Italy’s Rebel Blows It

Beppe Grillo, the comedian turned populist firebrand, looked set to upend Italy's staid politics, but instead suffered his first crushing electoral defeat. What happened?


Pointing to the wall-size image of his shouting, wild-eyed face projected on the RAI1 political talk show Porta a Porta‘s backdrop studio screen on May 19, 65-year-old Beppe Grillo — leader of the staunchly left-wing, grassroots Five Star Movement (M5S) and longtime politically engaged comedian — was in rare form. "If I saw such a guy I’d never vote for him. It’s clear he’d frighten people," he said, to the chuckles of the audience.

Complaining that the media depicts him as a "terror," and as "someone who shouts," the portly but dashing Grillo stalked Porta a Porta’s stage. Tieless, dressed in a sports jacket and jeans, he seemed surprisingly calm — belying his reputation as an explosive orator prone to hurling invective at his opponents. But this didn’t last long.

For the next 50 minutes, Grillo proceeded to dominate his interviewer, the staid and besuited Bruno Vespa, Porta a Porta’s host. Gesticulating, at times even shouting, he issued damning indictments of the political situation in Italy, a country suffering destruction by a "criminal association" of journalists, politicians, and industrialists whom he likened to a new Mafia. The M5S would defeat them at the ballot box in elections for the European Parliament on May 25, and not with the predicted 33 percent of the vote, but with a smashing 96 percent. Their campaign slogan (and hashtag), he reminded the audience, was: #Vinciamonoi — We’ll win!

Grillo and his upstart Five Star Movement were at their peak. An M5S victory at the European Parliamentary elections on May 25 threatened to disrupt Italy’s stabilized markets, derail Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s plans for reform, and even lead to new elections — a prospect that could have sparked chaos, both in Italy and across the eurozone.

Grillo, who generally spurns the mass media, was clearly relishing his return to television; Porta a Porta was his first live appearance since 1993. A political satirist whose lacerating tongue got him de facto banned from the public airwaves, he reserved especially virulent ire for three of the four recent prime ministers. He usually calls them insulting nicknames of his own concoction — "l’ebetino di Firenze" ("the feeble-minded Florentine" for Matteo Renzi, the current head of government); "il psiconano" and "il pregiudicato" ("the psycho-dwarf" with a criminal record, for 77-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned in November 2011); and "Rigor Montis" (for the technocrat Mario Monti, 71, booted from the prime ministership in July 2012).

On Porta a Porta, Grillo hit his stride. The national debt is soaring, GDP is falling, foreign investors are buying up the jewels of Italy’s patrimony, and politicians are gorging on a feast of corruption while presiding over the "disfacimento" (decline) of the country, he railed. No compromise or alliance with such "criminals" was possible, thundered Grillo. Soon the M5S would initiate online mock trials of all of them. In fact, Grillo told the audience, he had arrived with a plastic-wrapped model castle outfitted with dungeons (tagged with the names of the soon-to-be "convicted"), but studio security had not let him bring it in.

Perhaps no Italian politician in recent memory had ever spoken as forcefully or frankly about Italy’s predicament.

And few, if any, in recent memory have received such a thrashing at the polls: Instead of the predicted 33 percent, M5S won only 21 percent — coming in a full 19 points behind the Partito Democratico and its head, the "feeble-minded Florentine" Renzi.

The defeat reduced Grillo to an interlude of silence. His first response came only the next day: a blog entry posting an Italian translation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem "If," and the number 5,804,810 — M5S’s vote count — followed by GRAZIE.

Grillo’s bombast and subsequent rout aside, the economic crisis against which he rails — and in which Italy remains mired — is the worst since World War II. And the anger Italians feel about it is real and growing. According to a Pew Research Center poll, in 2013, only 25 percent of Italians believed their politicians were doing a good job of handling the crisis — a drop of 23 points since the previous year. Another study found that 88 percent of Italians distrust all the country’s traditional political parties. A kick-the-bums-out alternative was bound to emerge, and the Five Star Movement did.

M5S may be the first political entity to have grown out of a blog — Grillo’s own, which he began in 2005, and which quickly became immensely popular, valued for its incisive humor and truth-telling. Edited by a ponytailed Internet whiz named Gianroberto Casaleggio, each entry is concise, jargon-free, and focused on current affairs. In it, Grillo unabashedly asserts his populist bona fides, calling the provocative tirades he delivers at his rallies "what everyone is saying," and advocating "direct democracy" via the Internet. The movement’s ascent was just as sudden and dazzling.

Founded in 2009 as a political party by Grillo (and Casaleggio), M5S polled at just 2 percent in 2010, but last year took 26 percent of seats in elections to the Chamber of Deputies and 24 percent in the Senate. Even more surprising was the manner of his unconventional campaign: His 2013 victory bypassed conventional media, campaigning almost exclusively via his website, social media, and his own online television channel.

But what of his platform? Often accused of having no agenda apart from raising hell, Grillo directed people to the seven-point program posted on M5S’s website. It begins by declaring the Italian state to be "bureaucratic, excessively large, costly, and inefficient," that "the Parliament no longer represents its citizens," and that "the Constitution is no longer applied." It goes on to present a variety of leftist ideas and objectives (that drew followers from across Italy’s political spectrum), including nationwide conversion to green energy by 2020, protectionist economic measures, opposition to military interventions abroad (which Grillo believes spur illegal immigration to Europe), free Internet for all, and wide-ranging media reform. The latter point is especially relevant, given Italy’s abysmal press freedom ranking — 68th in the world, the worst in Western Europe. (This owes much to Berlusconi’s ownership of three national television stations.)

At his rallies, Grillo raged against high unemployment (12.7 percent in April, and 40 percent among youth alone), EU regulations, and the single currency, promising a referendum on Italy’s departure from the eurozone. Corruption was also a constant refrain. He voiced outrage that "la Salma" ("the Corpse," as he has dubbed Giorgio Napolitano, the 89-year-old, visibly enfeebled head of state) received Berlusconi at his residence, the Pal
azzo del Quirinale, even after the latter’s definitive conviction for tax fraud last August, and decried the commutation of his sentence from four years in prison to four hours of unpaid social work a week. "What sort of state is this?" Grillo is fond of saying.

But as the European Parliament elections neared, his already over-the-top rhetoric took outlandish turns.

Grillo asserted, in his blog, that Italians, since the end of World War II, had been living in "a permanent state of coup d’etat." On May 17 at a gathering in Turin, he went further: "We should thank Stalin. He won the war against the Nazis. If Stalin hadn’t won, Martin Schulz [the German president of the European Parliament] would be wearing a swastika on his forehead…. Schulz, go fuck yourself!" He wasn’t done yet. "They say I’m Hitler. But I’m not Hitler, I’m beyond Hitler!" Whatever that meant, he then went on to deride Renzi for "going to lick [Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s big German ass" — that is, for taking orders from Berlin concerning the Italian economy. A few days later, at a rally in Milan, he proclaimed: "Communism is finished because it was poorly carried out. The only capitalism that works is that of the Chinese, because there are Maoists there."

Such pronouncements did little to comfort those worried about just what M5S was all about, and Grillo soon began taking pains to stress that he advocated nonviolence. But likening himself to history’s most notorious butchers surely proved too much for some of his followers, to say nothing of undecided voters.

Despite his recent electoral loss, Grillo, in any case, is certainly not finished. M5S came in second on Italy’s roster, after all, and retains its position as power broker in the Italian Parliament. Renzi may have pledged that his tenure as premier will last to its 2018 term limit, but there is little reason to believe him — at least if recent Italian history is any guide: Italy has had three prime ministers in the last two years, not counting Berlusconi. 

Nevertheless, Grillo’s dismissal of M5S’s eventual leadership question as almost a technicality offers reason for concern about its long-term survivability. No one man-movement can last. But Grillo has led M5S with all the flair and fervor of a taller, shaggier Benito Mussolini — a comparison he rejects, naturally, but which is nonetheless inescapable, despite his leftist agenda. And he’s shown intolerance toward dissent, expelling M5S members who object to his dictatorial style; so far, 19 M5S deputies and senators have either resigned or been kicked out. Grillo said that he’d quit the M5S if it lost the May 25 elections, but he’s shown no indication to do so.

Despite the recent knocks, MS5 is the real deal. The arrival of such a powerful grassroots movement signals the end of Italy’s insufferable political stasis and the dawning of a new, unpredictable era of populism — which may yet break apart the country’s ossified party system. Change is coming to Italy, and that alone is cause for hope.

In fact, Grillo’s already back on his feet. In one post-election blog post, he announced M5S’s new hashtag: #Vinciamopoi. We’ll win later.

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