We’re All Living in Berlusconi’s World Now

The Italian leader played buffoon, victim, and messiah. Others have followed suit.

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he attends a rally in Rome on Nov. 27, 2013.
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he attends a rally in Rome on Nov. 27, 2013. Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images

Italy has always been at the cutting edge of political innovation. The Papal States were trialing Christian theocracy for centuries before others caught on; fascism inspired Nazism. And—most telling of all today—Silvio Berlusconi’s billionaire buffoonery preempted his later imitators, such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, by decades. Hindsight makes it easier to understand Berlusconi’s domination of Italy from 1994 to 2011 and how he deployed the same tactics as his political descendants.

An often overlooked aspect of Berlusconi’s career was his astonishing ability to cast himself as a victim and as a martyr. “We’re persecuted by the judges,” he claimed as he pondered entering politics in July 1993, when a corruption scandal was sweeping away the First Italian Republic. Berlusconi frequently compared himself to Jesus because of what he called “political show trials.” “I’m the most persecuted man in all of history,” he once said. Any criminal accusation (and there were many) was turned to his advantage, making him appear the long-suffering savior of an ungrateful nation: “I put up with everything and sacrifice myself for everyone,” he said in 2006.

It was a winning strategy because it chimed perfectly with the sense of injustice felt by many ordinary Italians. Italians invariably feel that they suffer, far more than other nationalities, from crippling taxation, obstinate bureaucracy, organized crime, judicial incompetence, and centuries of colonization. That sense of injustice made the superrich media magnate seem like them: a downtrodden underdog, singled out and scapegoated. The more he was attacked by moralistic outsiders, the more he appealed to the provincial voter fed up with centuries of foreign finger-wagging. Like an aikido master, Berlusconi could turn any attack to his advantage.

But the martyr narrative also worked because it spoke to a large rump of the population who felt abandoned or bewildered: The privileged—largely well-off white males—felt their position had been, or was about to be, snatched away by investigative magistrates, feminism, multiculturalism, communism, and so-called political correctness. Berlusconi launched broadsides against all the above. He picked fights with women, calling them ugly, unsexed, or unpatriotic. Either that or they were just baubles: Italy’s “beautiful secretaries,” he once said in New York, were a good reason to invest in the country. He launched a red scare while allying himself with fascists. He joked about Barack Obama’s tan. His jibes against gay people were incessant: “Better to be a passionate about beautiful girls,” he once said, “than to be gay.”

Amid the political predictability of the 1990s, Berlusconi was—for journalists—the goose that just kept laying the golden gaffes. But those off-color comments—which appeared improvised—were calculated messages to voters that he shared their fears and prejudices. He was the first to understand that in a democracy no longer dominated, even in Italy, by Christian morality, decency and probity were overrated: Locker room vulgarity guaranteed more votes than enlightened sensitivity.

A strange feedback loop occurred whereby Berlusconi regularly insulted minorities, was duly admonished and attacked, and thus cast himself as a victim of those minorities. “In Italy,” he said in 2005, “only communists and gays are sanctified.” It was beguiling to voters because he seemed to be taking on a (imaginary) cartel of politically correct, lefty elitists (or, as Italians call them—in Franco-English—the “radical chic”). The strategy inverted everything: The buonisti (the goodies) were suddenly the baddies, and the spregiudicati (the unscrupulous) were now considered courageous.

That inversion allowed Berlusconi to pose as an outsider. Even though corrupt former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi had been best man at his wedding, Berlusconi masqueraded as an anti-establishment candidate, far removed from the soiled politicians of the past. Like Trump, who hobnobbed with the Clintons at his own (third) wedding, Berlusconi didn’t come from within a political party but from far outside the party system. It was a conjuring trick that allowed the counterrevolutionary (reimposing white male privilege and defending the establishment from judicial persecution) to pose as an insurgent. The billionaire pulled off the incredible stunt of appearing as a man of the people.

Such sleights of hand were possible because Berlusconi came to power at the dawn of the so-called post-truth world. Italy was, perhaps, the first country to enter this strange terrain because it has always had a strange relationship with veracity: As one eloquent Italian proverb has it, “To get to the truth, you have to listen to two lies.” And with Berlusconi, there were a lot of lies to listen to. Whether because of the trumpeted “end of ideologies” or because of a rise of relativism or due to the echo chambers and low quality control of the nascent internet, the aspirations of objectivity, and fidelity to the facts, seemed to dissolve in the 1990s. Gonzo journalism—subjective, deliberately dissolute, and excitingly coarse—had given way to gonzo politics.

Italy was a particularly fertile terrain for this new form of politics. Throughout the First Italian Republic, from 1946 to the early 1990s, spartizione meant that each political party received a slice of the media pie of RAI, the state broadcaster. Parties had their own channels and even their own newspapers. By the mid-1990s, no one had ever expected objectivity because Italy had always had hired guns in the media and angrily ranting shock jocks. The situation was compounded by the national pastime of dietrologia—conspiracy theorizing or, literally, “behindology”: Nothing is ever taken at face value, and being cleverly counterintuitive is admired more than common-sense acceptance of the facts.

They were years almost tailor-made for a blowhard with a massive media empire. It suddenly didn’t matter whether what he said was right or wrong, true or false, as long as he could be heard above all the others. Long before Twitter, Fox News, or the Daily Telegraph were offering his imitators a direct line to voters, Berlusconi’s Mediaset was ensuring that this Walter Mitty character could accuse others of lying and be believed. I was once dubbed an “English Pinocchio” by one of Berlusconi’s magazines when I wondered why he had lied that a teenage girl he was hanging out with was the daughter of Craxi’s chauffeur—or lied that an underage girl he was, at the very least, partying with was a relative of Hosni Mubarak. The tables had been turned, and any truth-seeker was derided as a peddler of fake news.

It was on the world stage that the contours of Berlusconi’s character came most clearly into focus. The term “peekaboo diplomacy” was coined for his jocular appearances. He would hide behind pillars or put up fingers behind someone’s head as they were photographed. But the “peekaboo” phrase stuck because it alluded not just to his clowning but his “now he’s with you, now he’s not” foreign policy. His fidelity to allies was no greater than it was to his wives.

For reasons that are both geopolitical (proximity to the Maghreb and a postwar Communist Party so large the Iron Curtain came right through Rome) and anthropological (Italians can be sometimes pathologically noncommittal), Italy has often had a Janus-like foreign policy, looking both ways at once: East and West, Arab and Israeli, neutral and belligerent (World War I), Allied and Axis (World War II). But Berlusconi’s whimsy in foreign policy was unprecedented: The national interest was subsumed into his personal, business, and even libidinal intrigues.

Sometimes Berlusconi’s alliances seemed based not on strategic calculation but on personal chumminess. He was notoriously friendly with Vladimir Putin (he mimed shooting a journalist who asked a personal question of Putin in a shared press conference) and was even one of the wedding dignitaries at the marriage of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s eldest daughter. He bonded with other world leaders by sharing his own harem: In May 2008, the former prime minister of the Czech Republic, Mirek Topolanek, was photographed nude, and aroused, while surrounded by seminaked women in Berlusconi’s Sardinian villa. Like Trump, Berlusconi deliberately left vital posts unfilled to allow himself maximum leeway: As well as being prime minister, Berlusconi was also foreign secretary for 10 months in 2002.

Given such shaky foundations for foreign policy, it was hardly surprising that his position on vital topics flip-flopped. He was simultaneously scathing about the EU—constantly blaming the euro for the travails of the Italian economy—but also, when outflanked by even more Euroskeptic populists, a defender of it. (He now sits as a member of the European Parliament.) He was assiduous in rehabilitating Muammar al-Qaddafi, co-signing the 2008 Benghazi agreement between Italy and Libya in which the former agreed to pay $5 billion as compensation for Italian colonization, payable through infrastructure projects over 20 years, in return for the latter stemming the flood of immigrants to Italian coasts. Qaddafi repeatedly visited Rome, and his sovereign investment fund bought into major Italian institutions like the UniCredit bank, Juventus soccer team, and the petroleum giant Eni. But by 2011, seven Italian military bases were being used to launch attacks on the regime, with Berlusconi suddenly aligned against his erstwhile ally.

Berlusconi wasn’t alone, of course, in changing his policy toward Libya, but for him that sort of volte-face was habitual. His inscrutability and unpredictability almost morphed into a strategy: He often said his favorite book was Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, and it certainly appeared as if his decisions owed more to spontaneity, impetuosity, chutzpah, and petulance than to reason. That might be the sign of a chancer, the willingness to improvise according to the audience, saying one thing here and another there. Maybe it’s the mark of a petulant child who has to be wooed, won round, indulged, and enticed so that the giggles emerge instead of the sulks.

But the result was that no one knew quite what to expect. No one ever really knew what he stood for, whether he was a free marketeer or a protectionist, part of a revolution or a restoration, a libertarian or a cryptofascist, a joker or a gangster. And that chameleonic quality meant that the story was always about him; even a quarter of a century after he became prime minister, we’re still scratching our heads, trying to understand him and his electorate.

Because the story was invariably about him, it was rarely about anything else. Politics became nothing more than a referendum on one man. The journalist Indro Montanelli once called him “the boulder that paralyses Italian politics.” His degree of charisma and Midas touch were amplified by fawning fans, while his faults and crimes were fantasized about by his opponents and enemies. There was no middle way between the belief that he was Jesus Christ or that he was Al Capone.

Something similar is happening with both Trump and Johnson. Like Berlusconi, they are either idealized or demonized. Their cosmopolitan opponents see them as notorious womanizers, provocative blunderers prone to scandals and obscenities. But such politicians have a staying power and appeal that is always underestimated. Their seemingly off-the-cuff quips are appreciated, by supporters, for being candid, uncomplicated, and countercultural. It was a strategy patented by Berlusconi, and he, after all, won three general elections.

Tobias Jones is a journalist in Italy. His new book Ultra will be published in September.

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