Setting up an electoral profile
The second phase of CPI’s communication strategy coincides with the choice of running for elections. In this new scenario, the group’s main urgency was to present itself as a credible electoral competitor, even at the risk of losing grassroots support. To cope with this trade-off, CPI complemented the actions that had previously served as communication instruments (Bennett 1998), with more conventional ones belonging to the formal realm of political participation. Notably, these included formal electoral campaigning, legally authorized institutional rallies, meetings and festivals. On these occasions, CPI often sought the endorsement of established figures of the Italian cultural or intellectual scene, who were expected to increase the visibility of the events and the credibility of CPI candidates.4 As a result, the communication repertoire became more like that of established political parties, shifting from a focus on the organization itself to highlight its leaders (Plasser and Lengauer 2008).
The progressive engagement in the electoral arena changed some, but not all, of the principles driving CPI’s interaction with the media. Notably, the electoral shift further enhanced the group’s propensity towards sensationalization of conflict. To justify its decision to run for elections, the communication style of CPI centred on dramatizing the political context in which the elections took place. The idea was to present CPI’s electoral engagement not as a strategic choice, but as something made inevitable by extraordinary and urgent political circumstances.
The opening of new local chapters or the launching of electoral campaigns, for example, was often accompanied by confrontation with local opponents, resulting in increased media coverage by the press and television. In some cases, as in Parma,5 physical confrontation was avoided only through the intervention of the police. CPI did nothing to avoid producing these provocative stunts, as confirmed by the choice of organizing the 2018 national festival in a city traditionally hostile to right-wing mobilization like Grosseto in Tuscany, and holding it on the symbolic date of 8 September, the anniversary of the Italian armistice during World War II. Sensationalization therefore resulted from dramatic news, produced by the quality media, as a by-product of CPI’s mobilization. Moreover, CPI was able to benefit not only from extensive exposure to the broader public, but also from a dual public image, since the news media presented the group alternatively as a legitimate political party and a confrontational street movement.
The electoral transition of CPI also triggered a radical change in the communication strategy, which shifted the focus from CPI as an organization to the figure of Simone Di Stefano as the leader and candidate. In line with existing literature on political communication, we refer to this strategy as leaderization (Mancini 2011). In fact, even though a hierarchical structure focusing strongly on the national leader existed prior to CPI’s choice to run for elections (see Chapter 4), the decision to appoint Di Stefano as the party candidate in the 2013 and 2018 general elections triggered a concentration of all the group’s political and media activities on this figure. Di Stefano became the official representative of CPI on television shows and radio programmes. While this choice responded to the need to present CPI as a classic political party, it was accompanied by sensationalizing claims in which Di Stefano evoked the 1948 slogan of MSI, according to which Fascism should ‘neither be repudiated nor restored’.
Finally, electoral campaigning also led to a radical change in the issues at the core of CPI’s agenda. We refer to this as centralization, because it stemmed from the progressive concentration of the media management around a restricted set of issues and themes. The video advertisement for the campaign circulated by CPI in 2018 illustrates clearly the transformation of the communication strategy, now only oriented at presenting the group as an anti-immigration and antiestablishment actor (see Chapter 6). The main message of the advert, pronounced by Di Stefano, summarizes the general, nationalistic undertones of CPI’s campaign: ‘As Italians, we have time and again been able to unite and fight to defend our borders and the accomplishments of previous generations’ (CPI 2018). The advert builds upon the conspiracy theory of the ‘Great Replacement’, addresses negatively the main centre-right and centre-left parties in Italy, and refers to symbolic elements, notably the Redipuglia War Memorial (in north-eastern Italy) housing the remains of over 100,000 Italian soldiers who died during World War I. The symbolic aspects embedded in this choice produced a series of political reactions (especially by the presidency of the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region, where the memorial is located) and media debates, which further reinforced the visibility of the group and the symbolic relevance of the advert. References to historical Fascism therefore represent a crucial element in CPI’s media management, as they provide an opportunity to link the internal and external sides of its communication strategy.
Appealing to quality media
The change in the strategy of CPI’s communication described in the previous sections had only a moderate influence on the general coverage of the group’s actions. Despite the electoral shift, in fact, the mass media remained mainly interested in the protest and extremist aspects of its politics (Castelli Gattinara and Froio 2018). However, the adoption of a more conventional repertoire is likely to have contributed to legitimizing CPI in the public debate. Until 2017, CPI’s appearances on television had been limited to two specific occasions. In 2011, Gianluca Iannone intervened in a live show on public television to discuss CasaPound’s involvement in the shooting of two Senegalese street-vendors by one of its sympathizers (see Chapter 2). In 2014, Simone Di Stefano was invited to a show on the private channel La7, to discuss the housing emergency and the alleged growth of the extreme right in Italy. During the interview, the journalist asked Di Stefano whether he was a fascist and he replied simply ‘Yes, absolutely’.7
A few years later, the situation had changed both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitatively, the ‘cordon sanitaire’ in the quality media had been fully broken by CPI. As a candidate in the general elections, Simone Di Stefano was invited to several popular talk shows, and took part in traditional television and radio broadcasting as required by the Italian law on electoral communication.8 Qualitatively, CPI’s interactions with the media had changed too, as the group intensified its campaigns against quality media, while also growing increasingly aware that the relationship of the far right with the media is characterized by reciprocal advantage (Ellinas 2010). When Di Stefano was again invited to the La7 television show during the 2018 election campaign, his performance was celebrated by CPI’s newspaper II Primato Nazionale, which pointed out that during his intervention the talk show registered an increased audience share (II Primato Nazionale 2017b). Furthermore, from 2017, CPI started inviting well- known television journalists to political debates that took place at its headquarters in Rome, and when a prominent journalist from La7 television accepted the invitation, Di Stefano commented on Facebook that: ‘Television never invites CasaPound, but we are gentlemen and we have invited the TV to CasaPound’ (Huffington Post Italia 2017).
These examples are illustrative of CPI’s skill in traditional media management, and its capacity to gain visibility inside and outside its own ideological backyard. CPI’s engagement in the electoral arena was accompanied by the development of a coherent strategy of media management. The main effort has been to avoid the mistakes of traditional extreme-right parties, by developing a professional communication style to best exploit the ambivalent relationship between the media and far- right organizations (De Jonge 2019). Political communication was therefore crafted to mirror CPI’s hybridization strategy. On the one hand, it presented CPI as a movement in contrast to the apathy of far-right parties and striving to attract new members through unconventional political, social and communication activities. On the other, it presented the group as a party contesting elections, and interested
FIGURE 7.2 Posters of CasaPound’s political debates with Italian journalists Enrico Mentana and Corrado Formigli (La7 TV).
The debate took place in the Rome headquarters of CasaPound in autumn 2017.
in gaining the highest level of attention not only through indirect coverage, but also through grassroots and conventional communication activities.