It would come as little surprise to learn that one of their biggest fans is Steve Bannon, the man who largely created the political ideology of former US President Donald Trump and is credited with the birth of the American alt- right movement.
Her likely victory comes off the back of recent triumphs for the far right elsewhere in Europe.
Despite Marine Le Pen losing the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, her supporters across the continent were enthused both by her share of the popular vote and that she moved France’s political center dramatically to the right.
Europe’s conservative right certainly feels like it’s enjoying a revival after a few quiet years.
“Something is definitely happening. From France and Italy, major European powers, to Sweden… it feels as if a rejection of the clearly failing pan-European orthodoxy is taking place among our citizens,” says Gunnar Beck, a member of ‘ he European Parliament represents Alternative for Germany (AfD).
AfD is a far-right party that became the first to be put under surveillance by the German government since the Nazi era. At the time, the Central Council of Jews in Germany welcomed the decision, saying: “The destructive politics of the AfD undermines our democratic institutions and discredits democracy among citizens.”
Where does this momentum come from?
“The cost of living crisis is undermining governments and European institutions. Of course the war in Ukraine has made things worse, but things like the European Green Deal and European Central Bank monetary policy are pushing up inflation before the war. The erosion of living standards means that people naturally become disaffected with their governments and the political establishment,” adds Beck.
Crisis always creates opportunities for parties in opposition, whatever their political ideology. But the politics of fear in the context of crisis lends itself more easily to right-wing populists.
“In the case of Meloni and her party, she was able to criticize both the establishment figure of Mario Draghi, an unelected technocrat installed as prime minister, and the populists who had supported his coalition government,” says Marianna Griffini, lecturer in the Department of European and International Studies at King’s College London.
Griffini says Italy’s recent woes have made it particularly susceptible to anti-establishment ideas. “We as a country suffered very badly in the pandemic, especially very early on. Many people died, many businesses closed. We had a difficult time getting support from the rest of the EU. Since then, the establishment and governments of both Conte and Draghi were easy targets to throw stones at.
Why does crisis create such a unique opportunity for right-wing populists? “Most research shows that conservative voters have a greater need for certainty and stability. When our society changes, conservatives are psychologically attuned to see this as a threat. It is therefore much easier to unite those people against real or perceived changes threats, such as the energy crisis, inflation, food shortages, or immigrants,” says Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of Defend Democracy.
And there are plenty of perceived threats to the populists to point fingers at the moment.
“Rising food and fuel prices, falling trust in democratic institutions, rising inequality, declining class mobility, and concerns about migration have created a sense of desperation that unscrupulous leaders can easily exploit,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. in central England.
He believes that the current combination of crises is a “perfect storm for liberal democracy – and it will take much greater efforts from those who believe in inclusion, responsible government and human rights to withstand it.”
The fact that we are talking about this most recent wave of populism means that by definition we have seen right-wing populists in power before and we have seen them defeated. Why is the prospect of another wave so alarming to those who oppose it?
“The paradox of populism is that it often identifies real problems, but tries to replace them with something worse,” says Federico Finchelstein, a leading expert in populism and author of the book “From Fascism to Populism in History.”
“The failures of political elites and institutions, they try to replace them with powerful, cult-like leadership. Trump was a natural at that and he encouraged others like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and even Orban to go even further,” adds Finchelstein, referring to the authoritarian leaders of Turkey, Brazil and Hungary, where democratic standards have been seriously undermined in recent years.
He also points out that populists “are generally very bad at running governments, as we saw with Trump and others during the pandemic.”
That, in a nutshell, is the potential danger of this populist wave. In a time of severe crisis, those who claim to have solutions can make everything much worse for the citizens they ultimately serve. And if things get worse, more crises are inevitable, which means more fear is inevitable, along with further opportunities for the populists.
In Italy, it is worth nothing that Meloni is just the latest – or the most extreme – in a long list of successful populist politicians. Those who succeeded her and entered the government became her targets in opposition.
If Europe’s crisis cycle continues, it is likely that a few years from now we will be discussing the rise of another extreme populist exploiting the fears of citizens. And anyone who follows European politics closely knows only too well that hundreds of such people are waiting in the wings, cheered and encouraged every time one of their tribe takes on the establishment and wins.