Here’s what the 45-year-old interior minister and leader of the right-wing League party wants: attention. Here’s what he also wants: to splinter his coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, an amalgam of voters of both right and left which started out chameleonic and whose left flank has now become squirmy. While Salvini has been on the offensive, the leader of the Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, and Conte, the prime minister chosen by Di Maio and Salvini to lead their shaky coalition government, have been on the defensive. Both have distanced themselves from Salvini’s anti-immigrant tirades. Prompting the next question: How long will this government last?
Salvini’s rhetoric—especially his calls for a census by ethnicity—has echoes of fascism in the country that invented it, and of course led to a widespread outcry and criticism in Italy and from abroad. The president of Italy’s union of Jewish communities said it recalled Mussolini’s racial laws. The front pages of Italy’s decreasingly influential daily newspapers had commentaries decrying Salvini, and saying Italy’s “buonismo,” a tendency to be do-gooders, was being eclipsed by “cattivismo,” or simply being mean. Paolo Gentiloni, the center-left prime minister until Italy’s March elections, tweeted: “Yesterday the refugees, today the Roma, tomorrow guns for all; it’s hard being so mean.” Leaders of the Roma community are calling for a meeting with Salvini, Di Maio, and Conte to try to see where this government actually stands, beyond Salvini’s rhetoric.
But all this creates another dynamic: It only seems to embolden Salvini further and make his far-right League party perform better in polls. It’s now polling at around 29 percent of the electorate, tied with the Five Star Movement, having polled just around 18 percent in the elections. Salvini will push and push until there are new elections, which he hopes the right-wing will win with enough votes to govern without forming a coalition.
Salvini may admire Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, but when it comes to taking all the oxygen in the room, he seems inspired by Trump, with some Silvio Berlusconi thrown in. It’s the vicious circle: We in the press can’t not write about what Salvini says because he’s basically running the country, but the more we cover him, the more he thrives on lambasting the mainstream media for reporting on him and on criticism of him.
Saviano, the journalist and commentator and longstanding Salvini critic, is the best known of the almost 200 journalists living under police escort in Italy. In a message, he told me he wasn’t afraid of Salvini—and didn’t want to fall into Salvini’s trap. Italy has so many journalists under protection because of organized crime. “Instead of freeing journalists from the dangers they face, Matteo Salvini, the interior minister, threatens them,” Saviano wrote me. Salvini had mentioned lifting the police protection to save money, to which Saviano responded that the League had some questions to answer about its own finances, after its bank accounts were frozen in an investigation into illegal party financing.