Italy Wrestles With Dark Side of Salvini's Anti-Migrant Campaign

(Bloomberg) -- Rolling Stone magazine made the cover of its Italian edition a protest against populism last month.

Bold rainbow-colored stripes signified its support for the full spectrum of sexual and racial diversity while inside a raft of local celebrities signed a petition against Matteo Salvini, the firebrand deputy prime minister who’s risen to prominence by stirring up hatred against outsiders.

“We are not with Salvini,” the cover line said. “Anyone who doesn’t speak up is an accomplice.” Christian Family, a religious magazine, called him “Satan.”

But Rolling Stone and its allies are increasingly finding themselves on the wrong side of the argument in Italy as Salvini reshapes the political landscape, bringing ideas once considered beyond the pale into the national debate.

He proposed a register of Romany people -- an unconstitutional idea that never got off the ground -- and rejected Italy’s humanitarian responsibility for migrants, refusing to let rescue ships dock despite the mounting death toll in the Mediterranean.

Trump’s Playbook

Like Donald Trump, who wrote the playbook for a new generation of populists, Salvini is a charismatic presence on social media who has cultivated an image as an everyday Joe -- while pledging to put Italians first and ranting against outsiders, whether they are Brussels bureaucrats or African migrants.

“I respond to hatred and disdain with forgiveness,” Salvini said on Twitter in response to the Rolling Stone cover. His spokesman didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking further comment.

It’s working.

Salvini’s supporters say that mainstream politicians have ignored their concerns for years and they finally have a leader who understands them. Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement, with 33 percent, got almost twice as many votes as Salvini’s League in March’s general election. Now polls show the two parties are practically tied at around 30 percent support.

But Salvini’s disregard for the normal limits of political discourse has also seen him accused of fueling a culture of hatred that has led to a string of attacks on black people in Italy.

Condemnation for Salvini

Athlete Daisy Osakue was the latest victim, injured last week when she was hit by an egg thrown from a passing car by three young Italian men. Last month, a 19-year-old waiter from Senegal was beaten and insulted by a group of diners at a restaurant in Sicily, a young Roma girl was shot in the back in Rome and near Venice, in the northeast, a worker from Cape Verde was shot at work.

Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who led the center-left Democratic Party to defeat in March’s election, called Osakue’s attackers “lousy racists” in a Tweet. While there’s no data on racist attacks in Italy, Renzi said the recent sequence of assaults is a crisis for the country.

“Attacks against people with different color skin are an EMERGENCY,” he wrote. “NO ONE can deny the evidence, especially not if they are sitting in government.”

“That’s hilarious,” Salvini wrote in a Facebook post, adding a smiley emoticon.

Serious Threats

The challenge for Salvini’s opponents is how to tackle him without playing into his hands.

The deputy prime minister thrives on conflict and favors personal jibes rather than serious policy debate which makes him difficult to pin down, said Arianna Ciccone, founder of Italy’s journalism festival. He intersperses his political comments with snapshots of himself eating pizza or going to the park and that helps voters to identify with him.

“He is childish, provocative and contemptuous,’’ Ciccone said. “He aims to draw attention away from problems, or to attract interest in highly emotional topics like immigration.”

During a recent trip to southern region of Calabria, Salvini posted pictures of his post-jog refueling -- a large croissant and whipped cream typical of the region. In Tuscany Salvini took a swim in the pool of a villa seized from a gangster family, and sent “a big hug” to Roberto Saviano, a popular Mafia writer who labeled his immigration policy nasty.

Light-hearted fun? Saviano has faced death threats from the Mafia since publishing an expose of organized crime in 2006. In June, Salvini threatened to withdraw his police protection.

850 People Drowned

His main focus though is immigration.

Salvini backs up his decision to close Italian ports to rescue ships posting videos of allegedly dangerous migrants who have reached Italy, while his easygoing manner draws a veil over some of the consequences of his tough-guy policies.

“He is the family man who shares puppy stories on Facebook,’’ said Sofia Ventura, a professor of political science at Bologna University. “You would never think a dad who could be your neighbor would harm African kids.’’

And yet more than 850 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean since Salvini took office, according to the International Organization for Migration, most of them in the seas between Libya and Italy. That’s a 27 percent jump on last year and the first annual increase since August 2017.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.