So we elected this leader of the country. He had a background in light entertainment and a business reputation that was both grandiose and at the same time shady. He branded himself as the anti-politician who would clean up the corrupt capital city. There were obvious concerns about conflict of interest, what with his wealth and media power. He was known for his occasional vulgar language, suspected shenanigans and embarrassing gaffes, particularly with foreign leaders.
This was Silvio Berlusconi who became Prime Minister of Italy first in 1994 and then with a rebranded party in 2001. The parallels with Donald Trump aren’t perfect – he was a sub-Sinatra cruise ship crooner rather than a reality star – but the feeling in the pit of the stomach is pretty much identical. The nausea that comes with seeing a beautiful, complex, occasionally ingenious country being represented on the world stage by something like a syphilitic clown. Everyone’s laughing and the worst part is: it confirms all the worst stereotypes. Just as Silvio seen from outside looked like every superficially charming but ultimately foolish, untrustworthy Italian with a whiff of Mafia, so Donald Trump seen from continental Europe is the brash noisy ignorant American tourist made flesh – so much flesh. Much to the despair of the majority of their countrymen. Like Trump, Silvio never commanded an all-out majority of votes, cobbling together coalitions with promises of graft.
But as amusing as the Bunga-Bunga parties were, less so the accusations of underage sex and the slime that drenched the final slippery decline of his administration, there was also the serious damage that was done to the country. The introduction of the Euro was mismanaged by the Euro-sceptical Berlusconi; environmental controls were loosened further eroding Il bel paese and political discourse was coarsened by a Prime Minister who cheerfully mimed machine gunning journalists during a press conference with Putin and offered Martin Schultz, the German MEP now contender for the Chancellorship, a part in a new film as a concentration camp guard.
So what do we have to learn from Silvio? First of all, beware false hope. Every morning, I’d read the newspapers, the left-leaning La Repubblica, the centrist Corriere Della Sera, and it seemed that every morning there was a ‘Government in Crisis’ or a ‘Government to fall’ headline. Berlusconi was mired in legal difficulty that threatened to see him removed from power, but he used his power to reform and attack the very laws which were most a danger to him as well as remove over-enthusiastic prosecutors and silence journalists. Civil society fought back, with the chief of the magistrates calling on his fellow legal officers to ‘resist, resist, resist!’ and some energetic reporting was done. But Berlusconi gave Italy its longest-running post-war administration. It was hardly, to coin a phrase, Strong and Stable – some legislation was successfully challenged and his coalition partners frequently pulled in opposite directions – but all of those many headlines proved far too optimistic. Narcissistic men with shady pasts and great wealth don’t become narcissistic men with shady pasts and great wealth by accident.
So to the second lesson: familiarity breeds contempt, yes but also resignation. We waited for Berlusconi to become Prime Ministerial. It didn’t happen. He’d come to power with a party named after a football chant: ‘Forza Italia’ – which translates as ‘Come on, Italy’. Imagine an English party called ‘Eng-ger-Land!’ Or an American party called ‘USA! USA!’ Well, there you see, you already have it with Trump’s MAGA. There’s a hundred weight of post-election liberal op-ed pieces trying to give voice to Trump’s America and Trump Country. This self-fulfilling prophecy is already visible. Of course, Trump wraps himself in the flag but it leaves an orange stain that might not wash out and the USA lose their position as de facto leader of the free world. All those years of building up soft power blown away. But also domestically, with spikes in hate crime and an increase in political violence, the US is being molded into a more Trumpian shape. You might resist Trump’s normalization, but the two words ‘President Trump’ exist now – as unlikely and dangerous as ‘flammable cladding’. The resistance cannot simply concentrate on the figure of Trump, but must be aware of the Donaldisation of America.
Finally, when making comparisons we should always remember Bishop Butler: ‘everything is what it is, and not another thing’. Despite the similarities – same fake tan, follicle confusion and 1950s misogyny – Trump and Berlusconi live in different times, in different contexts and are different people. For all his sins, Berlusconi was a gifted manipulator, persuader and pragmatist who built a party system around him. Donald Thinskin appears increasingly isolated, a kind of Alien facehugger who has attached himself to the GOP. Already with a legislative program stalled and an approval rating lower than the Marianas Trench, calculations will be made about cutting a finger and risking the acid that will spurt from the base. But Silvio and Donald both thrive on underestimation and even as I write Berlusconi is visibly standing in the wings of Italian politics as the ruling party of Matteo Renzi bleeds support.