Twitter is dark and filled with terrors.
This weekend, prominent GOP politicians — including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida — embarked on their own paths of shitposting.
Rubio decided it would serve to benefit all of Twitter to see the execution photo of Muammar Al Gaddafi, as a threat to the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro. If that wasn’t bizarre, war-mongering and crazy enough, Cornyn decided he would tweet out a Benito Mussolini quote.
“We were the first to assert that the more complicated the forms assumed by civilization, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become.” Benito Mussolini
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) February 24, 2019
Cornyn subsequently provided more context to his tweet, by agreeing that it was meant to display the potential tyranny of a large and empowered centralized government.
You nailed it, Bud. Since so-called Democratic Socialists have forgotten or never learned the lessons of history, and how their ideology is incompatible with freedom, I guess we have to remind or teach them. https://t.co/ftzal1DMED
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) February 24, 2019
This isn’t the first time Mussolini has been given a platform — in 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump retweeted a Mussolini quote and subsequently defended his decision by arguing that it was a good quote.
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“It’s OK to know it’s Mussolini,” Trump said on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. “Look, Mussolini was Mussolini. It’s OK to — it’s a very good quote, it’s a very interesting quote.”
It is convenient to twist quotes to back up one’s own political crusade, but rearranging and misinterpreting the lessons of history is a dangerous folly that has real-life consequences.
Cornyn’s message, presumably, was an attempt to decry the resurgence of socialism, specifically democratic socialism and accuse it of being anti-democratic and tyrannical. To do this, he quoted Mussolini, who, during the 1920s, wooed many Americans with his stridently anti-communist Fascist agenda.
In 1922, Mussolini managed to convince the King to Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, to appoint him Prime Minister. Over the next two decades, there was an erosion of democracy and punishment for anyone who tried to obstruct “Il Duce’s” regime.
In April 1924, Mussolini faced his first elections after becoming Prime Minister. But to ensure he received a plurality of votes and enjoy a Fascist mandate, he intimidated, beat and harassed voters into voting for his party.
In June of that year, Giacomo Matteotti, the leader of the reformist Unitary Socialist Party — a democratic socialist party who held 24 out of 508 seats— took the floor of the Italian parliament and decried April’s electoral fraud.
“Every elector knew that if he dared to vote against the Fascisti a huge armed force which the government had at its disposal would have come into play and annulled the elections,” Mattoetti said June 1, 1924. “The Fascist militia was present at every electoral station … and even where it did not employ actual violence its very presence was a threat against the liberty of the citizens to vote when they pleased and for whom they pleased.”
June 10, Matteotti disappeared and was found a few months later, beaten to death. Slowly, evidence mounted that Mussolini himself ordered the socialist to be kidnapped and murdered. But despite all of this evidence, Mussolini survived what went on to be known as the Matteotti Affair, and continued his anti-democratic crusade as the head of the world’s first totalitarian regime.
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Fast forward to the present, and Cornyn’s tweet is an example of a dangerous ignorance of history. On the surface level, it’s easy and convenient to ascribe a quote out of context and deem it a lesson of history, but a lack of historical knowledge is not excusable.
We have seen over the past few years a cycle of misinformation intentionally and unintentionally spread across social media. Some people tend to believe everything that they see on the internet, and that’s true when it comes to history.
What’s most frustrating about Cornyn’s tweet is how objectively and obviously wrong it is. He wasn’t misunderstanding some obscure fact that only history PhDs or trivia enthusiasts would understand — he was just blatantly wrong. It’s either that the senator is woefully ignorant to the terrors of Mussolini’s regime, or he simply doesn’t care enough and knows some will be receptive to it anyway.
Both are bad, but the second is terrifying.
Spreading misinformation as a weapon for political gain or simply as a weapon to attempt to tear down the other side isn’t a tactic to be proud of. Similarly, twisting a narrative and flipping history may serve one an initial benefit, but over time it’s a dangerous exercise that could have dire consequences, and in turn, could impact the actions of people today. If people believe a tweet like Cornyn’s and assume that an entire political group is inherently undemocratic, they’re going to have a hard time believing otherwise.
We have seen how conspiracy theories and other fantastical made-up stories have lead to violence because someone wasn’t able to discern the truth (remember Pizzagate?). An ahistorical understanding is no different and it poses real-life consequences if nothing is done.
History at its core is about uncovering the stories of the past and bringing them to life. It is about deduction, investigation, and telling the truth, and Cornyn got that all wrong. Constructing an arc that bends history to fit one’s personal political agenda isn’t history — it’s lying.
Adam Ramer ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and history.