A savvy media personality, better known for his sensualist excesses and extravagant spending habits than for his statesmanlike demeanor, rides to power on a hyper-masculine nationalist fantasy of restoring a country’s former glory: and in the process, inadvertently ushers in a far-right political revival.
We’ve heard this story all too often this election cycle. Donald J. Trump, much of the conventional wisdom goes, is an unprecedented candidate: his strategies, his manners, his blithe and blustering insistence that his narratives of grandeur—delusional or not—are if not totally sui generis, then nevertheless part of a singular historical phenomenon. Should America survive his candidacy and avoid electing him, his candidacy, and especially its extravagant excesses will have no lingering effects on American politics.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so sure.
In September of 1919, in a small and seedy port city off the Adriatic called Fiume (now the Croatian city of Rijeka), a story with broadly similar outlines was playing out. The country was Italy. The media personality was Gabriele D’Annunzio, the brilliant—and possibly sociopathic—decadent author-dandy turned profligate tabloid fixture turned hyper-nationalist statesman. D’Annunzio had a plan to “redeem” the largely ethnically Italian, formerly Austro-Hungarian city of Fiume, where he hoped a new, glorious world order would arise from the necessary conflagration of the old.
D’Annunzio was not the sort of man one would expect to find in government. All but unanimously acknowledged as one of the finest poets in Italy, D’Annunzio was nevertheless far more concerned with the expansion of his own celebrity than with concrete political power and the responsibilities that entails. As famous for living ebulliently beyond his means—he at one point owned eight horses, and spent money that had been granted him specifically to feed his children on getting another—as for his callous treatment of his many mistresses, D’Annunzio managed to keep himself in the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed through judicious cultivation of his fame. He once tipped off a journalist when and where he’d be publicly breaking it off with a lover to ensure it hit the tabloids. His characters lived by the maxim “One must make one’s life as one makes a work of art”; D’Annunzio did too.
D’Annunzio wrote for tabloids and gossip columns for spare cash. Later, he used his understanding of mass media to his advantage. A compulsive fabulist, he cultivated myths about his own life (that he was born aboard a ship, that he was a child prodigy, that he had a glass eye) that few bothered to verify. His novels, largely set among the wealthy, were, despite their complexity, mass-market affairs, appealing to a wide readership as much for their aspirational portrayals of wealth as for their literary qualities. D’Annunzio’s precise, powerful use of language made him beloved by critics and members of the intelligentsia, but it was his ability to sell an idea, a lifestyle, that made his books the hits they were, and paved the way for the fame that followed.
But by the end of the nineteenth century, D’Annunzio found that fame itself was not enough for him. Taking his status as Italy’s poet literally, he began to adopt the rhetoric of fervent Italian nationalism—a relatively new phenomenon at the time, as Italy had only been unified for a couple of decades. Captivating adoring crowds—when he spoke, his admirers would sometimes write out his speeches and parade around the city with his pages borne aloft—D’Annunzio began to promulgate a ferocious, hyper-masculine form of nationalism. He frequently alluded to the virile struggles of Rome, as a means of evoking Italy’s former glory, lost to the past.
Aspirationalism took on a new cast. D’Annunzio was not just selling a lifestyle now, but a whole nationalist ideology, a fantasy of identity that transcended the individual. The techniques, however, remained the same: D’Annunzio’s success lay in his ability to harness the power of the media to create a narrative not only about himself, but, implicitly, about his followers, and about their world: he provided the skeleton of a Campbellian hero-story into which any “average Joe” could project himself, and find himself a role.
Not that the role was necessarily an enjoyable one. The myth D’Annunzio propagated—heavily influenced by the writings of Nietzsche—was violent: only through destruction, through bloodshed, through military sacrifice of a few (or many) good men, could Italian virility be restored. At one Venetian society dinner party, in 1895, he proposed a toast to “putrefaction” and to the destruction of one world order and the advent of the new. “I drink,” he exclaimed, “to the roses which will flower from the blood.” He defied definition—“I am beyond right and left,” he was known to say, “[as] I am beyond good and evil”. He was the herald, an “announcer” of an age waiting to be born, an age of Roman heroism, a restoration of a masculine status quo ante, achieved through cleansing violence.
Two years later, under the pretext that “the world must be convinced that I am capable of everything,” D’Annunzio won a parliamentary seat for his home province of Abruzzi. He did very little governing and was mostly absent from assembly. It was a self-serving ego trip for D’Annunzio, but it helped mobilize a political following for the solipsistic, self-indulgent poet.
The First World War provided D’Annunzio with an opportunity to turn his rhetoric into action. He went into service, became a war hero, as much through propaganda as through valor. (He famously air-dropped pamphlets of his own poetry over then-Austrian Trieste, as well as over Vienna, though he could not fly an airplane.)
By the time the war was over, D’Annunzio had gone rogue. Along with 186 Italian mutineers, he marched on the city of Fiume, which had been left “unredeemed” (irredento)—unreconquered during Italy’s unification. He longed to reclaim it, ostensibly for Italy. He was sufficiently beloved by Italians that despite the fact that he and his arditi (“arduous ones”) marched past whole regiments of Italian armies in direct contravention of their orders en route to Fiume, nobody dared use force to stop him.
His conquest was a disaster. D’Annunzian Fiume, under minimal governance and following D’Annunzio’s own hedonistic example, became better-known as a hotbed of chaos, widespread drug use, and cheap sex. According to D’Annunzio’s biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallet, syphilis outstripped any other complaint by Fiume’s denizens by a factor of fifteen. The people became restless. After promising to honor a November 1916 plebiscite dictating whether or not Fiume would remain under Italian rule, D’Annunzio promptly disregarded it when the plebiscite did not go in his favor, announcing that he would stay in power no matter what.
D’Annunzio also found himself struggling with the Italian government’s decision to distance itself from its most vocal son. Fears that separatism in Fiume would stoke the flames of similar movements across Europe had dialed up the international pressure on Italy to cede Fiume to the new Yugoslavia. Italy began to demand D’Annunzio’s resignation and exit from the city. Ultimately, Italy took military action; a single shell attack—around Christmas of 1916—was enough to convince D’Annunzio to retreat. The Free State of Fiume was no more.
It is easy enough to point out the obvious differences between D’Annunzio and Trump. One is an acknowledged literary genius, the other is no less famous for his boorishness and lack of nuance. Yet when it comes to grand-scale narratives they respectively spin, and the wider reaction to that mythos on the part of their respective supporters, such distinctions fade away in importance.
D’Annunzio spoke and wrote in allusive language evocative of both the poets and heroes of Ancient Rome; Trump, intentionally or not, echoes the “tough-talking” bluster of an equally foundational American character: the mythic fast-talking American businessman (whether Gordon Gekko or Glengarry Glen Ross’s Blake). Both, however, are ultimately salesmen, adept at pitching powerful narratives of the self. Both peddle the reclamation of a kind of masculinity through the upheaval of an established, feminized world order. Both are situated at the intersection of mythic ambition and material aspiration: they are two gaudily-attired lotharios (even if D’Annunzio’s suits, unlike Trump’s, were always perfectly tailored) who use their respective pulpits to link their own “alpha male” status to explicitly political ends.
D’Annunzio was a failed executive, but a brilliantly successful orator. And the rhetoric he legitimized had its consequences. Among the motley group of figures that sprung up or reimagined themselves around the Fiume cause—Nietzschean mystics who looked to the Hindu caste system as legitimation for a theology of the ubermensch, free love advocates, technophile futurists like Marinetti—one in particular stands out: a man whom D’Annunzio himself often dismissed, but who nevertheless idolized the older poet. This man had vast capacity for organization, mobilization, and governance—precisely the qualities that the revolutionary poet lacked.
This admirer was named Benito Mussolini. Mussolini originally raised money in support of the Fiume project, and ultimately came to exchange letters with his idol until the latter’s death in 1938. He claimed D’Annunzio as his mentor. In Mussolini’s biography, written by his lover Margherita Sarfatti, D’Annunzio is lauded as “an arrogant, knightly, derisive, fascinating, and cruel spirit that belongs to the immortal youth of fascism”. Today, D’Annunzio’s final resting place—the Vittoriale near Lake Garda—doubles as a Mussolini-built monument to fascism. D’Annunzio—and the discourse he legitimized—is, intentionally or not, a direct precursor to the more effective fascists who followed him.
Mussolini’s rhetorical technique, as much as his ideology, was deeply rooted in D’Annunzio’s performative Nietszcheanism. His followers had come of age in a political climate shaped not only by D’Annunzio’s mythic successes, but also by the unfulfilled desires left in the wake of Fiume’s catastrophic failure. Mussolini, like his idol, played directly into the narrative of reclamation, not simply of the physical irredenti, but also of a hyper-masculine way of life, a greatness that has been corrupted (and feminized) by a decaying world order. Both men, too, frequently used in their letters and speeches the rhetoric of sexual dominance and male-on-male-rape—masculinity-as-conquest—to describe their political vision and contextualize their claims to authority.
A century later, Trump has availed himself of a similar rhetoric, deeply rooted in imagery of power, sex, and the treatment of women as reward-objects, to establish his authority as a “man in control”, whether in the boardrooms of his pre-political business career, backstage on The Today Show, or at the podium on the campaign trail. It is that authority that has perhaps allowed him to more or less shake off the various accusations of sexual assault, at least before his most ardent supporters. Male virility and male dominance are so deeply encoded into the heroic alpha-male narrative Trump presents, that acts of sexual aggression are difficult to separate out, rhetorically speaking, from boasts of masculine victory. While it is certainly true that Trump’s most scandalous comments were captured long before his foray into politics, it’s nevertheless evident that those comments are rooted in a particular (and successful, in terms of its populist appeal) narrative of success: a man whose relationship to women is rooted in his more imminent relationship to power.
Similarly, Trump’s more considered, specifically-political narratives shaped in opposition to Hillary Clinton—for example, that she lacks the “stamina” to be president—are similarly constructed in the D’Annunzian vein: they are nationalist myths of dominance rooted in far more specific gender-based ideals of behavior and success.
At time of writing, Hillary Clinton is still holding on to a slim lead in the national polls, and many pundits and politicos are no doubt readying their op-eds in anticipation of her win, declaring that Trump’s rise was necessarily an aberration, and that his movement will fizzle away with his defeat. Just as D’Annunzio’s fall paved the way for Mussolini’s rise, so might Trump’s enable that of a more effective right-wing figure: one who can more consciously channel and organize the climate Trump has created.
Trump may not be able to turn that myth into real action. But someone else yet may – capitalizing on the populist anger Trump has stoked, refining his blustering verbal formulae into concrete political actions: a calculating Mussolini to Trump’s bombastic D’Annunzio. Regardless of the results of the election, Trump has unleashed a powerful narrative into the American consciousness. If Trump loses, his movement will be left without a hero: an Arthurian legend without, as yet, an identifiable king. But every sword in every stone is waiting for its taker. And as in 1919, the void Trump leaves behind may yet be more dangerous than his presence ever could have been.