In spite of exemptions over the years it’s been taken for granted that a politician running for office should be a decent law-abiding human being. Consequently, the media has focused on exposing politicians repeatedly caught lying, womanising, making racist or misogynistic remarks and involved in shady business dealings assuming any or all of this would make politicians unfit for office. Silvio Berlusconi, longest serving Italy’s prime minister, disproved that. Now Donald Trump’s victory has shown that some voters not only don’t mind what some see as repugnant behaviour but do indeed find it appealing. – I first understood this in 2008 when I spoke to an Italian voter rooting for Silvio Berlusconi precisely because Berlusconi was ‘a son of a bitch like the rest of us!’
“Mussolini never killed anyone. Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile,” Silvio Berlusconi then prime minister of Italy said in a newspaper interview in 2003. In a speech that same year at the New York Stock Exchange he encouraged investment in Italy because “we have beautiful secretaries… superb girls.” Another infamous Berlusconi comment was that US president Barack Obama and his wife must have sunbathed together since they were equally tanned. The career of the now 80 years old Berlusconi is littered with racist, misogynistic comments and peculiar understanding of history, as well as serious allegations of relations to organised crime. All of this was well known when he first won elections in Italy in 1994 as a media tycoon and the country’s wealthiest man.
It’s as yet untested if Donald Trump was right in saying he could, literally, get away with murder and still not lose voters but like Berlusconi Trump has been able to get away with roughly everything else: racism, misogyny, not paying tax – he’s too smart to pay tax and might actually never make his tax returns public – mob-relations, shady business dealings and Russian connections.
Being an Italian prime minister is next to nothing compared to being a US president. Berlusconi was in and out of power for almost twenty years, winning elections in 2001 and 2008 and losing only by a whisker in 2013. Trump can at most get eight years in power. But apart from the different standing of the two offices the two men, as a political phenomenon, are strikingly similar. Like Berlusconi, Trump was to begin with treated as a political joke.
The lesson here is that accidental politicians – accidental because they turned to politics as outsiders late in life – like Berlusconi and Trump appeal to voters not necessarily in spite of their remarks but because of them. For some voters they are a type of “loveable rascals” immune to media exposures, their spell-like influence based on their business success as if their personal success could be repeated nationwide. The almost twenty year experiment with Berlusconi did help his own businesses, not the country he was running for almost half of that time.
It’s not that all Italian or all Americans have fallen in love with the “lovable rascals:” during his time in power Berlusconi’s party got up to 30% of votes. Since half of US voters didn’t vote it took only around 25% of the voters to sign Trump’s invitation for the White House and as we know Hillary Clinton did indeed get more votes.
The food for thought for the media is that investigations and exposures only go so far. Higher electoral participation would probably help fight demagogues and racists – a worthy project for the US political parties and civil society in general.
1990s – no end to history but a trend towards merging of left and right
Berlusconi built his empire from scratch, Trump started off with some inherited wealth. Although outsiders in the political system they rose on political ties and entered into politics at times of economic upheaval. In Italy growth fell in the early 1990s, zick-zacked on and has been dismal since 2000. Trump’s victory is underpinned by stagnant wages in US for familiar reasons: globalisation, low union participation and technological changes though the exact weight of the three factors is disputed.
Malaise in the old parties both on the left and the right goes far in explaining the success of the two politicians. In Italy, the parties left right and centre were for years in a kaleidoscopic flux, and still are to a certain degree, following the collapse of the political system based on the Christian Democrats and the Socialists brought down by the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the ‘Mani Pulite’ corruption cases.
Berlusconi founded his own party in 1993 and conquered the Italian right-of-centre, orphaned after the demise of the Christian democrats, many of whom found a second home and political career in Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. After his first short stint as prime minister 1994 to 1995 the Italian left kept Berlusconi out of government but he didn’t give up. His time came in the elections in 2001 when he sat as prime minister until 2006, a record in post-war Italy and then again 2008 to 2011.
Trump won a double victory: first by hijacking the Republican candidacy against the party elite, then by winning over the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Contrary to the outsider Barack Obama she belonged to the party elite who since the 1990s, her husband’s time in power, have embraced capitalism, light regulation and big corporation – a course that hasn’t helped to improve the lot of the lower and middle class.
As the Nobel-prize economist Angus Deaton spelled out so brilliantly in his book “The Great Escape”: when banks and private wealth fund campaigns for Republicans and Democrats both ends of the political spectrum root for the same special interest policies and the general public is left behind (the long view on the Democrats is brilliantly told here, by Matt Stoller).
Berlusconi and Trump: the “lovable rascals” framing their own political persona
As politicians have lost trust businessmen have gained greater weight in shaming politicians and public officials claiming that a country should be run like a business. Both Berlusconi and Trump have incessantly touted their business acumen to prove their political astuteness emphasising that being wealthy they can’t be bribed. In addition Berlusconi owns a famous football club in a football-besotted country.
With a party of his own Berlusconi set his own rules. Trump welcomed his loss of support among the Republican elite, claiming it unshackled him. Both were free to create their own political persona, both seem to be consummate actors. Trump changed his rhetoric from the primaries to the campaign and now seems to be interpreting his presidential role in yet another way. The controversial statements were, as Trump said on CBS’s Sixty Minutes, “necessary to win.”
It’s too simple to say that both men have found support among working class angry men. They found support among women (Berlusconi though less than Trump) and both appeal to well-off voters. The anger, now the common explanation for Trump’s success (and the Brexit outcome), hadn’t really been discovered when Berlusconi rose to power. But both men are very good at vilifying their opponents: Berlusconi stoked the fear of communism; Trump claimed Hillary Clinton was the embodiment of all the evil in Washington.
For those who find the behaviour of first Berlusconi and now Trump inexcusable and worry about aspects of their businesses, quite apart from their rambling politics, it’s difficult to understand that media investigations and exposures has little or no effect on their supporters. It’s not necessarily that their followers don’t know about the questionable sides, they often do. Some may identify with them on the premise that no one is perfect. For others, the two are some sort of “loveable rascals.”
It doesn’t mean that any kind of foul-mouthed shady business man can win support and rise to power but foulmouthed and frivolous inexperienced politicians seemed unthinkable before the rise of Berlusconi in 1990s in Italy and of Trump most recently in the US. “Lovable rascal” are exempts from the criteria normally used and critical coverage doesn’t really bite: their voters like them as they are.
Confirmed Putin-admiring sinners with strong appeal to religious voters
Berlusconi was a prime minister in a country partly ruled by the Vatican and has courted voters who support conservative family values. Also Trump has diligently appealed to devout evangelical Christians. These voters seem to ignore that Berlusconi and Trump have diligently sought media attention surrounded by young girls, Trump as a co-owner of the Miss Universe Organization, Berlusconi via his TV stations, feeding stories of affairs and escapades. Berlusconi has been involved in a string of court cases due to sex with underage prostitutes.
This paradox is part of the “loveable rascal” – the two are exempt from the ethics their Christian followers normally hold in esteem.
Both men have shown great vanity in having gone to some length in fighting receding hairline. As is now so common among the far-right both men openly admire Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. Berlusconi has hosted Putin in style at his luxury villa in Sardinia and visited Putin at his dacha. And both Trump and Berlusconi have spoken out against international sanctions aimed at Putin’s Russia.
The “I-me-mine” self-centred political discourse and mixture of public and private interests
Since their claim to power rests on their business success the political discourse of Berlusconi and Trump is strikingly self-centred: a string of “I-me-mine” utterances with rambling political messages. Both are devoid of any oratory excellence and their vocabulary is mundane.
Berlusconi’s general political direction is centre-right but often unfocused apart from the unscrupulous defence of his own interests. Shortly after he became prime minister for the second time the so-called Gasparri Act on media ownership was introduced, adapted to Berlusconi’s share of Italian media. When Cesare Previti, a close collaborator, ended in prison in 2006 for tax fraud it took only days until the law had been changed enabling white-collar criminals to serve imprisonment at home rather than in prison.
In general, Berlusconi’s almost twenty years in politics, as a senator and prime minister, were spent in the shadow of endless investigations into his businesses and private life, keeping his lawyers busy. An uninterrupted time of personal fights with judges and that part of the media he didn’t own. Journalists at Rai, the public broadcaster, who criticised Berlusconi lost their jobs and Italy fell down the list of free media.
Trump seems to think he doesn’t need to divest from his businesses. For now he is only president-elect but if the similarities with Berlusconi continue once Trump is in the White House he can be expected to bend and flex power for his own interest. Trump’s time is limited but he can take strength from the fact that just as vulgar behaviour and questionable business dealings didn’t hinder Berlusconi’s rise in politics neither did they shake his power base. Berlusconi won three elections and was in power for nine years from 1994 to 2011.
The bitter lessons of Berlusconi’s long reign
In 2011 Berlusconi his time in power was messily and ungraciously curtailed: having failed utterly to fulfil his promises of reviving the economy he was forced to resign. After being convicted of tax fraud in summer 2013 he lost his last big political fight: to remain a senator in spite of his conviction. Thrown out of the senate after almost twenty years he’s still the leader of his much-marginalised party, now polling around 12%, down from 30% in the elections 2013.
Berlusconi’s businesses went from strength to strength but Berlusconi’s Italy suffered low growth and stagnation.
We don’t know what Trump’s time in office will be like. Personally he isn’t half as wealthy and powerful as Berlusconi was – the wealthiest Italian when he first became prime minister in 1994. It’s unclear how Trump’s businesses will be run while he takes a stab at running the country. His businesses might well come under investigation and we might see a similar wrestle between Trump and investigators as the ones Berlusconi fought.
Although Italy didn’t thrive in the first decade of the 21st century, the Berlusconi era, he seemed for years invincible for lack of better options and for his promises and appeal. For the “lovable rascal” politician it doesn’t seem to matter if their promises never come to fruition or if they say one thing and do something else – their policies are not the only root of their popularity.
Democracy, lies and the media
Many Italians worried that Berlusconi undermined democracy both in his overt use of power and his own media to further own interests and the more covert use, such as putting pressure on judges and Rai journalists. Whereas Romans were fed bread and games Berlusconi fed his voters on TV shows with scantily clad girls. Berlusconismo referred to all of this: his centre-right ideas, his use of power to further own interests and the vulgarity of it all.
The palpable sense of political disillusionment in the wake of Berlusconi hobbling off the political scene in a country with depressed economy hasn’t made it any easier to be an Italian politician. The void left space for this strange phenomenon that is Beppe Grillo and his muddled Cinque Stelle movement in addition to the constant flux of parties merging or forming new coalitions.
But the political momentum is neither on the far-right Lega movement and the cleaned-up fascist party, Alleanza Nazionale nor the far-left fringe. Italian democracy after Berlusconi isn’t weaker than earlier in spite of the unashamed demagogy and his self-serving use of power. There is no second Berlusconi in sight in Italy.
Berlusconi seemed to be a singular political event but with the rise of Donald Trump Berlusconi is no longer unique. And there seem to many American voters who think like the Italian one who in 2008 told me he was going to vote for Berlusconi because Berlusconi was ‘a son of a bitch like the rest of us!’ – these voters don’t care what the media reports on their chosen politicians. Consequently, the media needs to figure out how to operate in times of flagrant lies and dirty deals from politicians who can appeal to voters in spite of what was once thought to rule out any possibility of a political career.
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