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.
Read: Berlusconi was Trump before Trump
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.