Europe’s most sophisticated populist politician was rising unchallenged, until a flash mob arrived.
BOLOGNA, Italy—About a week ago, 30,000 people showed up in a piazza in this elegant city, known for its porticoes and its tortellini, for a free concert. The event was organized by the Sardines, a nascent civic-minded uprising that has been holding peaceful demonstrations to contest the nativist rhetoric of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s opposition leader and the head of its right-wing League party, a man who dominates airwaves and social media channels with his sovereignist, anti-immigrant message. The atmosphere at the concert was convivial. Many waved cardboard cut-outs of fish and sang along to renditions of “Bella, Ciao,” the old Communist anthem.
Just the day before in nearby Maranello, the home of the Ferrari race car factory, Salvini himself had campaigned in front of the town’s Fascist-era city hall wearing a red Ferrari baseball cap. The League, Salvini told the crowd, was the party of moms and dads and workers, while the left wears “cashmere socks” and “sings ‘Bella Ciao’ with Rolexes on their wrists.” He said he would defend Italy’s borders with his life and “liberate” this part of the country—one of the best-run and wealthiest regions in Italy—from 70 years of left-wing rule.