Is Donald Trump a fascist? Several commentators in America, my adoptive country, on both the left and right, have essentially compared “The Donald” to Mussolini, the fascist strongman who destroyed my old country Italy for a time, leaving behind half a million dead and the lingering poison of civil war.
“The brand of fascism was invented and exported by Italians,” Vittorio Foa, a Resistance hero and the father of Italy’s Republican Constitution, used to quip. He was right and, having grown up in the birthplace of fascism and lived through its aftereffects, I am dead sure: Trump is not a fascist. Using the label not only belittles past tragedies and obscures future dangers, but also indicts his supporters, who have real grievances that mainstream politicians ignore at their peril. America should tackle the demons Trump unleashes in 2016, not tar him by association with ideas and tactics he doesn’t even know about.
Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, his demagoguery, and his populist appeals to citizens’ economic anxieties certainly borrow from the fascist playbook. Italy’s fascists capitalized on similar themes in a different era of global uncertainty; in their case, it was the unemployment, veterans’ resentments, unions’ strikes, and political violence that beset the country following World War I. But Trump is, fundamentally, a blustering political opportunist courting votes in a democratic system; he has not called for the violent overthrow of the system itself. And whereas it can be impossible to discern any logic or strategy in Trump’s campaign, the fascists who marched on Rome in 1922 were relentlessly, violently focused on a clear goal: to kill democracy and install a dictatorship.
Nearly 30 years after Il Duce Mussolini, Italy’s dictator from 1922 to 1945, was executed by a partisan firing squad, his ideas were still wreaking havoc across the country; the 1970s were years of clashes between neofascist and communist terrorists that we in Italy called the Anni di Piombo, or years of lead. The neofascists were leading riots in Italy’s south; suspected of bombing banks, trains, and political rallies in the north; and accused of plotting a military coup. The violence killed hundreds of innocent people. I witnessed the destruction every day.
In 1971, when I was a senior in high school, a neofascist leaflet denounced me as a “target to be hit,” listing my phone number and address in Palermo, Sicily (my mom still lives there and answers that number). In October of that year, on a day when I was on duty selling the leftist newspaper Il Manifesto, I watched nervously as a squadraccia, a gang of fascist thugs, paraded across the street from me in full arms, heavy bats in hand, chains wrapped around their chests, black helmets on their heads, brass knuckles shining. Fascist dictators were still running Spain, Greece, and Portugal. The neofascists in Palermo had tried to kill the two young sons of a senator, in revenge against a progressive land reform. Watching thesquadraccia I wondered if I too would be wounded, or worse.