The lessons of Italian history ought to make Americans a lot more nervous about Donald Trump than they seem to be. Calculated buffoonery is a longstanding tactic for right-wing demagogues looking to alter national political calculations to their own advantage — masking as farce the tragedy they portend.
Ask Italian voters, who spent a total of nine years between 1994 and 2011 being governed by Silvio Berlusconi. Italy’s longest-serving prime minister, Berlusconi started out as a wealthy demagogue on the brink of bankruptcy, whose celebrity was — like Trump’s — rooted in both real estate and popular entertainment culture. Berlusconi presented himself as Italy’s strongman, speaking like a barman, selling demonstrably false promises of wealth and grandeur for all. He made the electorate laugh while stoking fears of communists and liberals stripping privileges and increasing taxes. Presaging Trump, the Italian media mogul cast himself as the only viable savior of a struggling nation: the political outsider promising to sweep in and clean up from the vanquished left and restore the country to its lost international stature. “I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I sacrifice myself for everyone,” Berlusconi said. Now we find Trump promising “to make America great again,” pledging to become the “greatest jobs president […] ever created.”
Like Berlusconi, Trump is running on his claim of being a rich, successful businessman, despite the fact that he was the owner of at least four bankrupt companies — just as Berlusconi promised Italians to make them as rich as he was, while in reality his companies were deeply in debt at the time he first ran, as extensively documented in Marco Travaglio’s book “Clean Hands.” Both men exploited voters’ rage at a discredited, gridlocked political establishment. Trump encourages voters’ fearful nativism and legitimizes racist and sexist anxieties called forth by claims to equality for women and minorities. He styles himself as the man willing to bluntly state “truths” held to be self-evident by fearful white conservatives, abandoning the politeness and political correctness of mainstream candidates who know they can’t win elections if they sound too much like Archie Bunker.
Like Berlusconi in Italy, Trump has built a political campaign employing unvarnished language and jaundiced humor, which has succeeded in the United States, a country that — embarrassingly — ranks second among wealthy industrialized nations, only behind Italy, in terms of being uninformed on key issues of the world.
Trump’s crude attacks on female candidates and journalists — such as characterizing Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly as having “blood coming out of her… wherever” and attacking presidential candidate and opponent Carly Fiorina’s appearance — are reminiscent of Berlusconi’s history of misogyny. He once dismissed opponents as “too ugly to be taken seriously” and insulted a fellow European leader during a conversation with a newspaper editor, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “an unf—able fat bitch.” (Il Giornale, Berlusconi’s own newspaper, characterized the allegation as “gossip.”) Berlusconi was known to advise U.S. businessmen to invest in Italy because they have “beautiful secretaries … superb girls.”
Like Trump, Berlusconi relied on the fact that Italy’s liberal mainstream would treat him as a joke, using his ugly gaffes as an effective, disruptive campaign strategy to distract both from his lack of well-thought-out policy ideas, as well as his dangerous ignorance on foreign policy. That seems to be Trump’s plan, too. They both turned the jokes on the political elite by stirring up the electorate’s disdain for their critics. Challenged about his complicated personal life, the twice-divorced Berlusconi contemptuously and proudly stated, “it’s better to be fond of beautiful girls than to be gay.” Meanwhile, Trump, who has been twice divorced and thrice married, opposes gay marriage on the grounds that it’s not traditional.
Berlusconi sold an impossible dream, convincing Italian voters that all that stood between them and the sort of wealth and grandeur he enjoyed was a hapless, self-serving political class. He promised to amend the constitution, deregulate markets and shrink government, thus packaging a billionaire’s dream agenda as if it offered salvation to “the average Giuseppe.” Trump has been vague about his economic policies, other than to bluster that his business experience means voters should trust him. But, like Berlusconi, he responds to tough questions with scandalous insults so as to focus the conversation on those insults rather than on his platform.
Trump’s political path has been carved by a media culture that favors entertainment over news. Political debate and discussion on TV have been reduced to mud-wrestling, with the recent “Trump vs. Rest of GOP” debates being a perfect illustration. Berlusconi’s opponents fell into his PR trap in the same way in Italy, rushing to condemn his gaffes and his deliberately provocative statements calculated to rouse the far right. Like Berlusconi, Trump has already succeeded in making himself the center of the conversation.
Berlusconi may have been even more shameless than Trump. In 2005, I was one of five journalists from the Middle East invited to brief Berlusconi on how to improve his relationship with the Muslim world — whose civilization he had dismissed as inferior and backward. Berlusconi feared that Italy would be targeted for terrorist attacks similar to those seen in London and Madrid, the latter of which immediately preceded the ouster by Spanish voters of Berlusconi’s ideological analog, José María Aznar. My journalist colleagues and I unanimously advised him to distance himself from the Iraq invasion, of which he had been an enthusiastic backer. The following day, Berlusconi appeared on my TV news show and proceeded to deny having ever supported the Iraqi war, going as far as to claim that he had tried — in vain — to dissuade President George W. Bush from undertaking the ill-fated venture. If necessary to avoid a potential pitfall, Berlusconi was willing to deny in the evening precisely what he had stated that same morning.
Before the interview, in an apparent effort to ingratiate himself to me, Berlusconi cited the fact that he had dated Arab women as “proof” that he did not actually believe Muslims to be inferiors. (That was before it was made public that one of those Arab women was “Ruby the Heartstealer,” an underage Moroccan prostitute whose services Berlusconi had previously engaged.)
As with Trump, Berlusconi’s antics make mockery of the idea of politicians being guided by convictions. Nonetheless, Italians were endlessly entertained by the comedy he brought to politics. Trump’s bullying of Univision’s Jorge Ramos also has a Berlusconi antecedent — Italy’s best journalists, such as Marco Travaglio, Michelle Santoro and Enzo Biagi, were either sued or fired from their jobs because they dared to challenge Berlusconi’s policies. Even comedians like Daniele Luttazzi were not spared. Trump, meanwhile, sued HBO’s Bill Maher for mocking the tycoon’s hairdo.
It is precisely that authoritarian demagoguery wrapped in comedy that Trump has brought to American politics. So it’s now urgent that America learns the lessons taught (and havoc wrought) when Italy’s political and media establishment underestimated Berlusconi. They viewed him as a joke, an ignorant buffoon, and he was widely dismissed as a comical figure, unfit to lead a serious country. None of that stopped him.
Trump has managed to tap into real anger and disillusionment with an American political class owned by billionaires like him. He’s taken populism to new depths, tacitly embracing a call to “get rid of” all American Muslims. Even worse, he communicates his backward views with a tone and tenor that screams of rejection and disregard of America’s civil rights achievements of the past century. The gridlocked political system is incapable of taking action to relieve the plight of middle class Americans, much less help the poor.
In Italy, it was their own poor reputations in voters’ eyes that prevented established politicians from fending off Berlusconi’s challenge. They were viewed as inept, corrupt, boring and uninterested in the concerns of ordinary Italians. Berlusconi appealed to their most base instincts and sanctified their prejudices, rendering them willing to overlook the obvious hypocrisy and fallacy of his promises. So effective was Berlusconi’s narrative that the electorate was willing to forgive — repeatedly — his utter failure to deliver on his economic promises.
Ultimately, it was the leaders of the European Union who forced him to resign, in exchange for rescuing Italy’s tanking economy during the debt crisis. Berlusconi stepped aside amid fears that the Italian economy, the third largest in Europe, was headed the same way as Greece.
It would be a terrible mistake for America’s political establishment to dismiss Trump’s populist appeal and presume him unelectable. Even if he doesn’t win, he’s already done damage: Laughing at, or simply ignoring his rhetorical, xenophobic bellowing can, perversely, further kindle Trump’s resentment-based politics, allowing them to fester unchallenged. The poisonous impact his campaign and antics are having on the country’s politics are exploiting and galvanizing broad, deep-seated, toxic resentment of the status quo, which has already defined this campaign — and which may well outlive Trump’s candidacy.