Matteo Salvini, a social-media-savvy populist, Italy’s interior minister, and its deputy prime minister, is the most vivid example of the “Trumpification” of politics in Europe. His League party, known for its tough stance against illegal immigration, may still be the junior partner in Italy’s year-old populist coalition government, but it’s long been clear that Salvini is the one calling the shots. And so his meetings Monday in Washington with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will only strengthen his grip on Italy, and possibly lead to closer ties between Rome and the Donald Trump administration.
The visit may even give Salvini the external support, in optics at least, that he needs to break with his coalition partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, leading to early elections as soon as this fall, in which the League would place first, according to recent polls. That would bring a far-right government to power in the heart of Europe for the first time since World War II, with significant ramifications for European policies on immigration and economics. But even without fresh elections, Salvini is already the one setting the agenda in Italy, and to a certain extent in Europe, where he’s become a beacon for the far right.
His Washington visit is a major coup. Although institutional protocol prevents Salvini from formally meeting Trump—as deputy prime minister, he’ll meet his counterpart, Pence—the visit more than symbolically places Salvini in the company of other “strongmen” who have visited the White House this year: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
In a news conference after his meeting with Pompeo, Salvini said the two discussed “values” and culture, and he made a case for how Italy was more in line with the Trump administration than France and Germany, both controlled by centrist governments, and could be a valuable interlocutor in Europe. “I think Italy is the biggest European country with which the United States can and wants to have a dialogue right now,” Salvini said. This may be grandiloquent, but it’s certainly true that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel aren’t on the same page as Trump.
The Washington visit helps secure Salvini’s power at home and contribute to his image as a strong, responsible statesman. In comparison with Salvini’s formal bilateral meetings in Washington, the head of the Five Star Movement, the senior partner in Italy’s governing coalition, went to France in February to meet with members of the “yellow vest” movement, whose street protests have often turned violent and who have called for Macron’s resignation. The total bypassing of institutional ties led France to call back its ambassador to Italy for a time.
Ahead of Salvini’s trip, there was much speculation in Italy about whether this would be a decisive moment. “He could go as vice premier and come back as a candidate leading a coalition,” Adolfo Urso, a senator from the far-right Brothers of Italy party, which would join such a coalition, told the Italian daily Il Foglio, which is conservative but highly critical of the current Italian government.
A devoted admirer of Trump (and of Russian President Vladimir Putin), Salvini changed his party’s motto to “Italians first” after taking over the leadership of the League in 2013. He’s transformed it from a separatist party that wants more tax autonomy for the wealthier Italian north into a national sovereignist party that has been conquering the center and south of Italy with its message of lower taxes and Italy “for Italians,” and its promises to protect Italy’s borders from what Salvini calls an invasion of illegal immigration.
What the proposed wall with Mexico is to Trump, Italy’s ports are to Salvini, and he’s made a dramatic point of closing them to boats from nongovernmental organizations that have rescued would-be immigrants from drowning at sea. This hard line has made him a point of reference for right-wing politicians across Europe, including the National Rally of Marine Le Pen, in France. Salvini has long admired Le Pen, but in recent months the tables have turned, and she’s now benefiting from his success.
In an interview with Bernard-Henri Lévy in The Atlantic last month, Orbán spoke of his admiration for Salvini and his wish that the Italian deputy prime minister play a larger role in Europe. “He leads a large country. Europe can sanction a little country like Hungary. It wouldn’t dare go after a country like Italy, with 60 million people,” Orbán told Lévy. “Moreover, Italy has a powerful voice. It is standing firm against the migrants—manning the front line.”
Reality doesn’t always match the rhetoric. Salvini is among many European politicians who want European Union states to share the burden of processing asylum seekers, rather than putting the responsibility on the country where they first arrive. Orbán, by contrast, has refused to let Hungary take any in. But these technicalities get lost in the popular imagination.
Salvini’s success, like Trump’s, also stems from the lack of a coherent political opposition. The Italian left is weak and divided, and has struggled to provide a convincing counter-narrative to Salvini’s.
A former talk-radio host and a master communicator on social media and in piazzas, Salvini mixes far-right rhetoric and “common sense” economics, such as calls for lower taxes, with humanizing tweets about food and animals. He posts tons of emojis and likes to sign off with baci and abbracci, or “hugs” and “kisses.” Before leaving for Washington, he tweeted a photo of a balcony with a sign that read, in Italian, Salvini, come up, my husband’s not home, and wrote: “There are balconies and balconies. As long as they don’t incite violence, I like them all, beautiful and ugly. People who take themselves too seriously are sad.” It was a commentary on how people across Italy have been hanging signs from their balconies criticizing Salvini.
Salvini’s relentless campaigning online, on television, and in piazzas across Italy—like Trump, he holds a lot of rallies—helped the League win 34 percent in elections for the European Parliament last month, more than double its showing in national elections a year earlier. The League has also been sweeping regional elections across Italy. At the same time, the Five Star Movement has been collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions; the party drew votes from both left and right with a campaign promise of universal basic income.
Salvini has read Italy’s national mood—anger, economic anxiety, insecurity about cultural identity—and pushed it, becoming the ultimate political “influencer.” He posts nearly all his public appearances to Twitter (1.07 million followers), Instagram (1.5 million followers), and his Facebook page (3.7 million followers), which has more engagement—that is to say, people reacting to his posts—than Trump’s, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool.
The Washington trip was no exception, and produced several Instagrammable moments. Salvini visited the Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial—and posted pictures on his Twitter feed; he also placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, crossing himself afterward. In recent weeks, he has not missed an opportunity to pull out a rosary in front of the cameras, an overt attempt to win over Italians on a “values” platform. Some Catholic Church officials have criticized this as politicizing religion, but Salvini forges on. He knows that image is reality, and his strategy is working.