The similarities between former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and President-elect Donald Trump run the gamut, including their fake tans and their brash talk. During the U.S. election season, however, Berlusconi remained quiet about the man many view as his American counterpart. But with the election wrapped up, he was more forthcoming, saying in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the parallels between him and Trump are “obvious.”
“He, too, is an entrepreneur that at a point in his life decided to devote his skills and energies to his own country. And he was voted by all the Americans that are tired of old politics, shut in themselves, that have grown unable to listen and understand,” Berlusconi said “A policy that made the same mistake typical of the left all over the world: thinking that being 'politically correct' is the way to be close to people’s needs, without understanding that the actual weak are the citizens oppressed by the state, taxes, bureaucracy, uncontrolled immigration, unemployment, the terrorist threat.”
Berlusconi held Italy's highest office for about nine years, in four stints — the longest of any Italian leader since World War II. Before entering politics, he presided over a vast media empire and amassed wealth greater than Trump's, according to calculations by Forbes magazine. In 2012, a year after losing elections, he was convicted of tax fraud. The next year, he was convicted of paying an underage prostitute for sex, though the conviction was overturned on appeal a year later.
Both men have been accused of grossly and criminally abusing women yet have openly bragged about their sexual exploits. Both claim that their independent wealth means they have no stake in using political power to enrich themselves. Hailing from the business elite, they have railed against political elites of all ideologies, and voters have loved them for it. Berlusconi told Corriere della Sera that it would be incorrect to see Trump or him as part of a right-wing movement. Rather, he said, they are part of a populist center.
“I don’t represent ‘the right’, I represent a liberal middle of the people in which the best political traditions of our country came together: from the Catholic one to reformative socialism, liberalism and a democratic, responsible right,” he said. “As far as these political definitions go, and I think they're less significant by the day, my role has been and will always be this. About Trump’s economic policy, there are many similarities and some differences between [his] program and ours: [His] tax policies can be appreciated, as well as his focus on controlling migration . . . I don’t agree with his protectionist choices and the isolationist tendencies he expressed. But politics taught me that leaders must not be judged on their programs but on their actions. We’ll watch him at work.”
One foreign leader for whom both Berlusconi and Trump have expressed admiration is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who shares many of their traits, including populism and alleged womanizing. Recent reports suggest that Trump's presidential campaign was in touch with members of Putin's government, and Democrats repeatedly alleged that Putin's intelligence agencies were meddling in the U.S. electoral process to Trump's benefit. Berlusconi and Putin are close friends, and they often go on vacation and throw parties together.
“Trump understood something of fundamental importance: the Russian Federation needs be considered a full-fledged Western country,” said Berlusconi, echoing sentiments that Putin has voiced repeatedly. “We need Russia to face — together — the dramatic problems of the international arena: from Islamist extremism to the wave of migrants. Up until now President Putin has shown himself capable of facing the challenges of our time before and better than the other international leaders.”
Berlusconi, 80, is hoping to return to political relevance in Italy after his tax fraud conviction and health problems have kept him out of the limelight. On Dec. 4, Italy will hold a referendum on constitutional reform that is being seen as a vote of confidence in Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has threatened to resign if he loses the vote. Berlusconi's Forza Italia political party has recently been polling at about 12 percent.
Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.