For reasons that need no elucidation, I spent a few hours this morning watching Benito Mussolini, the dictator of Italy from 1925 to 1945, performing in the old newsreel clips that now float around the internet. It wasn’t the verbal content I was after, just the imagery. The staged entrances. The gesticulation, the posturing, the arms raised in salute. The beautiful backdrops, the flags hanging from the ancient stone buildings of Rome, Palermo, Verona, Milan.

Il Duce“the Leader,” the name called out by the crowds in the videos—was a short, balding, unattractive man. But he prepared himself carefully for public appearances, showing a camera awareness ahead of its time. Sometimes he wore suits, but he also wore a wide variety of military uniforms. Presumably to hide his missing hair, he often wore hats—simple berets or more elaborate, ceremonial head coverings, decorated with rooster feathers, animal fur, or national insignia.

He also had a sense of what other kinds of imagery would attract attention. Once, he stripped off his shirt and stacked hay with peasants. He wrestled, playfully, with a young lion. He presided, regally, over the elaborate marriage of his daughter to an Italian aristocrat, Galeazzo Ciano, in a grand society wedding at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Later, he made his son-in-law foreign minister. Later still, in 1944, he had Ciano shot.           

Most frequently, Mussolini had himself photographed on balconies. Some of them were historic, such as the balcony above the Piazza Venezia in Rome, where he spoke many times to the throngs gathered below. This was the balcony where, in 1940, he declared war on Britain and France, the “plutocratic and reactionary democracies who have always blocked the march and frequently plotted against the existence of the Italian people.” But he also had balconies purpose-built for special occasions, so that he could tower over the crowd from wherever he happened to be speaking. The Italian cameramen who made his newsreels often filmed him from just below these structures, so that the perspective was always that of the crowd, looking up adoringly at the Leader.

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Many people who watched these performances at the time found them absurd, even laughable. The American journalist and war correspondent William Shirer mocked Mussolini as “the modern Roman Caesar,” who “underneath the gaudy facade was made largely from sawdust.” But others were not laughing. The cameras in the newsreels often pan out over the cheering crowds, focusing on the rapturous faces of Italians shouting “Duce! Duce!” In one British newsreel, an announcer shows pictures of games being played in a new stadium, and declares in a solemn tone that “Mussolini is building a new Rome, but he means to see that the Romans shall have health with which to enjoy it.” In another clip, a British announcer declares earnestly that “Il Duce’s creed is accepted with enthusiasm in his own country, where unity of thought and action is the fundamental idea underlying the dictatorship.”

Across the Atlantic, Mussolini had a cult following among Italian Americans, whom he sometimes addressed in English as “my fellow citizens who are working to make America great.” Others admired him too. In 1927, the Hollywood actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. were photographed cheerfully raising their arms in a fascist salute, greeting guests, according to a magazine caption, “in true Italian style.”

Heinrich Hoffmann / ullstein bild / Getty

In light of what came afterward, all of these clips and photographs now have the air of a doomed cult. But if you try to look at them with fresh eyes—if you can forget that Mussolini wrought terrible destruction on his country and its neighbors; that he was murdered on Lake Como, together with his mistress, while trying to escape to Switzerland; that their bodies were then hung upside down and mutilated by jeering crowds—you can begin to understand something of Il Duce’s appeal.

It was not by accident, for example, that he juxtaposed himself against his country’s most famous city squares and most beautiful buildings—the Duomo in Milan, the Colosseum in Rome. He sought to identify himself, physically, with these beloved national symbols, and thus with the nation, and many people loved him for this. Nor were the heavily staged, entirely artificial elements of his performances a mistake. Sophisticated observers such as Shirer sneered, but plenty of people understood that Mussolini was offering theater, putting on a show, acting out a part. They expected him to appear in different costumes and different hats, to speak from high balconies, to surround himself with other men in uniform. That was what they had come to see him do.

Nor did you have to be Italian to find him interesting, at least in the early days, before the worst violence and the war. It may well be that the craving for “drums, flags and loyalty-parades,” as George Orwell once put it, crosses borders, cultures, and even oceans. A lot of people like to gaze upon images that evoke the “unity of thought and action.” A lot of people like displays of pageantry, military force, and power.

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The appeal of these things hasn’t disappeared or died out. An American president, suffering from an infectious disease, breathing hard, covered in orange pancake makeup, speaking from a balcony against the backdrop of our elegant White House and our beautiful Washington Monument—this is a scene that seems absurd, grotesque, and even frightening to many. But not to everyone. “I led,” the president said, soon after he had dramatically removed his face mask, proving to his followers that he isn’t afraid.

Of course the scene was staged. Of course it is cynical. And of course it is dangerous to tell Americans to act as if a virus is an opponent in a wrestling match—“Don’t let it dominate you; don’t be afraid of it. You’re going to beat it”—especially after your criminal carelessness has led to the infection of your closest colleagues, your Senate allies, your bodyguards, your wife. But those staged pictures are what a lot of people want to see, and that false reassurance is what a lot of people want to hear. Don’t underestimate their power.

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