ROME—Italy’s populist coalition government is dominated by Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and deputy prime minister who fills the airwaves and social media with his tough talk on deporting illegal immigrants. Over the weekend, he cited Mussolini—“more enemies, more honor”—on the dictator’s birthday. He’s warned that immigrants are eroding Italy’s security and identity, called for an ethnically based census of non–Italian Roma, and threatened to remove the police protection from a famous journalist and public figure targeted by the Mafia—a man who also happens to be one of Salvini’s most visible critics. He’s a deft communicator and savvy opportunist, and it works. Although his right-wing League party is the junior partner in the coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement that came to power in May, Salvini has set the tone and doubled his party’s standing, with both parties now polling at around 30 percent of the electorate.
But how much does the Italian electorate actually share Salvini’s views on immigration? Italy has deeply conservative tendencies, but its voters also have strong humanitarian impulses and an inclination for realpolitik over ideology. How much of Salvini’s constant tweeting and the video messages he posts on Facebook Live is rhetoric, and how much is real? The rhetoric has begun to do more than shift the tone in Italy, which in recent days has seen a spate of violent attacks on immigrants by Italians. But does this new government reflect a real change in Italian society, especially on questions of immigration, or is it more a matter of the complexities of Italian parliamentary politics, in which small parties can have loud voices, especially if they’re amplified by being in chorus with Donald Trump?