This week in North Philly Notes, John Agnew, co-author of Berlusconi’s Italy, discusses ”tycoon politics,” comparing Donald Trump to Silvio Berlusconi.
The world over, electorally based political parties are in trouble. Whatever their ideological roots or political goals, they increasingly fail to mobilize or they actually put off potential voters. In a globalizing world, national governments find it increasingly difficult to match the ambitions they set themselves. Borders are too leaky. If you say you’ll tax it, capital moves. Shocks from elsewhere no longer stay over there. As populations judge the failure of promise to match outcome, election turnouts are trending downwards everywhere that elections are held. The success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries this year must be put in this context. But why should an obvious business tycoon be the instrument for what looks like a realignment of American politics around an appeal to populist themes about “being ripped off” by foreigners?
In 2008 we published a book about the influence of another tycoon-politician, Silvio Berlusconi, on Italian politics (Berlusconi’s Italy). The Trump-Berlusconi comparison seems to bear some weight. Beyond their similarities in campaigning it also suggests how Trump would rule. Berlusconi too was and is a businessman-media entrepreneur who emerged into prominence as a major political actor in a time of political crisis. In his case it was in the early 1990s when the principal existing Italian political parties were collapsing under the weight of either their corruption (the Christian Democrats and Socialists) or the end of the Cold War (the Communists). Berlusconi created his own political party, Forza Italia, named after the supporters’ cry for the Italian national soccer team. In the Italian electoral system without the institutionalized dominance of two parties as in the United States he did not need to force a takeover of an existing party. Like Trump he began his career as a wealthy man by building apartment blocks in Milan. He used political connections (and donations) to accumulate control over all the main national private television channels in Italy. These channels then broadcast a steady diet of soap operas and reality TV shows that would do Trump proud. A consumerism for the masses based on the American model was at the heart of the messages disseminated by Berlusconi’s channels. To round out the comparison, Berlusconi was and is a shameless self-promoter. His masculinist posturing alongside such presidents as Putin and Sarkozy, notwithstanding the lifts in his shoes to make him seem taller than he is, broadcast a message of potency and competitiveness that many Italians found appealing. His infamous gaffes about various world leaders (the “tan” of President Obama being one of the most notorious) were always turned into negative commentaries about those drawing attention to them. His anti-Communism, even though the party of that name had disappeared, recalled both old disputes about whose side he was on (and who had won out) and suggested how much he was in favor of the Church and mainstream morality (Communism = anti-clericalism) even as bad publicity about his private life allowed him to wink at conventional mores. A self-confessed “family man,” his history of trophy wives and girlfriends suggested something else entirely. Above all, however, he presented himself as the quintessential anti-politician, the outsider taking a broom to the Augean stables of established Italian politics.
The property tycoon Donald Trump’s surge to the top of the list of candidates for the Republican nomination for the 2016 US presidential election in national polls as well as in early primaries and caucuses has been interpreted in a variety of ways. He is appealing to the interests and prejudices of all those, particularly older white poorly educated men, who feel that they have lost out to women and minorities in an increasingly “politically correct” America. He is a blunt talker whose views on immigration, globalization and guns are free of the caveats that mar the politicians and party hacks he freely insults on the campaign trail. He is a strong leader whose personal history as a property tycoon and reality TV star offers a welcome relief from the professional politicians who pivot hither and thither on this issue and that. He is the most effective communicator with an audience that views “nuance” as implying a lack of faith in basic premises about the nature of reality. What these all have in common is not much evidence of policy savvy or even focus on what he might actually do if he were elected president but overwhelming emphasis on a leader picking up followers irrespective of what he does or says.
Elections are always about drama. But they are not usually entirely theatrical. Political candidates are usually judged as much by the campaign performances they give as by the policies they propose. As Charles Guggenheim who worked for Robert Kennedy once said: “people expect drama, pathos, intrigue, conflict, and they expect it to hang together as a dramatic package.” With his background in so-called reality television, on NBC’s The Apprentice, where he got to say: “You’re fired” to dozens of putative protégées, Donald Trump is cast perfectly for the role of a lifetime. But the Trump phenomenon is more than the typical electoral dramaturgy. As a TV protagonist, Trump is the Boss. He forces the viewer to line up on one side or the other in judging him. He will not allow you to be neutral. Show ratings depend on being as outrageous as possible. Nobody tunes in to watch a “reasonable” presentation. Like professional wrestling, it’s the fights that get the audience, however fake everyone knows it to be.
Not surprisingly the emphasis on performativity by the Trump campaign, even the Pope can become an attractive target for opprobrium for at least one news cycle, has attracted comparison to other leaders past and present with a penchant for over-the-top hyperbole and self-dramatization. Mussolini, Hitler, Charlie Chaplin playing Hitler, and former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin have all put in appearances in the press and on the Internet. The most popular comparison has been to Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister. This makes sense. Their emphasis on electoral dramaturgy is eerily similar. It is their shamelessness in bullying their opponents and boasting about their success about everything from their wealth and sexual proclivities to their self-evident charm and capacity to dominate the news without paying for it that sets them apart.
How far should the comparison be pushed? It does show how important the purely dramatic can be in a post-party and even post-truth (“Did I say that?”) era. But interestingly the comparison also shows the limits to Trump’s political possibilities – towards office and beyond. The reality is that given his control over the media (including most of the public TV channels when in office) and the lack of institutional constraints on his power while in office, Berlusconi as the central figure in a parliamentary system had far greater scope to achieve any goal he set himself than a President Trump would ever have with a potentially hostile Congress and Supreme Court to rein him in. Overall, Berlusconi must be considered a political failure notwithstanding his occupancy of political office for fully nine of the years from 1994 to 2011 (May 1994-January 1995, June 2001-May 2006, May 2008-November 2011). He created a “courtier regime” of lackeys and yes-men (and – women). He spent enormous political capital using his political office to protect his business (and personal) interests. He opened the door to the massive expansion of vitriolic and demonizing rhetoric about political adversaries. He left Italy’s economy in a shambles and a country without much of any respect at home or abroad. All told, Berlusconi did not exactly Make Italy Great Again.
Filed under: american studies, cultural studies, economics/business, ethics, History, Mass Media and Communications, political science, sociology, transnational politics | Tagged: american studies, Book, civil rights, Donald Trump, Education, history, Italy, political science, Silvio Berlusconi, sociology, transnational politics, University Press | Leave a comment »