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Before Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, there was Benito Mussolini


January, 1940 was a weird time in the history of the Second World War. The war had technically begun the previous Sept. 3, when Britain and France declared war against Germany for invading Poland on Sept. 1. But while sporadic incidents between the combatants had broken out, widespread fighting had not yet begun (nor would it for another five months), leading pundits to label it “The Phoney War.”

Italy was not yet in the war. Its Duce, Benito Mussolini, had managed to skirt involvement by tacking between Britain and France, on the one hand, and his erstwhile ally, Germany, on the other. Mussolini wanted war by Germany’s side; he wanted his share of the spoils of war. Yet he understood that the nation he led was not ready for war, militarily, economically or psychologically.

The relationship between Mussolini and Hitler at that time was slowly disintegrating. It had begun well enough, from Mussolini’s point of view, in the 1930s, after Hitler was appointed German Chancellor. Mussolini was then the senior dictator in Europe. Hitler looked to him with great admiration, which Mussolini—always in need of adoration—appreciated. But as Hitler achieved victory after victory in Europe—reoccupying the Rhineland, the Austrian Anschluss, the incorporation of Czechoslovakia into the Reich—Mussolini found himself playing second fiddle. He was no longer the senior dictator.

This was a blow to his pride. On Jan. 3, 1940, in the midst of the Phoney War, Mussolini sent a message to his northern colleague, Hitler, that contained both a warning and a threat. While Hitler hesitated, trying to figure out what to do next, and while various peace initiatives (some of them advanced by Italy) were flying around Europe in the hope of avoiding a catastrophic war, Mussolini gave the Fuhrer some cautionary advice. It was the last time he was able to do so.

“…I, a born revolutionist, who has not modified his way of thinking,” Mussolini wrote, “tell you that you cannot abandon the anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevist [i.e. anti-Communist] banner, which you have been flying for twenty years…you cannot renounce your gospel, in which the German people have blindly believed.” Were Hitler to go back on his pledges, in order to conciliate the pro-peace forces in Europe, or—even worse, were Hitler to reach an accommodation with Soviet Russia–there would be “catastrophic repercussions in Italy.” Mussolini’s avid followers, feeling disappointed and lied to, would desert him in droves; the regime might topple, and the Italian hegemony which Mussolini had promised his people for nearly twenty years would evaporate.

In the end, things did not work out well for the dictators. Hitler, who in 1939 had signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin, eventually heeded Mussolini’s advice and invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941. Mussolini held out from the war for as long as he could, but he finally jumped in, when, on June 10, 1940, he too declared war against the western Allies. Eventually, of course, Italy was forced out of the war and, in April, 1945, Mussolini was captured by his own people and brutally killed. Hitler committed suicide two days later.

What is interesting to note in Mussolini’s warning to Hitler is how similar it is to the situation Donald Trump encountered with his “Mexico will pay for the wall” pledge, when a few rightwing commentators (Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh) warned him that, if he backed down, there would be “catastrophic repercussions” among the Republican-Trump base. That wasn’t the exact phrase they used: Coulter’s wording, for example, was that Trump would be “dead in the water if he doesn’t build that wall. Dead, dead, dead.” Ingraham and Limbaugh made similar noises.

But the upshot was the same in both cases: voices from the extreme Right urged both men—Mussolini and Trump—forward into deeper conservative, troubled waters, in order to preserve the appearance of fidelity to the promises that had elevated both to power. In both cases, both men obeyed; in both cases, both men lost their lives.

Hitler yielded to the implicit threats from his Right with the direst results: Germany not only lost the war, but its very existence as a country. Now we have Donald Trump yielding to the implicit threats from his Right. The debate about the wall continues; the government is shut down; and meanwhile, Mueller and the Southern District of New York continue to close in on Trump, his associates and his family. “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes,” Mark Twain is reputed to have said. Will History rhyme in the cases of Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump? Will Trump, lurching ever further rightward into fascism and authoritarianism, be toppled from power, and perhaps even lose his life? History strongly suggests that Trump is going to meet with an unhappy fate. We can only hope that, as he goes down, he doesn’t drag America along with him.

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