How to cover the rise of a political leader who’s left a paper trail of anti-constitutionalism, racism and the encouragement of violence? Does the press take the position that its subject acts outside the norms of society? Or does it take the position that someone who wins a fair election is by definition “normal”, because his leadership reflects the will of the people?
These are the questions that confronted the US press after the ascendance of fascist leaders in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.
Benito Mussolini secured Italy’s premiership by marching on Rome with 30,000 blackshirts in 1922. By 1925, he had declared himself leader for life. While this hardly reflected American values, Mussolini was a darling of the American press, appearing in at least 150 articles from 1925-1932.
The Saturday Evening Post even serialised Il Duce’s autobiography in 1928. Acknowledging that the new “Fascisti movement” was a bit “rough in it’s methods”, papers ranging from the New York Tribune to the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Chicago Tribune credited it with saving Italy from the far left and revitalizing its economy. From their perspective, the post-first world war surge of anti-capitalism in Europe was a vastly worse threat than fascism.