A number of observers were so distressed by Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency they attached the label ‘fascist’ to the New York real estate developer and began to compare him to Benito Mussolini. What should we make of these comparisons?
To begin, the circumstances under which they came to power were vastly different. Trump was elected in conformity with the rules of the more or less democratic American process (the role of Russian intervention is yet to be resolved). In October 1922 Mussolini became Italy’s prime minister following the ‘March on Rome’ and his appointment by King Victor Emmanuel III. This appointment followed three years of turmoil and a campaign of violence waged by Fascist ‘Blackshirts’. The context was one in which there had been threats of a Communist revolution in the center and north of the country involving peasant land seizures and worker occupation of key industries.
Following the murder of a Socialist parliamentary deputy (Giacomo Matteoti) in June 1924, Mussolini and his Fascist followers were able to eliminate Italy’s democratic institutions and transform the country into a dictatorship; one which lasted until 1943, when Il Duce was removed from power by the King and the previously supine Fascist Grand Council. During his campaign for the US presidency, Trump claimed the election was rigged against him and that he might not, in the event he lost, accept the result. It is hard to see, though, what he could have done if this had been the outcome.
Furthermore, Trump and Mussolini came from vastly different backgrounds. The Italian dictator was the son of a poor blacksmith from a small town in Emilia- Romagna whose politics were anarchist and revolutionary. Trump, on the other hand, was the son of a multi-millionaire New York real estate developer whose politics were based largely on personal economic advantage.
Trump attended private schools and eventually graduated, as he likes to boast, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. By contrast, Mussolini was a dropout who started work as a laborer shortly after leaving school. During the pre-World War I years, Mussolini became a Socialist organizer and journalist. In the latter capacity he rose to become the editor of the Party’s newspaper, Avanti! Arguably Mussolini thereafter became a self-taught writer and something of a would-be intellectual steeped in Nietzsche, Sorel and other fin-de-siècle authors. Trump, on the other hand, displays no such interests. He apparently reads little and insists that his staff provide him with information in bullet-point format.
Mussolini volunteered to serve in the Italian military after the country’s entry into the war. He was wounded in a training exercise near the Italian Front. While Trump often expresses admiration for the American military, he personally sought and received student and then medical deferments, rather than join the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
On the other hand, both leaders enjoyed deserved reputations as ‘ladies men’ due to their serial involvements with mistresses. Mussolini was shot to death with his mistress, Clara Petacci, by his side. Trump seems unlikely to suffer a similar fate.
By contrast, their attitudes toward the state could not be more different. Mussolini, and Fascists in general, elevated the state to the central role in Italian society, including the country’s economy. Il Duce used his secret police (OVRA – Organization for the Repression of Anti-Fascism) and other instruments of state power to repress political opponents. For his part, Trump has been engaged in a virtually non-stop conflict with the FBI, the Department of Justice and other instruments of state power since taking office. Trump and his advisers have sought to dismantle the ‘deep state’, while Mussolini sought to strengthen and mythologize Italy’s state – not to mention to deepen its role in Italian life.
In terms of foreign engagement, Mussolini pursued a policy of conquest, aiming to transform Italy into a new Roman Empire, extending to imperial control throughout Southern Europe and North Africa. Trump, his business ventures aside, has sought to reduce America’s role in the world arguing, not unreasonably, that the United States has become over-extended.
Their international reputations also deserve some mention. Until his 1935 invasion of Abyssinia, Mussolini enjoyed a largely popular reputation as a charismatic leader; someone who had brought new energy to a backward and weakly developed nation. Some American writers even compared Mussolini to Teddy Roosevelt. As far as one can tell, Trump is held in especially low esteem by both foreign leaders and their publics, and is often a target of ridicule.
Above all, it is in their personal styles and public appearances that most observers see an affinity. In public both leaders are full of bluster, swagger and frequently issue threats against their perceived opponents, real or imagined. Both Trump and Mussolini present themselves in public as having grand egos, usually accompanied by a need to belittle virtually all who cross their path. Mussolini seems to have had a more colorful and extensive vocabulary than Trump exhibits; the likely result of the latter’s reluctance to read. Both leaders are/were targets of widespread ridicule by popular entertainers, who regard them as figures of fun.
Of course, Mussolini led his country to disaster. Let’s hope Trump does not do likewise for the United States.
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and is Foundation Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. See his profile at:
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