My swastika tattoo doesn't mean I'm a fascist. Honest.
Sunderland's owners seemingly thought no one would. Quite apart from the stupidity of changing managers this late in the season (Harry Redknapp looks like being unable to save QPR from themselves, and he was appointed their manager back in November), they apparently lined up Di Canio as Martin O'Neill's replacement without so much as considering whether his past affiliation and gestures might cause controversy. They certainly did at Swindon, when the GMB union cancelled its sponsorship deal after Di Canio was appointed manager there, even if that hardly received the same national attention his taking the job at Sunderland has.
As the students and historians of fascism have been so swift to tell us, it's certainly the case that we shouldn't confuse Italian fascism prior to Mussolini's alliance with Hitler with the ideology that emerged in Germany after the first world war, heavily influenced by the often eccentric nationalists of the day. Nazism from the outset was virulently racist, whereas Mussolini's brand of nationalism only became overtly racist with the anti-semitic Manifesto of Race in 1938, by which point it was Hitler who was influencing the leader who, while not his mentor, had certainly been the one figure from outside Germany to most inspire him.
The emphasis on race is perhaps to miss the point a little. While you certainly can be a fascist without being a racist, there are only so many ways you can hold an admiration for someone like Mussolini without either downplaying or completely ignoring certain parts of their legacy. I personally find Stalin infinitely more intriguing a historical figure than any of the other totalitarian dictators of the 20th century as his path to power with the Bolsheviks is so extraordinary. Pick up any recent biography of him and there is almost a consensus that despite being one of the greatest monsters in terms of the numbers who died as a result of his policies and paranoia, his role in the defeat of Nazi Germany is so significant that he can't be dismissed as Hitler or Mao often are.
In that sense, you can still be shocked, disgusted and overawed at how tens of millions died as they came under Stalin's yoke, while also being thankful that his leadership of the Soviet Union after the initial shock of the Nazi invasion helped to ensure that democracy and freedom in (most) of western Europe survived (and yes, obviously most of the respect should go to the sacrifices made by the Russian people and then to the strategies pursued by the Red Army's generals, but you can hardly ignore that Stalin, unlike Hitler, allowed his generals the freedom to plan and execute their manoeuvres, and towards the end of the war only really intervened to increase the competition between them).
With Mussolini, the case against him surely outweighs any positives. His alliance with Hitler brought nothing but absolute disaster to Italy. Certainly there are those that will cite the period prior to then as being more favourable, yet while there will always be some who are content with living under a one party system, very few are likely to say they would prefer to today.
If Di Canio's politics are of the far-right without being totalitarian, which is rare, then that's one thing. The point is though that fascism so much as it exists in 21st century Europe is almost entirely racist in nature. While you can't really describe the British National Party as neo-Nazi when their most extreme racial policy (in public at least) is voluntary repatriation, Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary have made no such gestures towards respectability as the far-right here have. You can argue about whether groups such as the EDL hide their real intentions behind their campaigning against Islamic extremism (and I'd say they most certainly do, and they don't really even bother to hide it), yet the closest thing we now have to a party with mass appeal on the hard right is UKIP, which treads an extremely fine line between being anti-immigration and openly xenophobic.
Even if Di Canio is a fascist, albeit not a racist one, despite his denial today after he prevaricated yesterday, his political views shouldn't be held against him as long as he doesn't discriminate because of them. Just as it's always been absurdly illiberal and discriminatory for BNP members to be barred from teaching when the idea they could indoctrinate children is laughable, no one should be refused a job based on their political beliefs. The real reason this has become such an issue isn't so much down to Di Canio himself, although both he and Sunderland should have seen this coming and addressed it properly at the outset, or as soon as David Miliband resigned, but due to how racism remains such an issue in the English game, as demonstrated by the behaviour of some England fans at the San Marino game last week. All this has also taken attention away from the real issue for Sunderland as a football club; whether Di Canio is the right man for the manager's job, and to judge from his time at Swindon, he almost certainly isn't.