We all know what those initials stand for. Some of us aren’t willing to say the full phrase out loud, many of us can’t stomach the individual who spouts it at any given opportunity, but most of us don’t know that this “concept” was co-opted. No, it’s not a Trump “original.”
My husband and I had a crash course on this subject just a few weeks back as we huddled, along with a small group of other freezing tourists, at the Portico d’Ottavio in Rome. Our lovely guide, an extremely thin, young Italian woman, chock full of information but desperately needing a warm pair of boots, was speaking about how Mussolini had changed the face of the city. She explained how he’d cleared out (i.e. demolished) entire neighborhoods in order to unearth the ancient monuments buried beneath (an obvious attempt to establish himself as the natural heir to the ancient Roman Republic–just one more esteemed Emperor) and designed grand avenues that sliced through distant parts of the city, physically connecting his own center of power at the Piazza Venezia with, not only the historically-significant Imperial Forums but, the Vatican, effectively aligning himself (and his Fascist government) with the only other major power within the city. In short, one hell of a megalomaniac! Mussolini was a kind of modern-day Sun King, manipulating his physical surroundings to serve his goals precisely as did Louis XIV back in seventeenth century Versailles.
It was all interesting enough to stave off the bitter cold that accompanied the setting sun.
That’s when she landed her bombshell. “He wanted,” she articulated carefully, “to make Italy great again.” There was a pause, a long one; long enough to segue into an uncomfortable silence. Our guide stood there, mouth sealed shut (perhaps trying to keep her teeth warm?) and let us take in that phrase, clearly interested in our reaction.
Mine was mixed. First, I frowned. Then, I smiled. I frowned once more. I wasn’t sure about the proper response or even, how to express it. Our guide stood there and waited. Knowledgeable, pleasant, obviously suffering from the cold but equally intrigued by what she’d detonated; there was something about her creepy smile and the dramatic pause she’d used to deliver her comment that was definitely provocative.
I smiled again. It was actually impossible not to smile at this charming woman. It didn’t really matter that brain freeze had begun to set in. I looked around the group. There was an uncomfortable nodding of heads, a shuffling of feet, what sounded like a chuckle or two. It was hard to imagine that anyone present, save the handful of children in attendance, didn’t understand that she wasn’t referring only to Mussolini; that she wanted us to make the connection between this insidious Fascist ruler and the present American president.
I need to explain that we weren’t one cohesive group but rather, a random collection of individuals gathered to tour the Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere on a Friday afternoon. There was a large, three-generation family from England, their ruddy cheeks attesting to a hardiness that accounted for the lack of proper, warm hats, a few Israeli women looking miserably cold in puffy winter coats, a young, Spanish-speaking couple (he, impossibly tall, she, impossibly short) who sweetly held hands the entire tour and an older American couple that, according to the continual boasting of the husband, already knew whatever the guide might want to impart but was happy to come along and help out. My husband and I rounded out the bunch.
It wasn’t surprising that an actual verbal response to our guide’s comment came from the know-it-all. Breaking that pregnant-to-bursting pause, he repeated them back to all of us with a huge smile, nodding from one to the other with a knowing look. I wondered where he stood on the political spectrum but was fairly sure it wasn’t with me. After more than two rough-rod years skirting certain political conversations, I stayed silent, mortified by the fact that, these days, absolutely everything seemed to circle back to Donald Trump and his warped vision of the world. Just minutes earlier, I’d been really enjoying my visit to Rome, soaking up the sights, the history, the flavors, the aromas and the language. But at that moment, all that beauty was ruined by the reminder of an American president I cannot stand and the association he continues to seek with the father of fascism and a regime that sustained the concepts of supremacy, nationalism, loyalty to state and obedience to a ruler that I find abhorrent.
I shook it off. I had to.
The tour ended soon thereafter with a hearty grazia to our guide and my hands wrapped around a very welcome, warm cappuccino at a little caffè in Trastevere. Firmly putting the chill of that moment behind me, I thanked my lucky stars that this American president hasn’t yet succeeded in erecting any official monuments to serve his own glory. I tried to imagine how one might look and stumbled over the image of a huge chunk of concrete running along the American border: bland, shapeless, empty of meaning and ugly. How very fitting.