One hundred years ago — on Oct. 28, 1922 — there occurred one of the most sensational political coups of the 20th century. Benito Mussolini, the up-and-coming leader of the Fascist Party in Italy, directed his followers to march on Rome to demand he be given political power. Some 25,000 to 30,000 did, including some of his “Blackshirts,” his private militiamen who had been resorting to violence to promote the fascist cause.
“Fascists! Italians! The hour of decisive battle has come,” read Mussolini’s proclamation the day before, to be echoed a century later by Donald Trump’s call for followers to come to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.
Luigi Facta, the acting prime minister of Italy at the time, wanted to declare a state of siege around the capital to prevent violence, but King Victor Emmanuel III, fearing that Italy was on the brink of civil war, forbade it and offered Mussolini the chance to form a government.
Ironically, Mussolini was not with his marchers in Rome on the day of the coup. He stayed in Milan to be near the Swiss border in case the coup attempt failed. But he went to Rome soon after to take power and begin whittling away Italian democracy until his full dictatorship was in place.
In a recent New York Review of Books article, “The Slow-Motion Coup,” author Mark Danner asks: What would have happened if Trump himself had led the marchers on their Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, instead of being taken by the Secret Service back to the White House? Could he have prevailed? Would the police have fallen back if faced by the president of the United States on the steps of the US Capitol? Could Trump have marched in and demanded that Vice President Mike Pence give him the certificates certifying the electoral votes to rip up?
By Jan. 6, “Trump found himself with no choice but to seize power personally at the head of thousands of raid followers, some of them armed,” Danner writes. But the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys were not as well organized as Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and there is little reason to believe Pence would have given into the threat of violence as did King Victor Emmanuel.
For Trump, had it worked, “it would have been beautiful, unforgettable. It would be a true decisive victory over the Deep State,” Danner writes. “It would have been his march on Rome.”
So much of Trump’s political style — the jutting jaw, the politics of grievance, projecting the image of the strongman defying the corrupt elites, and portraying a free press as enemies of the people — come from Mussolini, who in turn borrowed so much from the poet turned adventurer and politician Gabriele D’Annunzio.
D’Annunzio pioneered the Trump-style rally with responsive chants — “the enthusiasm and passion between speaker and audience, which later came to be regarded as typical of Mussolini,” according to his biographer, Laura Fermi. “To him, making large masses respond had become a necessity, and he did so with the tone of his voice, with his gestures, with the expression of his eyes.” Fermi found that the words that aroused such boundless enthusiasm were “banal and hollow” without Mussolini’s presence and voice.
Mussolini succeeded on Oct. 28, 1922, unlike Trump 100 years later. But the poison Trump has injected into America’s political bloodstream with his lie of a stolen election is still doing its work and it is too early to say that Trump’s march on Rome has failed.
H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir” and “Loaded with Dynamite: Unintended Consequences of Woodrow Wilson’s Idealism.”