Like Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump is entertaining the masses. He’s also damaging his country’s democracy for a generation.
- By Valentina PasqualiValentina Pasquali is a freelance journalist in Washington DC. She is originally from Italy and, among other things, writes about US politics for Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia.
Now that Super Tuesday has brought the Republican nomination, and possibly the White House, within the grasp of Donald Trump, my home country of Italy may have a few lessons to offer America in dealing with his particular brand of leadership. No, not from our time under Mussolini — though Il Duce’s unexpected relevance in an American presidential campaign in 2016 is indeed unsettling. I’m thinking rather of what Italian politics suffered during the 1990s and 2000s, when we elected a billionaire with an abrasive style and a populist flair to govern us. The name of our Trump was Silvio Berlusconi and — spoiler alert — he did not make Italy great again.
It’s unnerving how alike the Republican front-runner and the former Italian prime minister are: skillful practitioners of political expediency, proud makers of shady deals, and unrelenting peddlers of their own cause. “Trump is Berlusconi in waiting, with less cosmetic surgery. Berlusconi is Trump in senescence, with even higher alimony payments,” columnist Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times. Also in the Times, Italian author Beppe Severgnini didn’t mince words: “Both are loud, vain, cheeky businessmen, amateur politicians and professional womanizers. Both have a troubled relation with their egos and their hair.” In the Washington Post, Rula Jebreal noted, with more garb, that “like Berlusconi in Italy, Trump has built a political campaign employing unvarnished language and jaundiced humor.”
Over the course of the campaign, Americans have gotten a taste of Berlusconi-like bravado. But it is nothing compared to the main course — to what the likes of Il Cavaliere and other self-avowed nonpoliticians do to their countries once they’ve actually been put in charge.
Berlusconi came to power in 1994, riding a wave of popular discontent with the national political class resulting from a corruption scandal that enmeshed all levels of government (never mind that Berlusconi himself was also tainted by it). Between the time he was first elected and 2011, when the euro crisis and pressures from Brussels finally brought his reign to a rather ignominious end, he served as Italy’s prime minister three times, for a total of approximately nine years. Whether from his pulpit as the head of government, as a larger-than-life leader of the opposition, or as the owner of the country’s largest media empire, Berlusconi single-handedly dominated Italian politics for nearly 20 years. The country has nothing to show for it.
Leave aside the fact that Italy’s economy stopped growing circa 2002, during his second, and longest, term as PM. Or that the ease of doing business in the country — as assessed by an annual World Bank study — plummeted during his third go-round between 2008 and 2011. So many factors affect a country’s economic performance that it’s hard to pinpoint with whom exactly the fault lies and what part Berlusconi and his politics may have played, though he certainly bears some responsibility.
No, the single worst thing Berlusconi has done, with his decades of dismissive — if not outright abusive — talk about everything from political parties to the judiciary to the media to the presidency (which serves a largely ceremonial role, but crucial to the nation’s cohesiveness) is that he has shattered Italians’ trust in their democratic institutions.
Last month, he called Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government an “illegitimate regime” and the judiciary “the worst cancer of our democracy.” Over the years, he has insisted that any and all legal charges against him were “arbitrary” attempts by “totalitarian” magistrates to undermine the will of the people who elected him. He once said he was “absolutely the politician most persecuted by prosecutors in the entire history of the world throughout the ages.” He has also described journalists as “criminals” and made a habit of suing those who criticize him along with their publications, including foreign ones like the Economist. He has referred to his nemesis Romano Prodi as a “dangerous liar” and accused former Italian President Giorgio Napolitano of conspiring with European authorities to orchestrate “a coup” against him in 2011. He has described the euro as a “rip-off” that “screwed everybody.”
This incendiary rhetoric has profoundly affected Italian voters. According to the private research institute Eurispes, in 2004 approximately 17 percent of Italians said they had little or no trust in the president of the republic. By 2012, after Berlusconi had left office at last, that figure had jumped to more than 35 percent. Distrust in the judiciary went from an already high 41 percent in 2004, a good decade into Berlusconi’s unceasing fight with justices, to a whopping 61 percent in 2012. All the while, freedom of the press in Italy decreased, whereas perceptions of corruption increased (according to Reporters Without Borders and Transparency International, respectively).
Swept up by the tornado of demagoguery and conspiracy theories that was Berlusconi, Italians grew progressively more despondent and disaffected, as seen in the falling participation rate in national elections. This went from more than 86 percent of all eligible voters in 1994 to around 75 percent in 2013. Even worse is the trend for European elections, going from 75 percent in 1994 to less than 60 percent in 2014.
Today, Italy’s voters remain as apathetic and embittered as ever, prey to the facile appeal of fear-mongering, inward-looking, anti-European parties like the Northern League or the Five Star Movement.
All in all, it’s not in the political philosophy or the election pledges of a Berlusconi or a Trump that one should look for clues as to how they may govern. Because the truth is, they have none. Those who say Trump is a “Republican in name only” are right. Trump, like Berlusconi, is not a conservative per se, certainly not an ideologue. Berlusconi only had a right-wing worldview and legislative proposals insomuch as they served his own personal agenda. He was a populist who espoused conservative talking points because, at the time, they were in vogue, and therefore it was advantageous for him to do so. But it’s not hard to imagine him enthusiastically embracing the opposite positions had those more effectively buttressed his case.
Rather, Americans should be alarmed by Trump’s open disregard for even the most basic political conventions, his eagerness to insult his opponents, the ease with which he overlooks the U.S. Constitution and refuses to engage with the press, and his tendency to prioritize his own interests over the interests of the country. Berlusconi has taught us that their kind leaves only ruin in its wake. America, you’ve been warned.
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