Dressed in Voltagabbana
Beware the Voltagabbana! In uncertain times, like during a pandemic, it has become popular among politicians to use populist turncoating in order to gain quick visibility. In this article, Pamela Pietrucci goes on a quest into the rhetorical depths of italian right-wing populism to show you how the turncoating-strategy, the Voltagabbana, has shaped pandemic policies. Get ready for a rhetorical rollercoaster of rapid u-turns able to exploit controversy, hate and public fear. Unfortunately, it’s effective and dangerous – and therefore something we must all be aware of to protect a healthy democratic discourse.
by Pamela Pietrucci · Tenure Track Assistant Professor, Rhetoric, University of Copenhagen
January 27th, 2022 · 7 minutes reading time
Here in Denmark, at the time of writing this article, despite the infection numbers remaining high, we are expecting the lifting of most Covid-19-related restrictions soon, with the hope of a future return to life as we knew it before March 2020. However, in other countries both here in the EU and elsewhere, pandemic restrictions are still solidly in place, and in certain cases they are being extended or reinforced due to the incredibly fast spread of the Omicron variant.
A case in point is Italy, where masks have been omnipresent and mask-mandates have never been loosened. The use of the “Green Pass,” the Covid-19 certification to access indoor spaces and travel nationally and internationally, has also been mandated in Italy for all public and private workers in order to be able to access all workplaces and the vast majority of public places.
Failure to show a valid Green Pass (the Italian Coronapass) can mean suspension without pay for any worker in Italy and the practical impossibility of accessing any public place: a bar for a quick espresso, a pharmacy or store, or your everyday public transport are now off limits to the unvaccinated or those not immunized. Until recently a considerable number of adults eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine had not yet booked their jabs and the introduction of the strict use of the Green Pass these past months has generated some social and political unrest that was expressed in a variety of no-vax or no-green pass public protests.
This context of pandemic gives us an opportunity to observe how political rhetoric can shape the world around us. In a moment of global health crisis, it is particularly important to see how certain choices in political communication can damage or corrode public democratic discourse, and therefore delay the progress that we all need to end the moment of emergency. Let’s take a look at one, in particular, that has become very popular during Covid-19: populist turncoating on pandemic policies.
Pandemic management policies generated controversy in several countries, involving governmental and opposition parties, scientists and experts, as well as local and national publics. Populist politicians across the globe have often capitalized on those ongoing debates for their own political gain, not only in Italy, but almost everywhere. One strategy that has become particularly obvious and yet surprisingly tolerated by general audiences is one that I define with the Italian term of “voltagabbana”, the equivalent of the Danish expression “vendekåbe”.
Voltagabbana-ing means turncoating, flip-flopping, or u-turning very quickly and for strategic purposes in the context of policy and political opinions. This strategy is enacted through changes of opinion and political positions that happen quickly, abruptly, and continuously, generating a series of reversals of stances that allow politicians or speakers an easy flight of accountability, because they have already stated everything and the opposite of everything.
“Voltagabbana rhetoric, as a populist strategy for uncertain times, enables an easy flight from accountability and responsibility for those using it”
This strategy is a rhetorical performance of incoherency with the strategic goal of attracting audiences that hold different beliefs and that often perceive their positions to be marginalized by either an imagined oppressive mainstream public opinion or by top-down governmental policies that are often described as a technocratic “dictatorship”. This strategy turns out to be effective in times of Covid-19 vaccination campaigns to attract the attention of hardcore anti-vaxxers, vaccine-skeptics, and vaccine-hesistant audiences.
Matteo Salvini, the Italian politician leader of the far-right populist party called “the League”, can provide us with many examples to think about this political communication strategy, about Covid precautionary measures in Italy. His dramatic u-turns exemplify how the constant reversals of political stances and opinions are not random: rather they enact a deliberate strategy for generating public controversy, attracting public engagement online on social media and casting the widest possible net in attracting dissatisfied voters in moments of uncertainty.
I conceptualize this discursive strategy with the term “voltagabbana”––the Italian word for opportunistic reversals in political stance, because Italian political discourse has a long tradition of turncoating in politics that is helpful to contextualize this type of communication style. In the case of Salvini, I also argue that we can understand these maneuvers as a kind of “algorithmic populism”, informed by data-driven advice that nowadays allows politicians to capitalize on trending topics and/or produce topics of interest that shift news cycles and public attention in exploitative ways.
Voltagabbana rhetoric, as a populist strategy for uncertain times, enables an easy flight from accountability and responsibility for those using it. By saying everything and the opposite of everything in rapid time frames, the voltagabbana politician can always deny anything previously said, or change idea at any point and in any situation. In times of crisis and change, lack of coherence and consistency are public sins that are much easier to forgive or overlook, especially when anger and dissatisfaction are widespread in the public sphere due to the current pandemic and the concerns it generates in society.
Matteo Salvini, it has to be noted, is not the only voltagabbana around. In Italy, it’s easy to find additional examples. And to be clear, this political turncoating strategy is not just an Italian phenomenon, politicians all around the globe use it: populist politicians like Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and more have used this type of turncoating to a variety of degrees throughout the first year of the pandemic.
Salvini’s Strategic Incoherence
From the beginning of the pandemic, Matteo Salvini’s rhetoric has been a rollercoaster of sometimes abrupt and often confusing and hard-to-track opinion shifts regarding public health precautions to curb the uncontrolled spread of the virus during surges of contagion. Salvini has been observed over time occupying opposite sides of the spectrum in relation to pandemic-related policy issues: he opposed, then supported, then opposed again the pandemic lockdowns in Italy.
He expressed anti-mask stances repeatedly, then spoke in favor of masking-up, then continued to flirt with anti-maskers over time. He critiqued the governmental positions on the vaccination campaign, expressed vaccine-skepticism in a variety of occasions, supported groups of anti-vaxxers, and yet got vaccinated, and then proceeded to express pro Covid-19 vaccine stances at the same time, encouraging people to trust science on more than one occasion (confusing, isn’t it?!).
He strongly opposed the use of the Green Pass, and of course changed his idea about it several times. So, let’s look at one example from 2020, during the height of the pandemic, when new lockdowns were being unrolled all over Europe to contain the second wave of Covid-19 contagion. In those days, Salvini made the headlines because he expressed three different and somewhat contrasting positions regarding an impending national lockdown in Italy within a single day, expectedly attracting national media criticism for his extreme giravolte ––his dramatic u-turns.
“His now infamous sudden, dramatic, and continuous flip-flops both increased and at the same time exploited public feelings of confusion, distrust, and in the latest pandemic period also despair.”
Let’s break down how this typical voltagabbana move unfolded over a single day in this case (possibly the shortest time frame to contextualize this rhetorical maneuver). According to several national newspapers on October 29, 2020, Salvini released a morning interview to Radio Anch’io on “Rai Radio 1” stating the following about an impending national lockdown: “If a lockdown becomes necessary, it is right to do it.” By lunch time his breakfast position that acknowledged the potential need and implementation of a national lockdown had evolved already, becoming starkly opposed to the possibility of any closure.
Before speaking in the Senate, by mid-day, he invited people to follow his speech live, declaring decisively on Twitter: “A lockdown? It would be a complete disaster, not so much for Conte [Italy’s former PM] but above all, for all Italians. We have to work to avoid it at all costs, starting with testing and curing patients at home. In 20 minutes, I’ll say this in the #Senate. Follow me live.”
By dinner time he tweeted again, smoothing out both positions expressed earlier in the day and saying to his followers that he would “do everything in his power to avoid it [the national lockdown]”. Bombarding the public with contrasting or different statements has been a characteristic of Salvini’s political rhetoric, even more so throughout the evolution of the pandemic and the related national crisis. His now infamous sudden, dramatic, and continuous flip-flops both increased and at the same time exploited public feelings of confusion, distrust, and in the latest pandemic period also despair.
This rollercoaster of u-turns characterized Salvini’s public communication for months, encouraging an already growing public unrest in a moment of dire health and economic crisis. Now, this is just one small example that looks at how he manages to change his mind quickly and dramatically without worrying about contradicting himself, and with the goal of creating public controversy, but also and most importantly, for capitalizing on that controversy by attracting public engagement and hence visibility on online platforms.
Salvini’s social media strategy relies on visibility that comes from impulse-driven user-engagement, and the user-engagement he is known to encourage exploits controversy, hate, divisive opinions, anger and public fear. Voltagabbana-ing allows the turncoats to remain unaccountable for their political stances while exploiting the resulting ambiguity and the public reactions online for purposes of political propaganda.
In the age of social media’s influence on political discourse, we all must try to better understand problematic political rhetoric, because they are terribly effective, and yet incredibly dangerous and corrosive for a healthy democratic discourse.
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Pamela Pietrucci. “Voltagabbana Rhetorics: Turncoating as a Populist Strategy in Pandemic Times”. Populist Rhetorics. pp. 49-80. (2022)