When in Rome: Rehabilitating Mussolini

Tuesday, American Thinker revisited its glory days as a repository for thoughtful conservative commentary, posting an article on the Second Amendment by my friend Steve McCann. Apparently sensing the need to counterbalance an actual conservative voice in their midst with an extra helping of the grassroots’ new post-conservative mood — populist nationalism — they also ran an apology for Benito Mussolini.

No, that’s not a joke, a typo, or a bad dream. To be clear, I am the last person to object to an honest reassessment of orthodox opinion on any subject whatsoever, such open-mindedness being the precondition of learning. But Paul Gottfried’s peculiarly titled essay, “Exonerating Mussolini?” aroused my interest for the simple reason that I was quite certain, from the moment I read that title, exactly what the article would be: a proxy defense, albeit a speculative one, of Donald Trump. I was not disappointed.

In fact, it is not only a defense of Trump, but something much bolder, as Professor Gottfried — creator of the term “paleoconservative” and co-originator, along with his protégé Richard Spencer, of the concept “alt-right” — implicitly adopts a position that I suspect we’ll see much more often, and much more explicitly, in the coming months, namely a willing embrace of all the concerns expressed by the anti-Trump nightmare scenarists about the danger of a Trump presidency devolving into a quasi-fascist strongman regime. “So what if that does happen?” Gottfried seems to be saying to his readers. After all, the fascist strongman Trump most resembles, and to whom he is most frequently compared, is Mussolini, and the real Duce wasn’t all that bad, now was he?

Yes, it has come to this. 

Gottfried’s scholarly position, developed over years, is that fascism may be justly detached from its ugly associations with Hitler, who was not a “genuine” fascist. Furthermore, that fascism was a historically particularized movement, isolated to the years between the two world wars, and hence cannot properly be ascribed as an ideology to any modern politician, since it was not, strictly speaking, an ideology at all, but rather a violent reaction against Bolshevism, i.e., the progressive left.

Implicit in all this, and a major motive of the argument, is that many of the elements that are often misrepresented as “fascism” are in fact merely legitimate, or at least understandable, alternative positions for an anti-leftist to take, and specifically as a kind of tactical over-compensation for the excesses of the left. It is therefore easy to see how this thinking — separated from the fascist label that Gottfried argues is an anachronistic distraction promoted by leftists and neoconservatives — lends itself to making joint cause with Trump’s alt-right base, which Gottfried (along with his estranged protégé Spencer) has explicitly done — and which he implicitly does in his American Thinker article, which I have described as a proxy defense of Trump.

Here, then, are a few representative — and I would say not just representative but definitive — statements from Gottfried’s essay, in the order in which they appear:

In an interview with the British Spectator last summer, Steve Bannon said he was “fascinated by Mussolini,” whom he clearly admires for some of his accomplishments.

[This is the article’s opening sentence. But why is Bannon’s opinion relevant? Of course, it is because Bannon said this “last summer,” i.e., while still a high-ranking member in good standing of Trump’s inner circle.]

Neither Farrell nor Bräuninger [authors of two biographies of Mussolini that Gottfried chooses to isolate as valuable] has added to our screeds against “fascism,” and both explore why Mussolini had such magnetic appeal in the interwar period.

[Anti-fascist sentiment is just one of our “screeds,” a polemical distraction, and therefore not useful in assessments of Mussolini the “magnetic” leader.]

Although in November 1938 Mussolini imitated his German ally by introducing disabilities against Italian Jews and expelling Jewish members from the Partito Nazionale Fascista, before that Jews had been welcome in both the Italian fascist government and Italian public life. (Mussolini’s longtime mistress, press agent, and biographer, Margherita Sarfatti, was Jewish.)

[You see, even the actual evils that may be pinned on Il Duce are mere peccadilloes, positions into which he was duped, rather than expressions of his real beliefs. After all, he even had a Jewish mistress! So, need I add, did Nazism’s most impressive apologist, Martin Heidegger.]

Fascists were carrying out a “national revolution” that would be built on specifically Italian and Roman traditions.

[Make Italy Great Again!]

Italian fascism never reached the level of brutality and totalitarian control characteristic of German Nazism.

[Well, there’s exoneration for you! Not as brutal and totalitarian as the Nazis! The same might be said of Genghis Khan, of course, but that’s nitpicking.]

At least in its outward form, the fascist economy would be structured on a corporate model in which all working and managing groups would be assigned organizational rules. A fascist Grand Council authorized great national projects, like the construction of public buildings with a distinctive imperial style and the draining of the Pontine Marshes near Rome, which had long been a source of infection.

[Ah, yes, a corporatist economic model with financial entities managed by a central organizer, and with a parallel focus on great public works projects — infrastructure!]

Italian fascism and its Alpha Male leader had admirers well beyond Nazi circles and revolutionary nationalists. Mussolini was a matinee idol, who carried on torrid affairs with women across Europe, including Italian, French, and English nobility.

[“Alpha Male leader” — yes, he really said it. Mussolini’s affairs with international women were not tawdry and immoral, but admirably, enviably “torrid,” as befits the “Alpha Male leader.”]

Despite his socialist upbringing and rants against the bourgeoisie, Mussolini was too much of a man of the right to appeal to an age of internationalist elites and egalitarian, feminist ideology. He glorified virility and warlike attributes, and he built his national revolution on a hierarchy of command culminating in his highly personal and sometimes idiosyncratic rule.

[In other words, yes Mussolini was a progressive in his rhetoric, but essentially he was a “man of the right,” as evidenced by the way he was reviled by globalist elites, egalitarians, and feminists — a mark of honor, as these are groups which Gottfried himself loudly opposes.]

Throughout all this tentatively rose-colored-glasses defense of Mussolini, Donald Trump’s name is never mentioned. His only direct presence is through the opening citation of his ideological surrogate/gatekeeper, Bannon. But the particular terms of defense emphasized in Gottfried’s account leave no doubt as to the real thrust or intended undercurrent of his essay: The nationalist, populist leader seeking to revive his country’s traditions and pride through a strategic marriage of corporate and government organizational forces, a man of progressive sentiments but right-wing action, disturbing internationalists and elitists alike with his alpha male manner and iconoclastic personal appeal, is mistakenly equated with the more brutal and totalitarian form of strongman (who tends to admire him, much as Hitler admired Mussolini), while in fact being a much-loved man of the people who is likely to be exonerated by future analysts.

You will also notice that apart from Trump’s name being hidden behind thin veils (“Bannon,” “Alpha Male,” “highly personal and sometimes idiosyncratic rule”), there is one other phrase that remains conspicuously absent — a phrase commonly associated with Mussolini, and perhaps more precisely identified with him than with any other modern ruler: cult of personality.

Gottfried emphasizes, without explaining, that Mussolini was greatly admired internationally during the interwar period, and was able to maintain his rule over Italy for twenty years. And yet the extensive use of propaganda, with its politically calculated creation of a larger-than-life image for “Il Duce,” is left out of account altogether. It is not hard to understand this omission. For there is no point on which Trump, whom Bannon had high hopes would be the nationalist duce of this American moment, is more obviously similar to Mussolini than in his position as a cult figure, the object of a personal veneration far outstripping any rational assessment of his mind, character, or accomplishments.

Times have changed, of course, and with them our expectations of a nationalist leader. Trump’s “torrid affairs” are with second-rate models and porn stars rather than aristocrats. His authoritarian control of corporate enterprises comes more in the form of public threats, favoritism, and tariffs than outright fascistic power-grabs.

But the essence remains consistent: A man with an idiosyncratic style of rule appeals to people over the heads of the societal elite by combining socialistic tendencies with paternalistic promises of a return to national greatness; an alpha male despised by feminists and the politically correct strikes a chord with those who swoon at tough talk, and lust for a man who will “stand up for the little guy”; and a man to be admired for his accomplishments, in spite of the regrettable rough edges of his manner, is exactly the type of man needed to resist the encroaching socialist hordes threatening his nation.

This is an intellectual’s attempt to justify his support for Trump in the most dangerous manner possible, namely by implicitly placing Trump within the tradition of anti-republican strongman leaders, while simultaneously diluting the traditional negative judgment of such leaders, and particularly of the exemplar of such leaders who is most superficially similar to Trump. It is not hard to see how such rationalizations would become a means of exonerating Trump himself (at least in one’s own mind) in the event that his obvious taste for the vanity aspects of authoritarian technique should develop into a more direct form of authoritarian practice.

For what is left out of Gottfried’s political theory, as well as of his (or anyone else’s) defense of Trump, is constitutionality, i.e., America understood as a constitutional republic grounded in the rule of law and individual rights. All is supportable, in theory, if it defies the left — just as with the historical fascists Gottfried seems intent on rehabilitating, however tenuously. In this regard, Gottfried’s “paleoconservatives” are guilty of the same intellectual offense as they are wont to ascribe to their archenemies, the neoconservatives, namely a use of bugbears and bogeymen to justify political overreach. The only difference is whether the overreach is globalist or nationalist in nature and intention.

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