Learning from Italy in the Age of Donald Trump

Silvio Berlusconi

Donald Trump’s rise in the political arena may appear completely unprecedented, but some Europeans can remember a time when their respective governments featured controversial figureheads. Italians, in particular, are all too familiar with right-wing demagogues who garnered political favor through empty promises and wealth-based credibility.

There are remarkable similarities between Silvio Berlusconi, who thrice served as prime minister of Italy between 1994 and 2011, and Trump. Both men relied on bombastic rhetoric and their personas as successful businessmen to pedal contentious ideas and loosely defined policy platforms. Berlusconi and Trump are guilty of rebuking perceived media adversaries, most notably satire groups that have criticized them on national television. Sexual assault scandals have greatly tarnished their reputations and hurt them in public opinion polls. The only major distinction between Trump and Berlusconi is that Trump has not (yet) been elected into office. However, if history repeats itself, the prospect of a Trump presidency that mimics Berlusconi’s tenure should unnerve the American electorate.

Silvio Berlusconi emerged in Italy’s political sphere in 1994, a time of great governmental instability in one of the European Union’s weakest economic states. After an anti-corruption investigation destroyed the credibility of the then-dominant Christian Democracy (DC), Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy) party was primed to gain a foothold in Rome. Forza Italia, whose name originates from a popular chant heard in Italian soccer stadiums, decided to put up a candidate in Berlusconi that was just as unconventional as the party itself. Despite all of their similarities, Berlusconi headed a new, unique party, while Trump is a divisive figure heading a major political party with a long and rich history.

Like Trump, the billionaire media mogul Berlusconi built his fame and fortune through real estate and popular culture entertainment. Eventually, Berlusconi became the longest-serving prime minister in Italian history. In order to break into the political sphere in such dramatic fashion, Berlusconi employed his wealth and status to promote himself as a viable candidate. Amongst his multitude of sexist, bigoted, and overall inflammatory statements, Berlusconi referred to himself as “the Jesus Christ of politics” who was “the only viable savior of a struggling nation.”

Likewise, Trump has proclaimed that he would be “the greatest jobs president that God has ever created.” Trump’s repeated wild claims and bold assertions play upon the common fears of the populace, despite the reality that few of these proclamations are backed by facts. The main way he has justified his assertions—such as likening the Trans Pacific Partnership to “a rape of our country. It’s a harsh word, but that’s what it is — rape of our country”is by equating his business acumen with a working knowledge of the United States and world economies.

Even when their policies garnered some merit, Trump’s and Berlusconi’s political agendas were often clouded with scandals. Berlusconi was accused of tax fraud, official misconduct, mafia association, and soliciting underage prostitutes, all while serving as prime minister. These scandals ultimately came to a head when he was convicted of tax evasion in 2013, banishing him from the Italian senate and destroying his political career once and for all. Berlusconi’s fall from grace amongst the general public, however, came when his constant misogyny and womanizing transformed into his having sexual relations with minors and hosting bunga bunga parties. Trump has certainly had his own repertoire of scandals, including racial housing discrimination, mocking a disabled reporter, mafia ties, suspicious business dealings, alleged tax fraud, insulting a Muslim Gold Star family,  and misusing  charitable donations to the Trump Foundation. Like Berlusconi, Trump’s most incriminating scandal revolves around accusations of sexual assault that have surfaced following the release of an extremely lewd tape from 2005.

Trump and Berlusconi have both been quick to criticize those in the media who report on their scandals. Berlusconi, who had significant ties to the national television networks of Italy, pressured RAI to cancel satire programs that cast aspersions on his governance. Correspondingly, Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live portrayal of Trump elicited a strong reaction from the candidate, who tweeted in response to a recent sketch that the media is rigging the Presidential election. Like Berlusconi’s, Trump’s battle against the media has sparked fears that he poses a threat to freedom of speech and to freedom of the press.

Despite their improprieties, Trump and Berlusconi have both enjoyed prolonged appeal due to their repeated promises to restore their nations to relevance on the global stage. Their methods of reinstituting international respect to their respective countries, however, were not quite as steadfast as their declarations to do so. As many Americans very well know, Trump’s policy platform is far from straightforward, which makes it extremely difficult to predict what a Trump Presidency would look like. One indicator may be the results of Berlusconi’s tenure; despite his repeated promises to cut taxes and loosen economic policy to help bolster a faltering Italian economy, he actually raised taxes to 54 percent—the highest tax percentage in the European Union—during his time as prime minister. Throughout his three terms in office, Italy suffered four distinct economic recessions, the most recent of which was the longest in Italy since World War II. Aside from his failed economic policies, his absurd commentary and conduct, evidenced by the time he called Angela Merkel “an un****able lard arse,” rendered Italy a laughing stock in international politics.

Unlike Italians, Americans have the luxury of looking back on the state of the Italian democracy during Berlusconi’s tenure before committing themselves to a potentially similar fate. On this basis, the American populace should view Italy’s election of Berlusconi as a cautionary tale against placing confidence in a political novice who is entirely unqualified to run a country. If the current state of Italian affairs serves as an indication of what could come should Trump win the election, Americans should be very careful with their vote on November 8.

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