Why populists adore cats – and use them in their political propaganda

Italy’s rightwing deputy prime minister is using cat pictures to soften his anti-migrant posts on Facebook. This is no surprise. The whitewashed cats of the internet are pure phoneys

Fans of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s rightwing, populist deputy prime minister, have been sending him images of their cats so he can post the cute, furry faces on his Facebook page and give his relentless attacks on migrants a more cuddly setting. Yet the idea that cat pictures are sweet is an internet-era development. In art, until recently, the cat was an evil creature.

It is positively diabolical in Renaissance images of witchcraft. The German artist Hans Baldung Grien regularly included cats in his drawings of witches cavorting naked . While his witches offer themselves to Satan, their feline familiars, nicely observed, sit enigmatically, as cats will. In fact, 500 years ago, cats were considered so malign they were sometimes sealed alive inside wattle-and-daub walls .

That legacy of superstition took a long time to fade. Francisco Goya included a fat cat among the bestial personifications of madness and ignorance in his print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters . In 1939, Picasso painted a brutal allegory of Hitler as a vicious cat carrying a broken bird in its jaws. In cinema, too, cats are, at best, disturbingly amoral: a cat cosies up to the ruthless Harry Lime in The Third Man, while an equally corrupt kitty wantonly accepts Vito Corleone’s patronage in The Godfather.

Perhaps it is fitting that in our own sleep of reason, populists adore cats. Salvini’s furry Facebook friends draw attention to something strange and sickly in the new age of online cat art. Internet cats are always funny and touching. Just this morning I was watching a video of one in China doing situps . Where are the cats bringing in dead birds as gifts? Where are the rodent hecatombs?

Of course, cats are not actually evil; Picasso was simply observing their predatory nature. The internet, by contrast, has created a superficial, sentimental parade of sickly sweet moggies. These whitewashed cats are pure phoneys. It means Salvini and his followers can lavish love on pussy cats while refusing to empathise with migrants. That’s a hypocrisy Goya or Picasso would have seen through. The populist is Europe’s new top cat, hiding its claws.