“Look at what Donald Trump has done for the American economy,” Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party, said last month.
All the while, Salvini — who is visiting Washington this weekend — is proving that perhaps the best way to have decent relations with Trump’s administration is to be a little bit like the president himself.
While other Western European countries have responded to Trump with a mix of bafflement, angst and barely veiled jabbing, Italy has gone a different route, presenting Trump with an example of the hard-driving, personality-driven populism that he tends to gravitate to among allies. Italy and the United States have their differences on matters like China policy and NATO spending. But Italy has avoided the acrimony and public criticism that has defined Trump’s relations with Germany, France and other major European nations.
One Salvini lieutenant — speaking at the beginning of the year, when Salvini’s visit was first being planned — went so far as to suggest that Italy could replace the soon-to-exit Britain as the United States’ most trusted ally inside the European Union.
“With Trump, there is a deep synchronicity on the worldview,” that official, Guglielmo Picchi, a foreign affairs ministry undersecretary and League member, told the Italian outlet Il Giornale.
Salvini, who is Italy’s interior minister but also its most powerful politician, is expected to meet with Vice President Pence during his two-day trip, which begins Sunday. Trump in recent weeks greeted two other European nationalist leaders at the White House: first Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, then Polish President Andrzej Duda. During Duda’s visit, Trump boosted military ties with Poland while taking a verbal swipe at Germany.
“The Trump administration is clearly cultivating a group of populists and building on the anti-immigration right-wing ethnic nationalism that the Trump administration uses at home,” said Charles Kupchan, a former Obama National Security Council adviser on European affairs. Kupchan noted that the White House has put its diplomatic focus on governments, like Italy’s, that are skeptical about European integration.
“This increases the tension with mainstream European countries like France and Germany,” Kupchan said, “because they see Trump as actively undermining the project that has animated politics since World War II.”
Italy has long been a traditional ally of the United States, but its politics have transformed over the past several years because of forces that would be familiar to Americans — discontent with the economic status quo, distrust of elites, fear about newcomers to the country. Salvini has harnessed those forces to powerful effect, building his own party, the League, from an marginal player to the country’s most popular. After his party’s soaring performance in May’s European parliamentary elections, Salvini posted a photo of himself standing in front of a bookcase with a “Make America Great Again” ball cap — as well as a photograph of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Salvini shares some of Trump’s political instincts — and he traveled to Pennsylvania for a Trump campaign rally in 2016 — but he is hardly a political clone. Salvini’s supporters note that he has been running the League party since before Trump joined the race for the presidency. He is also more of a single-issue specialist, having built his reputation for his hard-line immigration stance. He is also notably cushy with Russia, something that may not bother Trump, but which does run counter to the wishes of some administration officials and other U.S. politicians, analysts say.
“This [trip] is a way to show that Russia isn’t a stockholder in the League,” one Italian foreign ministry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely share his views. The official said Salvini is moving diplomatically to the “Atlantic” side “as long as Trump is there.”
Analysts say Salvini will find receptive hosts at the White House, but he could also face pushback from some Trump administration officials for Italian policies, including a foreign policy and infrastructure agreement that Rome signed with Beijing this year. Italy has fallen well short of defense spending targets under NATO, amid criticism from Trump that European allies are overly dependent on U.S. funding.
But Giampiero Massolo, a former high-ranking diplomat who is president of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, described Salvini as a “pragmatic” politician who knows “Italy has to show its value-add in order to deal with this administration.”
“The American president himself seems to be less concerned about permanent alliances than his predecessors,” Massolo said. “These are times of more occasional, interest-based alliances. Not alliances for the sake of alliances. You have to pursue common interests — and those common interests may not last.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.