LAST WEEK a federal appeals court judge compared the inauguration of George W. Bush to the ascensions of both Hitler and Mussolini, his point being that all three took power legally but were / are illegitimate office holders. "That is what the Supreme Court did in Bush v. Gore; it put somebody in power," Judge Guido Calabresi told an audience at the American Constitution Society in Washington. "The reason I emphasize that is because that is exactly what happened when Mussolini was put in by the king of Italy. That is what happened when Hindenburg put Hitler in."
Soon after his remarks came to light, Calabresi apologized in writing for how his "rather complicated legal argument" had been misinterpreted as political partisanship. Poppycock. His remarks can't be interpreted any other way. The judge (a former dean of Yale Law School appointed to the federal bench by President Clinton) was obviously sounding a clarion a call to the ballot boxes this September, hoping to replace the current president.
But let's not quibble. Instead, let's take his original comments at face value and indeed recall just how and why Mussolini took power a full ten years before Hitler. The lessons to be derived aren't exactly what Judge Calabresi intended.
BENITO MUSSOLINI was born in 1883 in a small northern Italian town. His father was a blacksmith, his mother a schoolteacher, both of them Catholic Church-hating socialists, which explains why they named their first son after a hero of the Mexican revolution, Benito Juarez, and their second after a medieval heretic, Arnold of Brescia.
Trained as a schoolteacher, Mussolini moved to Switzerland to find work. But instead of teaching, he studied Marx, met up with socialist revolutionary groups, and honed his writing and speaking skills. Two years later he returned home a changed man--a hothead devoted only to abandoning Italy's liberal constitution and redistributing its wealth. Too many had too little to eat, he said, blaming King Victor Emmanuel III.
Mussolini stood on street corners and shouted that Italy's war with Turkey and its 1911 invasion of Libya were an imperial grab meant to distract the people from their hunger. He organized and led protests, some of them violent, and was jailed. That made him a martyr and, when he was released, a hero of the left. As a reward, Avanti, the newspaper of Italy's socialist party, named him editor. This was where he earned a national reputation, for his nasty editorials against the government. He was a socialist, not an anarchist, but he also showed contempt for democracy, believing that most people were too stupid to know what was in their own best interests and that they were anyway too ignorant to choose their own best leaders.
WORLD WAR 1 began in 1914 with Italy declaring neutrality. That was the position Italian socialists liked best; they claimed that the fighting only enriched the established manufacturing class at the expense of the workers and the soldiers--who were usually, of course, from the same class. But then England, France, and Russia began enticing Italy to their side by promising a piece of Austria-Hungary as spoils.
Now Mussolini was suddenly not so much a socialist as a nationalist--a man who, like Garibaldi before him, envisioned a greater unified Italy. To rationalize his about-face, he claimed the fighting would create a power vacuum into which socialist revolutionary change always flowed. But the publishers of Avanti were having none of that, and fired him. So with money from French businessmen who wanted Italy to fight on their side, he founded his own newspaper, Il Popolo d'Italia (The People of Italy)--which led the Italian socialist party to excommunicate him. What finally made the matter moot was Italy's joining the war, essentially as a mercenary force. Mussolini, now 32, was drafted.
A year and a half later, Corporal Benito Mussolini was badly wounded when a weapon he planned to fire exploded prematurely. The months he spent in a hospital bed gave him plenty of time to imagine his ideal Italy, and in his imagination it looked nothing like a socialist Italy. Not even the success of Lenin in Russia later that year changed his mind. No, Mussolini was now entirely a nationalist.
So, like millions of Italians, Mussolini shouted angrily when the war ended and the Allies reneged on their promise by ceding much less land as spoils than Italy had expected. The betrayal sparked the kind of unrest he'd once predicted would be created by the war. It was in this atmosphere that the writer and soldier Gabriele D'Annunzio, who'd done much to convince Italy to enter the war in the first place, led a band of black-shirted militant nationals against Fiume in the north, setting up his own quixotic government that lasted for several months.
Of all the fire-breathing Italian demagogues to emerge after the war, only Mussolini articulated, maintained, and sold a vision of Italian nationalism and greatness that the masses could believe. His widest appeal, he realized, would be to the million war veterans; he figured that if he could get their support he could lead all of Italy. Which is why he formed his own political movement known as the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento--Italian Combat Leagues--which soon became known as the Fascist party, its followers called Fascisti. Their uniform was the black shirt--an homage to D'Annunzio--and their primary tactic was the violent disruption of rallies held by other political parties, especially the socialists.
The years 1920 and 1921 were misery in Italy--leftist-led labor strikes, food riots, and full-fledged tax revolts. Life for average Italians became a kind of earthly hell, with the police and army powerless to protect them.
If he had planned it this way, Mussolini couldn't have given himself a more glorious opportunity. He sent out his bands of armed Black Shirts, like hired guns in the Old West, to restore order in the streets and factories. Naturally, his most generous employers were industrialists and big landlords, anxious to again make profits. But on his own, with a wink and a nod from Rome, he also took it upon himself to destroy communist and socialist groups, and left-wing trade unions, most of which were Catholic. That's how his National Fascist Party consolidated its own power, by reducing the power of the Church, the left, and the government. For the elections of 1921, the liberal government even brought the Fascists into an electoral coalition as a way to keep the beast fed, and the Fascists won 35 seats, including one by Mussolini himself. Government ministers, and King Victor Emmanuel, hoped Mussolini would be happy with what he'd achieved, and they planned to continue using his Black Shirts to put down threats from the left. But the left never stopped trying to incite revolution, so with the government unable defeat them, that job fell to the Fascists.
WHAT DID the average Italian man want? Not revolution. No, he wanted only to earn a decent living and to drink wine and make love to his wife under a warm roof that didn't leak. He wanted life to be bearable again and orderly--for the trains to run on time--and by promising that, Mussolini was like Spartacus two thousand years before, his army of admirers and followers growing with every battle won. When he stood before the cheering throngs at Fascist rallies, they called out "Il Duce"--The Leader--because that's what he was to them, the man who would lead them out of turmoil and despair.
Throughout 1922, several parliamentary governments were formed and quickly collapsed under the weight of unrest and uncertainty. Then came October. In the lengthening shadows and falling leaves, tens of thousands of black-shirted Fascists gathered from all over Italy and descended on Rome, an occupying force awaiting word from its commanding general. Mussolini threatened Victor Emmanuel with all-out civil war if the king didn't name him, Il Duce, to lead the next government. In response, Emmanuel began mobilizing his army against the Fascists--martial rule. But his ministers and generals said that that would be madness, and convinced him to appease Mussolini by making him prime minister of a coalition government; that, they said, would defuse the situation.
Over the next five years, under the guise of law and order, Mussolini whittled away at the constitution. In 1924, a leading socialist deputy was found murdered, with no one claiming responsibility but no one denying it, either; the man was, after all, a leftist. In the same way, all opposition parties and leaders were harassed and threatened by Mussolini's secret police, and soon the press was ordered to endorse the governmental position or face the consequences. Whatever outrage there was dribbled out in whispers, because the factory workers and the landlords and the moneyed interests were more content; the average man could again work at a job that paid him a little, not too much, but enough for a bottle of wine and a bowl of pasta and a warm place to make love to his wife, and Italy was once again a unified country.
YOU CAN FILE THE LESSONS of Mussolini's rise under "H" for Hegel, the idea that extreme movements always beget extreme counter forces. It was the far left, by relentlessly chipping away at the foundations of Italian life, that gave birth and power to the far right--as it did a decade on when Hitler rode nearly the same path under similar circumstances.
This is what seems most pertinent today, as "activist" groups like Moveon.org and demagogues like Michael Moore and angry men like Al Gore and George Soros rail so irrationally against both the president (comparing him to Hitler and Mussolini in a variety of contexts) and the structures of daily American life, including the legally adjudicated Supreme Court decision that ultimately decided the 43rd presidency in advance of a tedious recount that would've yielded the same outcome.
As it turns out, Judge Calabresi's intemperate comparison was indeed useful, though with an irony he didn't intend. Either this November or in four years, George W. Bush is going to be turned out of office; even the judge agrees with that. Someday, though, a populace provoked by the left's constant fire-breathing may look for a dragon slayer who won't go quite so easily.
Joel Engel is an author and journalist in Southern California.