader and no nationwide or regional coordination of activity. Instead, local strongmen attacked their enemies as they saw fit. Communists and socialists were the common enemies of these little Duces. The fascists used squads of thugs and former soldiers to beat, maim and kill their enemies. The squads also destroyed the leftists’ infrastructure: burning their offices and smashing their printing presses. During the rise of fascism, 3000 Italians were killed (425 were fascists).
While Trump has used the government to commit acts of horrible cruelty against immigrants and refugees—separation of families and detention in inhumane facilities—populist violence has not been in his toolbox. Gangs of Republicans are not physically attacking Democrats and setting fire to their offices. I do not see any signs of such “squadrism” emerging in our current political environment.
Within the Fascist party itself, an ideological debate raged. The issues of whether Fascists should advocate for a monarchy, become vigorous opponents of the Catholic Church, fight to acquire Yugoslavia and champion state intervention in the economy were all undecided.
Meanwhile the Fascist party underwent tremendous growth: from 870 in 1919 to 20,615 in 1920 to 151,644 in 1921. By 1921, “57.5 percent (87,182) were returned soldiers” from World War I, when Italy fought alongside the Allies.
Mussolini’s remarkable political skill
As the Fascists’ violence terrorized leftists, Italy’s governments kept falling and re-forming with familiar politicians rotating in and out of power. Mussolini quietly and persistently presented himself to powerful politicians as an alternative to the random fascist violence and the weak prime ministers. In 1922, as plans for the March on Rome by 5,000 poorly armed Fascist militants took shape, King Victor Emmanuel III called Mussolini and asked him to form a government. The King could have commanded the army to put down the March on Rome, which the military could have done, but instead Emmanuel preferred giving Mussolini a chance at becoming prime minister through constitutional means. At the time, there were only 35 Fascist deputies in the 535-member Italian Chamber of Deputies (a legislature like the U.S. House of Representatives).
Mussolini put together a coalition government of multiple parties, including Nationalists, Catholics and Liberals. While he gave tacit permission to Fascist squads to continue their reign of terror, he centralized his power in the Fascist Party. Eventually, he even denounced some Fascist violence by the little Duces. The former atheist declared himself Catholic and reached accommodation with the Church.
Mussolini’s skill at political intrigue, building alliances and willingness to use targeted violence yielded strong results. After the elections of April 1924, “374 deputies out of 535 owned allegiance to Mussolini.” It was a remarkable electoral achievement.
Mussolini’s success allowed him to further consolidate power both within the Fascist movement itself and among the political class and elected deputies.
Can you imagine Trump pulling off such a feat? Trump is unable to push the federal bureaucracy, the economic elites, the deep state or even Republican leaders to yield to his rule. Instead, he blusters around the White House creating chaos and giving orders that change from day-to-day depending on his mood.
Political murder leads to absolute power
In June 1924, Fascist thugs abducted moderate Socialist Party deputy Giacomo Matteotti, who was the de-facto leader of the opposition to Mussolini (think of Matteotti as equivalent to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi). The Fascists beat Matteotti to death. Historians are still arguing over whether Mussolini gave direct orders for the assassination. At the least, fascism had created a political environment where political murder was acceptable.
The government and economy shuddered, but neither collapsed. Political machinations continued, however, particularly within the fascist movement itself.
In January 1925, Mussolini responded to the murder by appearing before the Chamber of Deputies and taking responsibility, if not the blame, for the killing. In the same speech, the Duce then declared a Fascist dictatorship.
Afterwards, Mussolini made the dictatorship possible by convincing the Chamber of Deputies to pass laws that concentrated all power in his hands. He tamed the Fascist Party by ousting his rivals and filling all posts with loyalists. Mussolini declared there was no difference between the Fascist party and the state—and he controlled both absolutely. He outlawed press freedom, negotiated a truce with the Catholic Church, liquidated independent unions, established nationwide fascist youth groups and compromised with the military by leaving it unchanged and unchallenged.
Currently, Trump is being investigated by the Democratic-majority House of Representatives for possible impeachment. There is no chance, even if Trump was savvy enough to develop a program for dictatorship, that the House would pass it. Trump rails against the media, but can do nothing to curtail its coverage, investigation and editorializing against him. Unions actively organize against the president. Young Republicans’ organizations are propagandizing for Trump, but their reach into the American population is very limited.
Trump’s rise to power depended on the Rube-Goldberg institution that is our Electoral College. Also important is his base of haters, but they show no signs of collectively taking up arms against the rest of us—although individual hate crimes against people of color, LGBT folks, women and immigrants have increased under Trump. The president’s rule has not been accompanied by him consolidating power and spreading his control throughout government and civil society.
Niccolò Machiavelli would have given Mussolini high marks, but the Italian philosopher would have sat Trump in the dunce’s corner.