Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Trump and the Lessons of the Rise of Benito Mussolini

by Nomad

Comparing Donald Trump to some of the more infamous dictators of the past is pretty standard fare nowadays. However, without even mentioning Trump by name, one blogger, Quintus Curtius, in an interesting blog post has made a few fascinating points about the Italian fascist Mussolini and the series of events that put him in absolute control.

The article begins:
Stalin biographer Stephen Kotkin spends several pages of his book discussing the lessons to be learned from Mussolini’s seizure of power in Italy in the early 1920s. It was something that happened gradually, in stages, when institutions that should have been able to bring him to heel did nothing, either due to their own lack of resolution or tacit support of his power grab.
A power grab can come in many forms. The most audacious is the violent seizure of power. Generals get together and plot to remove the elected representative in the middle of the night.
A classic usurpation of representative government by force.

Yet, in the cases of both Mussolini and Hitler, there was no coup d'etat, no military overthrow. It was somewhat more subtle. Perfectly legal methods- elections, parliamentarian process- were maintained right up until the point they became an obstacle for the dictator.
And then they were discarded forever.

As the writer of the article points out, when Mussolini marched on Rome his 20,000 blackshirts parading around the city, it was a pro-forma display of power. He had already been promoted prime minister. He had been installed as the nation's leader - despite all of the warnings- "by the existing powers, who thought they could use him for their own ends."

It was a colossal misjudgment of the monarchy, the army, the church, and big business. And of course, his mesmerized supporters.  

But the rise of a dictator depends on one more, generally overlooked, factor. The ineptitude and lack of imagination of the dictator's political opponents.
It is, indeed, a puzzle. In a Republic, what is the most appropriate way to confront autocrat who had been installed through more-or-less democratic means?

When one of Mussolini's most outspoken political opponents, Giacomo Matteotti, was brutally murdered in gangland style,(abducted, stuffed into the trunk of a car, stabbed repeatedly and dumped outside of Rome) it should have spelled the end to the fascist's career.
The fact that it did not was a tragedy for the nation. The king failed to force the issue, failed to demand Mussolini's resignation. Despite anti-fascist demonstrations in the streets and calls for general strikes, the dictator was able to establish himself as the bringer of stability.
The author of the blog post observes another fatal blunder committed by Mussolini's opposition. In the belief they could force his resignation, the opposition parties walked out in protest. On January 3, 1925, in a dramatic speech, Mussolini dared them to either remove him from office or indict him.
But nothing happened. By exposing his opponents as all talk and no action, he successfully called their bluff. He also refused to permit the deputies who had boycotted the session to return to the Chamber. By the middle of January, it was clear he had won; all political parties except the fascists were outlawed and Italy was on its way to becoming a dictatorship.
It was a supreme failure of will and determination. And from that point on right up until he died at the hands of the mob in April 1945, Mussolini was free to rule as he liked regardless of the law.

A Time of Painful Disillusionment

For democratic-minded citizens, the rise of a dictatorship is an emotionally traumatizing experience. A living nightmare begins when all of the things we have always believed to be true are suddenly found to be only illusionary. 
All of the checks and balances and safeguards that they once believed made this nation immune to autocracy are casually laid to waste right before their astonished eyes, Maybe that kind of thing happens in other countries, they once whispered, not in my country.

This effect was brought home in Sinclair Lewis' 1935 political novel "It Can't Happen Here." The author had heard Americans in ivory towers look at the rise of fascism in Europe and smugly shrug.
In that book, demagogic President Buzz Windrip manipulates public opinion by promising drastic economic and social reforms. His policy will make America great again through a return to patriotism and "traditional" values. 
Lewis describes President Windrip like this:
He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts -- figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.
Like Mussolini and Hitler, the fictional president takes complete control of the government and imposes a plutocratic/totalitarian rule with the help of a ruthless paramilitary force, (a la Erik Prince's Blackwater USA.)
As president, Windrip orders troops to invade Mexico. Political opponents are herded into concentration camps, while a flood of refugees flee across the border to Canada.
In the 1930s, when Hitler and Mussolini became household names, Lewis' book became a runaway bestseller. Today, the novel is practically forgotten.

Miscalculating Enablers

Is this merely alarmist talk? Quintus Curtius writes:
On the political scene today, it is clear that some power elites believe that they can use unscrupulous, amoral demagogues for their own ends. They know very well that such demagogues are amoral, lacking in restraint, and totally unsuited for office. Yet they do not care; they believe they can use the venality and stupidity of the demagogue for their own selfish ends, and for the ends of those who support them. In this they are mistaken.
The very people who think they will be able to benefit from an autocrat's reign will very like in time become his victims.
By putting partisan, factional considerations ahead of the national interest, they reveal themselves to be men without moral courage. They will find out, all too soon, just how serious was the mistake they have made. And it is the public that will suffer, just as it was the Italian people of the 1940s who suffered for the venality and crimes of their leaders.
And it need not have happened. Even before Hitler came on the scene, trail-blazing Mussolini could have been removed from office.
Mussolini was a con artist, a fraud, and a liar, but he would never have taken power had not the powerful elites in Italy looked the other way and collaborated with him for their own selfish purposes.
The message is pretty clear. Never think the worst case scenario cannot happen. It can. Never think the defense of the Republic should be left to somebody else. It will be your problem before you know it.Never trust institutions to withstand the pressure. The rule of law will have never been tested in such a way before.  

Believe it or not, these trusted checks on power could very well crumble in no time at all. You -and everybody who thinks like you- will be saying "He's not allowed to do that. It's unconstitutional!"

By that time, it might be too late. As history shows us, when the windows of opportunity close, no amount of prying will open them again.