February 26, 2016

Yes, Donald Trump Is America's Silvio Berlusconi

It has happened. What was thought to be impossible has now come to reality. After Donald Trump’s third-in-a-row victory in the Nevada caucuses Tuesday, the confident predictions about his candidacy over the past eight months “have been disproven again and again—starting with the judgment that he wouldn’t run, that his outrageous statements would undermine his appeal, that voters would show up for the entertainment value of his rallies but not cast a ballot for him when it mattered,” says USA today. Now the question is no longer can Trump win— it’s can he be stopped?

For us who have lived in Italy in the last 20 years it would be hard not to compare the Donald to the man who ruled Italy for a total of nine years between 1994 and 2011, Silvio Berlusconi, whose political career was—like Trump’s—rooted in both popular entertainment culture and real estate. “The similarities between Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi are striking,” writes Italian columnist and essayist Beppe Severgnini in the New York Times: “Both are loud, vain, cheeky businessmen, amateur politicians and professional womanizers. Both have a troubled relation with their egos and their hair. Both think God is their publicist, and twist religion to suit their own ends.” But the above description is (intentionally) more evocative than accurate. Therefore, let’s try to summarize the similarities between the two in more systematic way :

  1. Like Berlusconi, who presented himself as Italy’s strongman, a political outsider who entered politics out of patriotism to save Italy from the Left, promising to restore the country to its lost international stature, and big things such as “less taxes for everyone,” “a million new jobs,” etc., Trump presents himself as the living antidote to decline, the GOP’s savior who promises “to make America greater than ever before” and to become the “best jobs president God ever created.”
  2. Berlusconi speaks more like an entertainer than a politician, and his clowning sense of humor is legendary. Trump, in turn, has built a political campaign employing unvarnished language and jaundiced humor. About half of Italians think Berlusconi “just speaks his mind” (and they don’t care if foreigners are puzzled, or worse). Similarly, many Americans think Trump is straightforward and brutally honest in all of his dealings, and that “that’s what we need in the leader of our country.”
  3. Like Berlusconi, Trump is running on his claim of being a rich, successful businessman: “I don’t need anyone else’s money, I’m really rich,” he said. “I have total net worth of $8.73bn. I’m not doing that to brag. I’m doing that to show that’s the kind of thinking our country needs.”
  4. Like Berlusconi, Italy’s biggest TV tycoon, Trump “has leveraged his wealth, celebrity, and manipulation of the media […] into political prominence,” as Robert Tracinskiy—one of their many detractors—writes in The Federalist.
  5. Like Berlusconi, Trump “makes his own life, personality, and outrageous statements the center of a national political circus act” (ibidem)
  6. Berlusconi’s political success largely benefited from the backwardness of the Italian Left—let’s not forget that the Democratic Party is made up mostly of former Communists, whose totalitarian tendencies are well known and, so to speak, encoded in its DNA—just as Trump might benefit from the Democrats’ march toward socialism.
  7. Both Berlusconi and Trump exploited voters’ rage at a discredited political establishment. In Italy, it was their own poor reputations in voters’ eyes that prevented established politicians, viewed as inept, corrupt, boring and uninterested in the concerns of ordinary Italians, from fending off Berlusconi’s challenge, as Rula Jebreal—a Palestinian foreign policy analyst and journalist with dual Israeli and Italian citizenship—puts it. Similarly, Trump has managed to tap into real anger and disillusionment with the American political class and a gridlocked political system, viewed as incapable of taking action to relieve the plight of middle class Americans, much less help the poor.
  8. Another similarity between Trump and Berlusconi, as Severgnini fairly notes, is that “they both bring to politics a flair for seduction that served them well in their previous careers in construction, television and entertainment (and elsewhere, or so it’s said). They know their message ought to be reassuring and easily digestible. Both are convinced that, in an era obsessed with appearances, image is key.”
  9. Furthermore, Trump’s recent sexist attacks on female candidates and journalists—such as opponent Carly Fiorina and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly—remind us of when Berlusconi dismissed opponents as “too ugly to be taken seriously,” or when he referred to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel using two derogatory terms in a telephone conversation with a newspaper editor.
  10. Last but not least, both of them are hardcore narcissists...

So far, however, those who have written about how much Trump and Berlusconi are similar have focused mostly on the negative aspects of their respective personalities and behaviors. Therefore their main contribution to the discussion was to warn public opinion about the absolute necessity of stopping the “populist insurrection” of Donald Trump. A bit too simplistic and one-sided, in my view. They don’t take into account (at least) two important considerations.

First, not everything Berlusconi did was bad. He did good things as well, and sometimes very good things such as his “epoch-making” operation—though somehow incomplete—of legitimizing the Right within the Italian political system. As Italian historian and columnist Ernesto Galli della Loggia put it, Berlusconi “has re-established the Right electorally and in government, but has failed to restore its social or cultural legitimacy. He has failed in the only way this is ever accomplished, by creating and establishing at grass roots a real party, organized and structured as such, a vehicle for demands, a hub for relations with various circles and people, a formulator of proposals and a collector of ideas.”

Second, unlike what many seem to think, not everything Trump does and says is wrong, vulgar, clownesque, etc. “Trumpism,” as Charles Murray puts it in this WSJ Saturday essay, “is an expression of the legitimate anger that many Americans feel about the course that the country has taken, and its appearance was predictable. It is the endgame of a process that has been going on for a half-century: America’s divestment of its historic national identity.” Believe me, this is not a partisan point of view but an intellectually honest overview of America and its society: definitely a must read for everyone to understand what is at stake in the next few months.

What I do agree with some critics of the “magical duo” is their warning that to dismiss Donald Trump as a joke, as many Italians did with Silvio Berlusconi early on, and many Americans continue to do with the New York tycoon, would be a terrible mistake in any case. On the other hand, apart from being unjust per se, obsessing over him would be yet another big mistake. By the way, from his own point of view Severgnini is perfectly right: “to obsess over him is exactly what the man wants. ‘You see?’ he can say. ‘They all gang up on me, those establishment types!’” Besides, this would be yet another similarity with the Berlusconi case.

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