Observers continue to draw parallels between President-elect Donald Trump and the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. But the similarities – narcissism, opportunism, authoritarianism – coexist with sharp differences. One came from a working-class, socialistic background and saw himself as an intellectual and an ideologue. The other is a billionaire real estate magnate with a pronounced anti-intellectual streak.
A more important question is not whether Trump is an American Mussolini, but if American democracy is as vulnerable to fascistic erosion as Italian democracy was. My research on how Italian immigrants helped shape U.S. foreign policy toward fascist Italy reveals that Italians exiled by Mussolini believed America was also in danger.
The warnings issued in the 1920s and 1930s by Gaetano Salvemini and Max Ascoli seem particularly salient today. In a vast number of published books, journal articles, newspaper op-eds, public speeches and radio addresses, as well as in the 1939 founding of the Mazzini Society, Ascoli and Salvemini argued that Americans need to recognize the fragility of democracy.
Salvemini was an Italian politician and historian who fled Mussolini’s regime in 1925 and emigrated to the United States. In 1933, he began a career at Harvard University. Ascoli was a Jewish Italian professor of political philosophy and law. Forced into exile in 1928, Ascoli came to the United States in 1931 with the aid of the University in Exile at the New School for Social Research.
Once in the United States, the two scholars explained to Americans that fascism overcame Italy not by revolutionary storm, but by the “clever” hollowing out of Italy’s democratic institutions. Democracy, they warned, can be used against itself.
‘We want to rule’
Mussolini legally seized control of the Italian political system in 1922 amid economic crisis and political instability. Italians had lost faith in the ability of feuding political parties to restore order. This left an opening for an authoritarian leader who marched on Rome with no elaborate agenda: “Our program is simple: We want to rule Italy.”
Ascoli and Salvemini pointed out in their writings that Italian fascism emerged from a relatively stable system of liberal democracy. The fascists repeatedly emphasized their commitment to democracy – or rather, a commitment to what they regarded as “the purest form of democracy,” one in which the state protected its decent, hard-working citizens against excessive individualism – that is, individual rights and liberties that are valued more than the state. In “The Doctrine of Fascism,” coauthors Giovanni Gentile, the “father of the philosophy of fascism,” and Mussolini declared fascism to be “an organized, centralized, authoritarian democracy.”
Not until Mussolini had been in power for several years did he begin to articulate and elaborate a distinctive fascist ideology. Immediately after constitutionally taking power, albeit with considerable use of intimidation, he started eroding liberal democratic institutions and ideas. He did so by legally and often indirectly attacking the freedoms on which Italian democracy had been based.
Muzzling the press
Mussolini exploited the freedom of the press as he was rising to power. In 1914, he had founded the newspaper Popolo d’ltalia. Ascoli said the paper “stopped at nothing, not even at personal scandalmongering” to beat its enemies. After seizing power, Mussolini and his lieutenants – most of whom were businessmen with no experience in government – persuaded pro-fascist industrialists to purchase a number of Italian newspapers. Doing so ensured the papers promoted the agenda of the new government.
Newspapers that were not bought were “fascistized” under an obscure Italian law that authorized the government to “take emergency measures when necessary to maintain public peace.” In December 1924, the government invoked the law to quiet its critics. Claiming that the anti-fascist press had the potential to disturb the public peace, the Mussolini regime was thus authorized “to take any measures they thought fit to muzzle it.”
Within five years of Mussolini’s March on Rome, the opposition press was effectively silenced. “The passage of the Italian press from a regime of legal freedom to one of tight control,” commented Ascoli, “bears witness to the cleverness that the fascist leading group displayed in seizing fortunate occasions. The present condition has been reached without too much violence and even without the enforcement of very drastic laws.”
Italians found themselves living in a country with democratic institutions, but without reliable sources of information with which to judge official pronouncements.
Salvemini and Ascoli also drew attention to the restrictions placed on intellectual freedom. They saw Italian intellectuals as complicit in their own muzzling. Liberal intellectuals had been caught off guard and were unprepared and bewildered with the intolerance of fascism. Many of Italy’s leading intellectuals not only failed to defend liberal democracy, but went over to the other side, as evidenced in 1925’s “Manifesto of the Fascist Intellectuals.”
Democracy without freedom
Italy’s schools and universities, which had for centuries promoted free thinking, were quickly replaced with a system that emphasized professional training and embraced the mission of strengthening nationality through the “cultivation of a common culture.”
This switch was not unopposed, but teachers and university faculty protested in a piecemeal fashion. The refugee scholars described how Italian academics failed to recognize the severity of the threat posed to their principles and livelihoods. Ascoli explained that “in its legalistic aspect, academic freedom has not been radically affected in Fascist Italy, but the individual professors have been morally and intellectually reconditioned so as to become, each one for himself, an obedient self-censor in the interest of the regime…”
Meanwhile, Italian citizens were being persuaded to equate nationalism with the fascist program. Before Mussolini took power, observed Salvemini, “one was able to feel Italian and at the same time Catholic, anti-Catholic, conservative, democratic, monarchic, hostile to royalty, socialist, communist, anarchist, and what not…” But after 1922, concluded Salvemini, “The Fascist party became Italy, and the term Italianism came to mean Fascism… Many innocent people swallowed this deceit hook, line and sinker. They were patriots who were unable to disentangle one from the other the notions of nation, state, government, and party in power.”
As exiles, Salvemini and Ascoli devoted themselves to warning Americans that their country was as vulnerable as Italy to “the method of using democratic tools and emptying them of democratic goals.”
“Once political freedom is eliminated,” wrote Ascoli, “the instruments of democracy can be so used to multiply the power of the tyrannical state. This constitutes the essence of fascism, that is democracy without freedom.”