The superficial personal similarities between Donald Trump and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are obvious. Both grew their fortunes on allegedly mafia-linked real-estate developments, transitioned into successful careers as media moguls, and, against all odds, ascended to the helm of their respective national governments. Then there’s the common penchant for vitriol, misogyny, philandry, aggressive tanning, and pompous neckwear.
What Americans should actually be paying attention to is their eerily similar effect on the political culture of their respective countries.
Twenty years before Trump did the same in the United States, Berlusconi, who served four nonconsecutive terms for a total of nine years between 1994 and 2011, began defying the verdicts of the Italian courts and questioning the credibility of the press, openly disputing the legitimacy of its judgments on his many trials and on his viability as a candidate. Berlusconi did not contradict facts so much as their interpretation and, more distressingly, the validity of any resulting institutional consensus.
When called out on his most untruthful statements or for failing to follow through on his boldest promises, Berlusconi would often reply with a trademark phrase: “sono stato frainteso”—I have been misunderstood. It was a choice of words more eloquent than fake news or alternative facts but no less corrosive to trust in institutions.
These patterns, so reminiscent of Trump’s, are, at heart, the result of a similar personal history of class resentment and a shared knack for anticipating the whims of those with an ax to grind against the status quo.
In the 1970s, while Trump was expanding his father’s property business from Queens into aspirational Manhattan, Berlusconi was busy elbowing his way out of middle-class anonymity into Italy’s industrial aristocracy, often by any means necessary. His 1986 acquisition of soccer team AC Milan was intended to crown him as one of the elite, on par with the Agnelli family, who ran Fiat and owned Juventus FC. Trump also sought a status symbol in keeping with the gilded classes and purchased the Plaza Hotel in 1988.
Despite this fanfare, or perhaps because of it, Trump and Berlusconi were never quite accepted by their countries’ establishments, at least beyond the confines of business. Indeed, much has been written in the U.S. and Italy about how the anger projected by these two leaders derives from class resentment. Trump’s campaign railings against coastal elites are sincere, albeit hypocritical if one defines a member of the “elite” by the size of his or her checkbook. With time, Berlusconi learned to refocus this rage on various enemies within: “communists,” “magistrates,” and “journalists,” groups he helped depict from the start of his political career as being culturally elitist and insensitive.
Like Trump, Berlusconi’s political talent for framing the debate and his adversaries stems from his decadeslong experience in the media. In the 1980s Berlusconi used a legal loophole to found the country’s first private TV stations, where he innovated by importing American TV formats and broadcasting the salacious cabaret shows that were to become my generation’s most common lowbrow form of entertainment. Although Trump’s Apprentice tenure was less impactful than Berlusconi’s revolutionizing of Italy’s media, he certainly dabbled in Hollywood for decades. Both see democracy as a ratings game and understand that for most people, institutional boundaries are of secondary interest to political spectacle.
Once in the political arena, both found their appeal in portraying themselves as everymen, if not in wealth, then in language, tone, aspirations, and resentments. After all, Berlusconi and Trump’s tax, marital, and follicular troubles are the everyday concerns of their compatriots, men especially. To dismiss these traits as weaknesses, as the Italian left did for almost two decades, is to ignore how profoundly misunderstood and frustrated vast swathes of the electorate feel. Because of their shared class complex, Berlusconi and Trump related to this anger instinctively. And they fomented it cannily, directing mistrust toward the media and the judiciary long before anyone else thought it viable as a mainstream political strategy.
After a sudden rise to power at a time of mounting dissatisfaction with the political establishment, Berlusconi too shielded himself from various allegations of conflicts of interest by delegating day-to-day management of his companies to his family. Italy’s fragmented opposition parties proved themselves too distracted by his more superficial shortcomings, such as Berlusconi’s many gaffes with foreign leaders, to challenge this head on. This ultimately undermined their own credibility and preserved Berlusconi’s prominence in the political sphere. One wonders whether the Democratic Party leadership will be more focused.
Berlusconi, like Trump, consistently predicated foreign policy based on national interest alone, as opposed to the values-based approach championed by previous U.S. presidents and much of the Italian center-left. On this rare point, both men have been steadfast in their chosen doctrine and have deduced the same practical implications: open admiration for Russian authoritarianism and selective hostility to the Muslim world.
The Berlusconi years ended in disgrace, as many foresee or hope Trump’s will. By mid-2011, he was embroiled in over a dozen trials of various sorts including, most disturbingly, allegations of soliciting sex from a minor. After failing to contain Italy’s sovereign debt crisis, he was facing mounting pressure to leave from other European leaders and within his own coalition. In October of that year, Italy’s then-President Giulio Napolitano replaced him with Mario Monti, a former European Union commissioner, in what is still perceived by many as a quasi–coup d’état. His legacy consists of a failure to pass reforms past his own fractious coalition and a widespread sense that the establishment had illegitimately ousted the one true outsider able to subvert the political system. Since then populist parties have surged in the polls. Italy’s insurgent Five Star Movement, led by a former comedian, is now polling at 31 percent by many estimates.
What should Americans learn from Italy’s experience during the Berlusconi years?
In the wake of the U.S. presidential election, the prominent Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini argued in the New York Times that since Italy survived the Berlusconi years, American democracy would outlast Trump.
In many ways, he is correct: Berlusconi’s trademark policy positions have mostly been reversed or at least forgotten. The more salubrious character traits he shares with the president seem not to have infected those around him.
At a deeper level, though, Berlusconi (who is still alive and polling well these days) has left permanent scars in Italy’s political culture.
For younger Italians like me, “sono stato frainteso” is a common everyday excuse for inaction or deceit, a recurring refrain in email threads at work. Old hands in Italian business and politics swear that this type of excuse was not OK until Berlusconi made it OK. (Consider how many of Trump’s trademark phrases have already found their way into common American parlance, including among his opponents.) The sense is that profound mistrust, aimed at the judiciary and the media, has outlasted him and may have trickled down to everyday life. Since Berlusconi left office, politicians of all stripes are unabashed in accusing prosecutors and journalists of grandstanding whenever they are caught up in one of Italy’s many corruption scandals. By many accounts, parents override teacher decisions more than they used to. Referees seem to have lost respect on the soccer pitch.
Then again, 1,500 years under the influence of just about every European power mean Italians have always been pretty cynical when it comes to authority. Berlusconi was less outlandish in this respect than we’d care to admit. However, by uttering these views publicly for 20 years, he gave us carte blanche to do the same, fraying any remaining vital semblance of trust in institutions and one other.
At a moment where one after another of Trump’s signature political projects are falling to pieces and various legal cases seem to be getting closer to him, progressives in the U.S. may be feeling confident that America’s institutions and democratic culture are, in fact, strong enough to withstand Donald Trump. Post-Berlusconi Italy is a sobering reminder of the lasting damage that one leader’s personality alone can inflict on a country.
Many have pointed out Trump and Berlusconi’s shared policy views and vices, neither of which seem to have survived the Italian’s premierships however. If we are to judge a leaders’ legacy on his lasting cultural impact, Berlusconi’s open disregard for institutions should disturb Americans far more.