Fascism from Italy to Hibbing and back again

September 27, 2022 6:00 am

Reverence for Mussolini extended from Italy to Italian-American enclaves, including on Minnesota's Iron Range. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.

In 2018, I traveled 4,000 miles to interview a man named Victor Befera about our shared hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. Vic was 92 then. He’s still kicking at 96. Though he spent most of his life as a successful newspaper and marketing man in northern California, Vic grew up on the Mesabi Iron Range in the 1930s. His father, Delmo Befera, fled the poverty of his native Italy at the dawn of the 20th century, eventually arriving in Hibbing. 

Delmo told Vic once that — facing starvation in the 1890s — he had eaten a cat. Though his dad was sheepish about the matter, Vic was in awe of his father’s mysterious journey to America and blabbed the cat story to all his friends.

In school, Vic disturbed his art teacher with his choice of subject. As other children molded busts of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Joe DiMaggio, young Vic sculpted a likeness of Benito Mussolini. His father loved Mussolini. Indeed, in those days, the large Italian-American population of the Iron Range mostly shared Delmo’s reverence for the Italian founder of the Fascist movement.

In 1926, the year Vic was born, Herman Antonelli, a prominent Italian leader on the Iron Range, spent seven months back in Italy after 34 years in America. He returned with a Fascist party button on his lapel and glowing reviews of the order and industry he saw in the new Italy.

“The people are permanently converted to the spirit of Fascism,” Antonelli told the Hibbing Daily News in a 1926 story. “Probably 70 percent of the Italian population [follows] that belief. People are almost fanatical over it. Mussolini has built the machinery of Fascism and it will remain as powerful when he is gone.”

Notably, Antonelli’s description of early Fascism centered on how the movement made Italians feel, not how it solved problems. 

“One of the things that appealed to [Antonelli],” paraphrased the Daily News in a May 17, 1926 editorial, “is that Mussolini keeps everybody at work and he has a line of talk that tends to make them satisfied with their condition. The wages are not to be compared to those of the United States, of course, but your Italian is a homemaker, prudent, careful and always wants to be busy with something of a constructive nature, and that is what the Italian dictator is doing for them.”

American wages were nothing special in the 1920s, providing only a fraction of the buying power of modern wages. Italians of the time, like many in Europe, were barely surviving. That’s why hungry people — hungry enough to eat a cat — turned to Mussolini’s Fascism, an incendiary force that pitted powerless groups against one another, inspired the Nazis in Germany and even threatened to take hold in the United States. 

For early 20th century Italians, the appeal of Fascism far outweighed its violent warning signs. When rumors of assassination attempts against Mussolini abounded in the mid-1920s, his Fascist supporters rioted in the streets. To preserve order, Mussolini stationed guards around opposition party headquarters and pro-democracy newspapers. This was to “protect” them. When someone did attempt to kill Mussolini, all hell broke loose. The Fascists became stronger and more brazen each time efforts to oust them failed. 

Italian-American labor organizer Carlo Tresca, who had once organized unions in Minnesota, wrote a satirical play about one of the attempts on Mussolini’s life. He alleged that the would-be assassin was actually working for Mussolini, a widespread theory at the time. In 1943, a New York mafioso killed Tresca, on Fifth Avenue no less, as a favor to Mussolini.

In authoritarian societies, citizens face the obvious constraints of police and military patrols, but also the mob justice of political fanatics who never face legal consequences for criminal behavior. And then, of course, there are the whispers of spies who might number among your acquaintances. Better, then, to keep your head down. Lo and behold, such caution keeps any community quiet at night. Such was the original brand of Fascism in the 1920s, and so it would be replicated elsewhere ever since.

The cat came back

Victor Befera’s dad died in 1941, months before Pearl Harbor. Vic told me he wondered how his father would have squared his admiration for Mussolini with the events of World War II and revelations about the atrocities of the Nazis and their allies. As it was, Vic and his older brother enlisted to fight for the United States against the forces of international fascism. 

But defeating fascist armies isn’t the same as eradicating fascist ideology. The notion of strong men providing order and protection against the outside world lingers within the deep tissue of society, like chicken pox. Whenever there is tumult, it comes back stronger than before.

And we have seen quite some tumult. 

In his new book, “Slouching Toward Utopia,” economist Brad DeLong argues that “the 140 years from 1870 to 2010 of the long twentieth century were, I strongly believe, the most consequential years of all humanity’s centuries.” Dylan Matthews interviewed the author for a Sept. 7 Vox piece.

We can be skeptical of the claim, given how few detailed accounts from 22,345 B.C. survived to the present. But DeLong makes the point that the technological advances of this period were unparalleled in human history. On the bright side, these advances made it much easier to afford food and survive disease. Such rapid change also puts enormous pressure on old systems, however — stress that troubles our slow-to-adapt human bodies and minds. 

The gap between rich and poor became more pronounced during this century, creating and then reinforcing class structure among both the poor and the privileged.

Along the way, the corporation has only grown bigger, stronger and less beneficial to humanity. Today’s largest companies, like Google, Meta and Amazon, don’t even produce tangible products. They spy on us, and then sell troves of the data they collect to advertisers, who then use that data to sell us things we usually don’t need. 

We see the effects on the environment. Globally, ecosystems are changing faster than can be explained by nature. Here in my northern Minnesota we celebrate the reclaimed iron ore mine dumps, lined with lush, green trees and bike trails. It’s an accomplishment, to be sure, but we seldom mention that they cover the beds of rivers that no longer flow — and the bones of animals who live elsewhere now, if at all.

We may not be eating cats or breathing coal-choked air, but economic and environmental fears grip us, and we lay our heads on pillows of anxiety each night.

Perhaps this is why a poor Italian born in the 19th century might become a fascist in 1922, and why that worldview holds just as much sway today. The perception of scarce resources, whether true or not, suggests that some chosen category of “winners” must defeat and destroy “losers” in order to survive. When people see power as the means and the ends, then the logical outcome is fascism. Its sad conclusion is that there isn’t enough for everyone; that some must die and that their fate is deserved.

Last month, I said goodbye to my sister as she flew back to Italy where she and her partner live. Our unwieldy U.S. immigration system prevents them from both finding work here. We discussed the fact that she’s flying into a country poised to elect a far-right government led by the “Brothers of Italy.” On Sunday, Giorgia Meloni’s coalition won big, electing the most far-right government in Italy since Mussolini. 

Indeed, Meloni’s Fratalia d’Italia party occupies the same part of the political spectrum as Mussolini’s black-shirted Facisisti. European journalists use the term “post-fascist” to describe this movement, which leaves me post-confused about the post-meaning of post-words. 

The burning torch at the center of the party’s logo is the same one from the party formed by Mussolini’s surviving allies after his death. Meloni herself praised Mussolini — and other strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin — before walking those comments back during the campaign. Her policy priorities might sound familiar: Scaling back rights for the LGBT community; stopping immigration; and banning reproductive choice for women. 

It’s more than symbolic that what began in Italy has now returned. In a fast-changing world, far-right politics become a bastion for the change-weary. We see this around the globe right now — in Brazil, India, Hungary and among the increasingly fanatical views of former President Trump’s most zealous supporters. Sometimes the politics swing back to the center or left, but other times those who see the opportunity to create autocracy cannot resist. 

Bear in mind, this isn’t about lionizing President Biden or the left. The Democratic Party can’t solve all our problems. But neither party can advance democratic solutions if one party refuses to participate in democracy. What began as political gamesmanship has evolved into something far more dangerous, replete with warning signs of grassroots authoritarianism.  

Police state

Much has already been written about the militarization of local police and sheriff’s departments. As officers increasingly prepare for war we should not be surprised to see warlike casualties and collateral damage. That’s not to dismiss rising concerns over crime. Drugs and stolen goods represent an enormous, highly consequential part of our economy, and these issues require action.

So let’s be clear. Being “tough on crime” is not fascist, even if it involves more police officers patrolling the streets. 

But a militarized police department that operates independently of its citizenry in service of an ideology? That could become fascist quickly, if it isn’t already. Many American police and sheriff’s departments, including some here in Minnesota, seem perilously close to crossing this line. 

Investigations into the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol have revealed a network of affiliations between organizations like the Oath Keepers and both leaders and officers in law enforcement agencies. That’s not criminal; but it’s deeply concerning. 

As local sheriff elections take place this fall, note the rise of the term “constitutional sheriff.” The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies this concept as part of a larger antigovernment, county supremacy movement that recently picked up steam in response to gun control and COVID-19 restrictions. (There’s no historical or constitutional scholarship to support the notion that sheriffs can dispense with laws they don’t like.)

I live in Itasca County in north central Minnesota, a place that includes the western Mesabi Iron Range. Our outgoing sheriff, Vic Williams, publicly identified himself as a “constitutional sheriff” in 2013, refusing to enforce laws or orders that he perceives as in violation of the Second Amendment. He was re-elected twice. 

Now he’s retiring, and the two candidates who seek to replace him, though supportive of Second Amendment rights, very carefully acknowledged the statutory limits of the office they seek in a Sept. 1 story in the (Nashwauk, Minn.) Scenic Range News Forum.

But that wasn’t true of one sheriff candidate in neighboring St. Louis County, which includes most of the Iron Range and Duluth. Though former Duluth police chief Gordon Ramsay and undersheriff Jason Lukovsky won the primary, third-place finisher Chad Walsh is now mounting a write-in campaign. Walsh, a police officer and gun range owner, campaigned openly as a “constitutional” candidate.

This philosophy — that a local sheriff has more power than the state or federal government — is extremely radical, and can be used to justify almost anything. The fact that it’s bubbling so close to the surface is evidence of a perilous political situation.

Look at the imagery of right-wing iconography you see on T-shirts and bumper stickers and hats: tattered flags, skulls, winking nods to violence. It’s the imagery of dystopia, fear and, to a lesser extent, pirates. This is what you see at small town ballgames and gas stations. 

No, such images are not displayed by all. But such movements need only nibble around the edges of a majority until they have the ability to take everything. Neither the Fascismo in Italy nor the Nazis in Germany won a majority of the votes when they took power. That came later, after they used state authority to weaken their opposition and the infrastructure of democracy and civil society.

Here we have to look at the behaviors of historic fascism: Widespread dissemination of propaganda; destroying faith in elections, weakening the rule of law; vilifying minority groups as threats to the majority; tolerating violence and threats by civilians who support the regime; and, purging the public service of citizens who do not support the movement’s ideology.

Listen, I get that “both sides” can reach for examples of these things, but today’s Republican Party — still under the control of former President Trump — demonstrates this pattern with far more regularity and strategic intent. Of course not all conservatives are fascists. But the Republican Party hasn’t prioritized conservative policy solutions for more than a decade. Instead it has — like Italians 100 years ago — embraced the appeal of cultural authoritarianism in the face of widespread social change. 

Republicans freed from the constraints of keeping power see this. Outgoing Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers warned recently that some Republican election proposals would devastate American political norms. One bill that would have allowed state legislatures to appoint presidential electors regardless of the election outcome particularly troubled Bowers. He didn’t mince words when he told CNN, “Welcome to fascism,” if the bill had become law. 

Unfortunately, only Republicans comfortable with losing primaries or planning to retire seem able to say this. 

Former GOP operative Tim Miller talks about this phenomenon in his book “Why We Did It: A travelogue from the Republican road to Hell.” He spoke to Michelle Griffith for a Sept. 16 interview in the Reformer.

He watched friends stick with Trump and the Republican Party even when they privately admitted that things were getting out of hand. Why? It became the only way to keep enough power to keep their jobs and achieve other goals. 

For his part, Miller suggests trying to welcome people back into the fold of basic democracy.

“If we’re ever going to stop this continuing complicity with evil things, we need to figure out how to get people to walk away from the darkness,” said Miller. “You can’t get people to walk away until you figure out why they’re there in the first place.”

Iron fist

Like the renewed fascist symbolism of Italy’s new government, politicians in America rekindle fascist images like the iron fist. President Trump hailed Chinese dictator Xi Jinping for ruling with “an iron fist,” and celebrated a Massachusetts candidate for governor who promised to do the same. Historian Michael Beschloss draws a straight line between these comments and the original fascist philosophy of Mussolini.

This spirit of the iron fist remains a powerful force across the globe, including here in the U.S. and even in our fair state of Minnesota. We may call it by its name — not “semi-fascism,” but the real thing. 

And like a century ago, the most insidious thing about fascism is the ease with which it drapes over the shoulders of people all around us — friends, family, and neighbors — a manic zeal that promises to fill a collective hole in our civic heart. 

Thus it is to us, not just our leaders, to resist appeals to violence and the dangerous cult of personality that saturates our politics. The restoration of independent regional news would go a long way, as would rebuilding trust between communities and police. Our nation is too big, too diverse, and too powerful for anything but wise, inclusive stewardship of our shared interests and resources.

A theocratic, fascist America would become one of the most dangerous and short-lived empires on the planet, rivaled perhaps only by the ugly forces that would follow its destruction.

When I sat across Vic Befera’s kitchen table in 2018, I listened to him recall life on the Iron Range at the dawn of World War II. Men and women worked around the clock in the iron mines to defeat fanatics, liberate occupied nations, and free innocent people from the horrors of concentration camps.

With each frantic turn of the pick and shovel, and each son who enlisted to fight, this place provided meaningful heft to American rhetoric on liberty and freedom. An entire generation returned from Europe transformed. Facism didn’t disappear on its own; the sons and daughters of fascists had to embrace democracy and then fight for it.

You may call the MAGA brand what you like. Populism, semi-fascism, post-fascism or the Big “F” itself: fascism. Fascism is on the ballot this November and every election that follows. Each time, no matter our political beliefs, we must consciously choose to relegate fascism to the history books so that it may not frighten and kill as it has before and would again.


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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.