Donald Trump’s largely unexpected path from a wealthy businessman on a reality television show to the president-elect of the United States has left many Americans scratching their heads. But is this without precedent? Looking to the global stage, one comparison seems apt: Trump is America’s Silvio Berlusconi.
Yes, that Berlusconi. The Italian business magnate who spearheaded a widely mocked but remarkably successful political movement, eventually serving as prime minister for nine years over four stints — the longest of any postwar Italian leader — before becoming embroiled in scandals involving corruption, women and, of course, “bunga bunga.” Out of office since 2011 and still facing court cases, even Berlusconi thinks the Trump comparison is fitting, telling the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the parallels are “obvious.”
In fact, the comparison didn’t first appear in this election cycle. Paul Ginsborg, chair of contemporary European history at the University of Florence and an expert on Italy’s Berlusconi era, had suggested more than 10 years ago that there was something Trump-ish about Berlusconi.
Consider the following passage from his 2005 biography of the then-prime minister, “Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony.”
“Berlusconi is certainly a consummate salesman, and a very well-prepared one. But he is also, and probably above all, a buyer of commodities and services, of villas and footballers, of television channels and entertainers, of supermarkets and publishing houses, and much else besides. His is a patrimonial and acquisitive instinct, fired by the production and the use of wealth, as well as the need for his name and face to be omnipresent. In this respect, though not in others, he can be compared to a figure like Donald Trump, who used to boast that he had the largest living room in New York and the city’s most spectacular view.”
Speaking on the phone from his home in Italy this week, Ginsborg said that with the benefit of hindsight, he’s now struck by how both men have used their patrimony to gain political power — insisting that political power is a commodity to be bought or sold.
“Once having enriched themselves to a very considerable extent, they then wanted to use that patrimony, part of that wealth, to enter politics,” Ginsborg said. An additional motivation for both, he suggested, was “the need to defend themselves through changing the hands of power within democracy and making American democracy and Italian democracy autocratic.”
But Ginsborg was also keen to stress the differences between the two. Berlusconi’s rise was made possible by his “extraordinary control over the media,” he said — a clear contrast to Trump’s often adversarial role with the press. Particularly important was the fact that the Italian owned three commercial television channels (Rete 4, Italia Uno and Canale 5), which helped him with the “constant conditioning” of his core supporters: housewives older than 50 and small-business owners. Berlusconi was also helped by a complicated political situation in Italy during his rise, Ginsborg noted, and he had the support of organized criminal groups in the south that “left their instructions as to how people should vote.”
Perhaps even more important are the personal differences between Trump and Berlusconi, Ginsborg said. “I think there’s sort of a pall of theatricality that strikes one enormously,” he said. “Big-man Trump, you know. Very powerful, physical presence, sort of power play, in many ways. Berlusconi is a little man, and no real discourse of violence at all.”
That physicality is hard to miss: Berlusconi is 5-foot-5, compared with Trump’s claimed 6-foot-3. “He’s the little seducer who crooned his way on the cruise ships early in his career,” Ginsborg said, referring to the young Berlusconi’s time as a singer. And where Trump is best understood as a creature of the right and perhaps even the far right, Berlusconi was a neo-liberal who had a romantic conception of the power of the individual. “He adored Mrs. Thatcher,” Ginsborg said, referring to the late British leader.
Ginsborg was a vocal critic of Berlusconi during his years in power, and he credits an “unspoken coalition” of civil society and veterans in Italy’s institutions with thwarting Berlusconi’s worst impulses, especially after his election in 2008, when he had a majority in both houses. Ginsborg says Italy’s judges and magistrates, in particular, deserve praise for their role.
But in large part, Berlusconi’s fall from grace was enabled by something familiar: He simply couldn’t deliver on his promises. “His program was based upon the idea of economic resurgence,” Ginsborg said. The Italian premier suggested that he could use his business acumen to bring Italy a million new jobs. “By the end of it, he came nowhere near that number,” Ginsborg said. Even a self-made billionaire couldn’t overcome the economic stagnation that had gripped Italy for years.
Ginsborg struggled to say anything positive about the Berlusconi years. “It showed the weaknesses of the Italian democracy,” he said. “'It showed how easy it was in modern democracies for a man who had swiftly accumulated a considerable patrimony then to buy his way into political power.”
Even so, in the grand scheme of things, Ginsborg suggested that Berlusconi won’t be remembered much in Italy. “It's surprising how quickly the memory of his years in power has faded,” he said. While Berlusconi has lingering support (his party, Forza Italia, polls at about 14 percent), the discourse in Italy is now shaped more by new anti-immigrant forces such as the Northern League, echoing the rise of the U.K. Independence Party in Britain and the National Front in France.
And Ginsborg shook off the suggestion from some online that Trump could be closer to a Benito Mussolini than a Berlusconi. “That’s really weird,” he said, arguing that the fascist leader’s state-first policies didn’t fit with either Trump or Berlusconi. “Mussolini feels a very long way away from those two,” he said.
Still, the similarities between Trump and Berlusconi worry Ginsborg. “The difference in scale in the two cases amounts to a difference in quality,” he said, noting that Berlusconi had no claim to be the leader of the free world — or really anything other than Italy itself. “So extraordinarily important is the victory of Trump on the world scale that, in comparison, Berlusconi seems to be a bit player.”
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