Notes from the Old Country: Salvini's Surge

During my vacation in Italy these past few weeks, I managed to stay off Twitter and email, I swear. But I wasn’t above giving an occhiata to the local dailies. What jumped out at me most is the astounding political success of Matteo Salvini, leader of the rightwing Lega (“League”) party which currently governs in coalition with the leftish, anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) in what has been called Western Europe’s first “all populist” government. A few observations and a thought..


 

First, of course, Matteo Salvini is not actually the prime minister. Nor is he head of the largest party in parliament (this distinction falls to labor and economic development minister Luigi DiMaio, who heads M5S). But a casual visitor would hardly know it. Salvini, is a ferociously nationalistic, anti-immigrant firebrand who, as interior minister, now runs the show on the ultra-divisive issue of migrant policy. He acts and is covered as though he were in fact “Salvini Premier” (a campaign slogan he still uses in public and on social media.) Simply put, Italian politics revolves largely around him.

His direct language and shrewd use of social media only enhance his public profile, whether the coverage is good or bad. (While I was there he elicited huge outcry by a) quoting Mussolini and b) being portrayed as Satan by a Catholic magazine. All in a week’s work for Salvini.)

Second, Salvini’s limelight role in Italian politics is helping his party immensely. Lega won 17 percent of the vote in March, but since then its support hassurged to more than 30 percent, placing it roughly on equal footing now with M5S. Lega’s growth has come largely at the expense of the exhausted center-right Forza Italia party of Silvio Berlusconi – mirroring the success of other European right-wingers at weakening center-right establishment parties. But Lega’s surge speaks to the larger success that Salvini has had in transforming his party since he took charge in 2013.

The Lega Nord (“Northern League”, as it was then known) was once a regional quasi-secessionist party that looked down on Southerners and considered the tax-taking central government in Rome as its main enemy. But Salvini has rebranded it as a fiercely nationalistic party that looks down on immigrants and sees the EU (particularly its policies on migrants and budget deficits) as its main enemy.  That shift has helped the party to put down deeper roots even in the South, whose people Salvini once openly derided (and in song, at that.)

Coupled with strong support from Northern industrialists and small town middle class folks who like its long-standing anti-tax message, Salvini is building a supple and potentially dominant coalition, with a well-organized party machine that the M5S folks, still newer to the scene, can only dream of.

The big question as Salvini’s personal and party clout grows is whether the somewhat unnatural alliance between Lega and the M5S will turn into a more open rivalry and, in turn, what that might mean for Italy’s economy and its relationship with the EU.

One smaller bonus question that may interest you is: what was Salvini thinking when he did this semi-nude centerfold piece for the Italian magazine Oggi in 2014? (Hat tip to my pal Fede Santi at Eurasia Group for this gem.)

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.