TARQUINIA, Italy — This time, Italy’s hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, wowed his fans at a farming equipment fair.
He filmed the adoring crowd on his cellphone, whipping it into a frenzy. He delivered a 20-minute serving of populist red meat vilifying the European Union as an enemy of Italian farmers and migrants as a source of Italy’s woes. Then he invited thousands to line up — “to the right, never to the left” — to take selfies with him on stage for more than an hour.
It was hard work, but critics say it is just about the only work that the leader of Italy’s anti-migrant League party does.
Since rising to power last year as the driving force of the Italian government, Mr. Salvini has conducted a perpetual campaign across the country — from the farm fair in the central city of Tarquinia to the “Motorfest” in the northern city of Bra to meetings at Sicilian markets. His show is always on the road.
The most immediate reward is the European Parliament elections on May 26, which populists across the European Union see as an opportunity to test their strength. Mr. Salvini hopes his hard-right League party could become one of the biggest forces — if not the biggest one — in the European Union’s only popularly elected body.
But a victory there is simply a steppingstone to the big prize — gaining enough clout to pull the plug on Italy’s wobbly and increasingly acrimonious governing coalition and make the case for new elections at home, where he is already reshaping politics.
“As my grandmother said, if the company is dubious, better to go alone,” he told the crowd in Tarquinia.
That was not all Mr. Salvini told them. Migration, trade, security — just about all of Italy’s problems would be fixed if Italian voters sent his League to Brussels.
“If you give us a hand choosing the League in the European Elections on May 26, we will go to Brussels and bring back Italian farming, which has been massacred in recent years by Canadian grain, Cambodian rice, Moroccan tomatoes, Tunisian oranges, olive oil from the other part of the world,” Mr. Salvini said. “We will battle for our children to eat and drink Italian products. And this depends on Europe.”
Towns should give benefits and housing to Italians before “Roma and asylum seekers,” he said. He defended his record of blocking ships carrying rescued migrants who “say they have escaped from war and then go around Tarquinia with a baseball cap and a cellphone and sneakers to sell drugs in the parks.”
He mocked the critics who describe him as “racist, fascist, Nazi, populist, sexist, homophobic, etc., etc.,” simply because he puts Italian men and women first. He alleged that Italy was suffering under a double emergency of drugs and sex crimes — namely pedophilia and rape. “There needs to be chemical castration,” he said to wild applause.
It was all part of the forever campaign of Mr. Salvini. He is constantly on television talk shows, on Facebook Live and on campaign stages. And it appears to work for him.
Mr. Salvini’s breezy demeanor, expertly calibrated populist anger and blanket social media game have catapulted him from the single-digit margins of Italian politics to the strongest political force in Italy — and potentially Europe.
But with so much campaigning to be done, who has time to govern? Critics have noted that, since taking office last June, Mr. Salvini has hardly been in the office.
An analysis in March of Mr. Salvini’s schedule by the Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, found that he often averaged less than 10 days a month in his ministry office and that he voted in the Senate, where he is a member, less than 2 percent of the time, casting only 57 out of 3,286 possible votes.
A headline in the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper this week called him the “Minister on the Lam” and said that in the first four months of the year he had worked, at most, 17 full days in the ministry, but participated in well over 200 events around the country.
Mr. Salvini’s use of police helicopters or planes to reach those events has become a source of attack from political rivals.
“Obviously,” Mr. Salvini told the crowd in Tarquinia. “I am connected night and day, day and night with the Interior Ministry.”
What is clear is that Mr. Salvini has campaigned tirelessly, stirring fear over migrants and anger against Brussels and expanding the reach of his traditionally northern and secessionist party to the southern regions he once scorned.
Last weekend he called the May 26 election “a referendum between life and death” and an opportunity for the League to become “the leading party in Europe — to take back the keys to our own house.”
In many ways, he is the hardest working man in Italian politics. But it is politics he is working at. And not everyone is buying what he has to sell.
As Mr. Salvini morphs into an ever-expanding political force, his opponents and even erstwhile allies in the Five Star Movement, with whom he shares power in government, are coalescing to stop him.
Five Star’s political leader, Luigi Di Maio, has attacked Mr. Salvini for protecting a government official accused of corruption and accused him of inciting and legitimizing extremists.
“The far right is a danger,” Mr. Di Maio told La Repubblica.
More reliably liberal critics argue that Mr. Salvini and Five Star are caught running on the gerbil wheel of a perpetual campaign with little interest in actual governing, and that they are destroying the economy, eroding Italian democracy and endangering the nation’s place in Europe.
Some regular citizens, disgusted with the direction Mr. Salvini is taking the country, are increasingly protesting at his campaign rallies and sabotaging his celebrated selfie lines with ambush-style videos that have gone viral on the web.
“Can I tell you something?” a young woman in Sardinia asked him at a rally, to which Mr. Salvini responded cheerily, “Tell me whatever you’d like.”
“You are a lethal turd,” she said.
In recent weeks, opponents of Mr. Salvini have planted themselves in those long lines and put their ambush videos on the web, too. One young man asked him about 49 million euros, or about $55 million, of unaccounted-for money that his party owes to the state.
Two women expressed their displeasure with his support for social ultraconservatives by kissing passionately beside him.
Many of those snapshots and videos have elicited chuckles from Mr. Salvini’s opponents. But one video was more worrying, and for Mr. Salvini’s enemies, suggested the potential culmination of his perpetual campaign.
In the southern town of Salerno, inhabited by Italians whom Mr. Salvini once denigrated as hicks who smelled so bad as to chase dogs away, Valentina Sestito, posed for the selfie video with Mr. Salvini and challenged “the great Salvini’’ on his characterization of people from the south.
Mr. Salvini quickly took the phone and passed it to someone and said, “erase this.” The woman later told Italian radio that she finally got her phone back from either an aide or law enforcement officer.
He then told her that if she pulled a stunt like that again, he’d break her fingers.