Well before the U.S. elections, commentators in major news outlets began pointing out similarities between Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister, who was first elected in 1994.
There are striking similarities
Both Trump and Berlusconi made their fortunes in real estate and jumped into politics by casting themselves as political outsiders. Both men benefited from free media publicity (in Berlusconi’s case, via media he owned). And both allied with conservative religious and anti-immigrant forces to gain power.
This logic has two problems, however. The first has to do with what lessons to draw from Berlusconi’s political demise — complicated by the fact that he served nine years as prime minister between 1994 and 2011, and in four different governments. But the second flaw is that focusing on the similarities between Trump and Berlusconi obscures a more important analogy between the Trump administration and the early stages of Italian fascism under Benito Mussolini.
Why did Berlusconi fall from power?
But observers disagree on the deeper reasons for the collapse of the Berlusconi governments. In a New York Times op-ed that appeared just after the U.S. elections, University of Chicago business professor Luigi Zingales argued that Democrats should look at the strategy of the Italian center-left, which defeated Berlusconi by treating him as a normal politician, not engaging him on issues of character or ethics, and cooperating on policies of mutual interest.
New School for Social Research professor Cinzia Arruzza, on the other hand, argues that this kind of behavior ultimately paved the way for Berlusconi’s return in subsequent elections. So Zingales counsels normalization and cooperation, while Arruzza argues for countermobilization by the left. The Berlusconi analogy, while compelling on its face, does not yield straightforward predictions about how America’s center-left might counteract a Trump presidency.
Is Berlusconi : Trump the correct analogy?
Focusing on the similarities between Trump and Berlusconi also obscures what may be a more important analogy, between the coalition embodied in the new Trump administration and the rise of Italian fascism. While we have no reason to think that Trump is interested in bringing about a single-party state or a corporatist political economy, there are elements of Trump’s political style and the coalition that sustains him that make Mussolini’s fascist regime a more apt comparison.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian of fascism, covered the Trump campaign for the Atlantic and concluded in August 2016 that while “Trump is not a fascist … Mussolini’s rise offers lessons for understanding the Trump phenomenon — and why he was able to disarm much of the American political class.” She points out important similarities between Trump’s and Mussolini’s anti-system rhetoric, blurring of traditionally left and right issues, threats of violence, and even their straight-armed campaign salute.
There are other important parallels that go beyond campaign rhetoric and the cult of personality surrounding Mussolini and Trump. Trump’s support base would be familiar to Mussolini. Trump receives important support from the far right, including white supremacist groups. And just as Mussolini relied on the support of conservative elements within the Catholic church, Trump’s most fervent supporters come from the ranks of conservative Christians. Trump’s plans for the economy, like the Italian fascists’, seem to blend economic nationalism with giveaways for well-positioned big-business owners.
How to respond to rising populism
Berlusconi damaged Italy’s economy by making policies designed to benefit him and his cronies, subverted Italy’s legal institutions by refusing to play by the rules and harmed civic life by normalizing bigotry in Italy. Trump has made a number of parallel promises. What, then, justifies the more alarming comparison of Trump to Italian fascism?
Berlusconi could be removed from office when his policies displeased large segments of the public. To stay in office as prime minister, he relied on an unstable parliamentary coalition that included Christian Democrats, Northern separatists, former fascists and even a few die-hard monarchists.
It doesn’t take much to topple an Italian government. There are far fewer checks on the Trump agenda than there were on Berlusconi’s. Trump controls the executive branch and is under no obligation, either constitutional or normative, to offer Cabinet positions to anyone who might undermine his administration. The Republican Party that controls both houses of the legislature could attempt to water down a Trump administration assault on civil rights and voting rights but to date seems disinclined and/or ill-equipped to do so. In fact, the current Republican assault on democratic norms and practices began well before Trump ran for president.
The U.S. system of checks and balances was designed precisely to avoid the concentration of power in a single party or individual that can occur in parliamentary systems. However, this design did not anticipate the levels of partisan cohesion or polarization that are now present in the United States.
At the moment, the U.S. political configuration generates possibilities for consolidation of power in a loosely accountable executive that are similar to the period surrounding Mussolini’s rise. Whether that happens or not will depend less on Trump’s resemblance to Berlusconi than on the behavior of his coalition partners in Congress.
What does Italian history — in the 1930s and more recently — tell us about checks and balances for Trump’s regime?
With Berlusconi as her guide, the Guardian’s Rome correspondent Stephanie Kirchgaessner advises that it’s important to understand — and respond to — what Trump’s voters want. The analogy to Mussolini should make us cautious about stoking the public’s desires for exclusionary policies and practices.
Of course, no political scientist worth her salt wants to hurl “fascist” around as an epithet, and politicians are probably even warier. But properly assessing the parallels with Italy’s distant and not-so-distant political past may offer some insights on strategies in response to statements by Trump. These strategies call for using all the historical analogies at our disposal, no matter how unappealing.
Julia Lynch is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.