From tolerance to fascism, a town does a soul turnaround.

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MACERATA, Italy — At the end of his shooting rampage as police closed in, Luca Traini climbed the steps of a fascist-era monument, wrapped himself in an Italian flag and straightened his arm in a fascist salute.

He had shot and wounded six African migrants — from Ghana, Mali and Nigeria — in this medieval city near the Adriatic Sea to avenge the dismemberment of a young Italian woman, allegedly by a Nigerian drug dealer. In his mind, he was a patriot.

But to Italian leaders, liberals and anti-fascist groups, Traini was a terrifying omen.

National elections were weeks away, and the Feb. 3 shootings came during a hate-laced campaign marred by anti-migrant language, rising intolerance and hints of a fascist revival.

At the height of the migrant crisis, Italy had been a progressive bastion and a staunch supporter of European unity. But now, the national mood had hardened. Traini’s rage crystallized, in grotesque form, the growing backlash against migrants and the rise of right-wing politics.

The March 4 elections swept in a new populist government, which is deeply skeptical of the European Union and already has slammed the door to new migrants while threatening to expel the ones already in the country.

To some in Brussels, Italy is now Europe’s greatest existential threat.

“Within one year, we will see if united Europe still exists,” Matteo Salvini, the country’s new interior minister, said recently.

Salvini is now Italy’s most turbulent and powerful force. More than anyone, he understood and harnessed the rage unleashed in Macerata.

Often scoffed at for its wobbly governments and disregarded as a mere pleasuredome, Italy has long been Europe’s laboratory for political change. The birthplace of fascism, Italy gave the world Mussolini, flirted seriously with communism, and, in electing Silvio Berlusconi, provided a playbook for billionaires seeking power the world over.

Now, as liberal democracies across Europe are under strain, new threads of populism are transforming Italy’s politics, and fast. Salvini’s nationalist party, the League, has increased its support in Macerata from 0.6 percent in 2013 to 21 percent in March.

Macerata was not always that way.

It had a reputation for tolerance and, in 2013, won national recognition for its integration efforts. The former bishop once boasted about the “welcoming spirit” encoded “in the DNA of the city.”

Humanitarian groups such as the Catholic charity Caritas set up in the city to work with migrants. Inside the Caritas reception center, Ibrahim Diallo, 18, from Senegal, spent a recent afternoon practicing conjugation of the verb “to be” with a young Italian woman, Luigina.

“Io sono Ibrahim; tu sei Luigina,” he said. “Noi siamo a Macerata.”

But that version of Macerata seemed more in the past tense.

Macerata’s new bishop, hand-picked by Pope Francis, observed recently that “all the tensions rising in the country are now visible in this city.”

In the university, founded in 1290, left-wing students warned that a group of hard-right students were espousing the works of Julius Evola, the spiritual and intellectual godfather of Italian fascists and Italy’s post-fascist terrorists.

They said students were attempting to form chapters for hard-right groups such as Forza Nuova, which in October attempted to re-enact Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome.

Martina Borra, a local leader of Forza Nuova, is a friend of Traini, who has been charged with racially motivated attempted murder. He has admitted to the shootings but claimed temporary insanity and is on trial. Borra said he had many local supporters.

“If you ask most people about Luca Traini, they will tell you, ‘He did well, but he should have killed them.’” She added that Italy owed him a debt of gratitude for “having revealed a problem” — and she seemed unbothered that none of the victims were thought to be drug dealers.

Lost generations

Like many Italian cities, Macerata suffered in the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis. A devastating 2016 earthquake brought another setback. But city leaders hoped this year would be a turning point.

Romano Carancini, the city’s affable mayor from the center-left Democratic Party, spent the winter preparing a dossier called “Friendly Macerata” as part of a campaign to become Italy’s 2020 capital of culture. It was a designation that would make the city a major tourist destination.

But it was the area’s tranquillity that attracted Pamela Mastropietro, an 18-year-old from a working-class section of Rome. As a young teenager, she had started dating a Romanian drug dealer and gotten hooked on drugs.

Her mother, a hairdresser, finally persuaded her to enroll in a drug-treatment center overlooking vineyards in the hills near Macerata. She stayed for several weeks.

But Jan. 29, Mastropietro left the rehab center to buy drugs at Diaz Gardens, a park outside Macerata’s city walls. There, Mastropietro is believed to have been led to a 29-year-old Nigerian named Innocent Oseghale, who had arrived in Italy on Aug. 26, 2014, around the height of the migrant landings. He had dropped out of his asylum program and turned to crime.

Soon after Mastropietro’s dismembered body was discovered, the police found her bloody clothes inside Oseghale’s apartment. Italian prosecutors charged him in June with murder, drug dealing and the desecration of a body.

Her mutilation horrified the country and immediately became an issue in the national elections. On the campaign trail, Salvini pounced.

“What was this worm still doing in Italy? He wasn’t fleeing a war. He brought the war to Italy,” Salvini said in a statement posted on Facebook after Oseghale’s arrest. “The left has its hands dirty with blood. Another state killing. Expulsions, expulsions, monitoring and still expulsions!”

Frustrated young voters had fueled the rise of the Five Star Movement, Salvini’s anti-establishment coalition partner. The party remained purposely vague during the campaign to attract votes on the left and right, but Salvini did the opposite.

He accused migrants living in the country illegally of taking jobs from young Italians and advocated extreme measures, including “a mass cleansing, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood.”

In Macerata, Traini, who once described Salvini as his “captain,” held a similar view.

On the morning of Feb. 3, the 28-year-old Traini heard a news report about Mastropietro on the radio and, according to his lawyer, went insane with a desire to kill drug dealers.

All six of Traini’s victims were black. Omagbon Festus, 33, was walking to the grocery store when Traini pulled up next to him. Festus said he saw “a pure white Italian man” pointing a pistol before he felt the bullet that shattered the bone in his left forearm.

In the hours after the shooting rampage, Salvini offered a perfunctory condemnation of the violence on Twitter, but he also argued that “unchecked immigration brings chaos, anger” and “drug dealing, thefts, rapes and violence.”

Carancini scrambled to respond, but he said the damage had been done — to the image that the Democratic Party was effectively managing the migration crisis, to the party’s electoral prospects, and to Macerata’s chances of becoming a major tourist attraction.

Parma, a town in northern Italy already famous for prosciutto and cheese, was chosen as the 2020 capital of culture.

The rise of the league

Only a few years ago, Salvini, the interior minister, seemed like an old blemish on Italy’s fresh new skin.

He led the Northern League, a regional separatist party seemingly out of step with the national mood. Public opinion was rallying around asylum-seekers after Francis visited migrants on the island of Lampedusa in 2013.

The Italian government adopted a humanitarian policy to rescue migrants at sea, while the country’s center-left prime minister, Matteo Renzi, promised to lead Italy into what he saw as modernity.

But roughly 620,000 migrants, many of them Africans, have arrived in Italy since the migration crisis began in 2014. They resided in government centers and local parishes, but many also loitered at train stations or outside supermarkets and bars.

And some have inflated the ranks of the dangerous Nigerian Mafia that traffics in drugs, prostitution and sex slavery.

Salvini turned out to be a talented politician, and by 2016, he was on the rise.

He transformed his Northern League party from a regional separatist movement into a national — and nationalist — movement. He had once disparaged southern Italians as lazy and reeking; now he courted their votes by dropping “Northern” from the party’s name.

Cribbing from an international populist playbook, he railed against the elite and against the mainstream media, even as he dominated its news cycles.

At the onset of the migration crisis, towns and politicians in Sicily sometimes held funerals for unknown migrants who had drowned at sea in a sign of solidarity and respect. But at Mastropietro’s funeral, parishioners in the back of the church whispered “No, no, no” when a delegation of Nigerian officials came to pay their respects.

Mastropietro’s portrait and candles sat atop her white coffin. Carancini sat in the front row and listened as Mastropietro’s mother gave an anguished speech.

“Even if they harmed you atrociously,” she said in a trembling voice, “you are alive despite those people who massacred you.”

The ceremony ended, the crowd broke up, and some wandered past newsstands selling local papers headlined “Pamela: Torture and Crime, The Secrets of the Nigerians.” At Piazza Vittorio Veneto, volunteers offered lunch for 200 residents and migrants. Diallo, the Senegalese man who had practiced his Italian verbs at the Caritas center, laughed with friends as they ate African and Italian specialties. Tiziana Manuale, who managed the center, sat nearby. Many people at the lunch would be forced to leave, she said.

“There was the notion that Macerata is a welcoming city,” she said. “But some parts of the population aren’t ready.”