Tycoon politics: Trump versus Berlusconi

This week in North Philly Notes, John Agnew, co-author of Berlusconi’s Italydiscusses ​”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?

Berlusconis_ItalyIn 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.

Berlusconi: Social “Delinquent” or Key Symbol of a Fragile Polity?

1938_regJohn Agnew, co-author (with Michael Shin) of Berlusconi’s Italy, provides his thoughts on how the Italian Prime Minister is weathering his lastest political scandal.

Einaudi, the Turin publisher owned by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, has rejected the famous Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s latest book of literary texts and political analysis on all accounts because it is heavily critical of Berlusconi as a person and politician as well as condemnatory of Italians for their “moral indifference” in the face of Berlusconi’s multiple conflicts of interest.  Long Saramago’s publisher in Italy, Einaudi’s decision has suggested to many commentators that Berlusconi is very much the “delinquent” that Saramago describes him as: that the concentration of so much power in the hands of one man undermines the pluralism of institutions and society that lies at the heart of a presumably democratic political order.

Saramago’s charges were made long before the recent brouhaha over Berlusconi’s (age 72) notorious consorting with an eighteen-year old Neapolitan girl which was the prima facie reason that Berlusconi’s wife (herself a former “topless performer”) publicly announced that she was divorcing him. Berlusconi has long marketed himself as a “manly man” who flirts openly with whichever attractive woman is currently available.  Yet, he is also Italy’s leading proponent of family values and the “right to life” (except seemingly for immigrants). Few Italian clerics seem to take exception, at least in public, to his lothario image.  They share his genetic hostility to the atheistic “communists” he constantly invokes as the source of criticism of his performance as Italian “premier,” as he likes to call himself.  He is also, of course, one of Italy’s wealthiest men with a fortune based initially and finally on his political connections.  It was through state licensing from his close friend, former Prime Minister (and convicted blackmailer) Bettino Craxi that he gained control over the private television networks.  It has been through his subsequent political career since 1994 that he has protected his business empire.  Saramago couldn’t make this stuff up.

The Borgia Popes long ago set the standard for an idiosyncratic norm of public behavior.  Recall the bloody machinations of various offspring of the officially celibate.  Berlusconi is thus in a long line of all-too-human men who have occupied high office without much local public approbation.  Mussolini, to remember another iconic figure in more recent Italian history, was assassinated and displayed publicly when captured by anti-Fascist partisans in April 1945 not with his wife but with his lover Claretta Petacci.  She, at least, was loyal to the end.  Sergio Luzzatto’s fascinating history of the trajectory of Mussolini’s body and its image over the course of the dictator’s life and beyond (The Body of Il Duce, 2005) makes clear how much the post-mortem story of Mussolini involved removing Petacci from prior events so as to re-invent the leader as a more sober and serious figure than he had been in life. With a nod and a wink, though, Italians know the truth.  Mussolini too was a “manly man.”

A simple official “delinquency” doesn’t seem to do credit to this historic behavioral pattern of manly transgression all-too-easily forgiven by an understanding public. More centrally is the importance of a polity that puts so much emphasis on recruiting a decisive leader rather than on establishing reliable institutional checks and balances.  Berlusconi is the first such leader since Mussolini. The extreme political immobilism of the postwar years produced a series of compromises and compromised governments that never produced fruitful decisions but endless obfuscation and fudging.  Nevertheless this did provide a propitious setting for the growth of a “real” Italy which actually worked by operating around the “official” governmental version. Since Berlusconi’s arrival on the political scene many Italians have been impressed by the way in which the new leader has essentially provided both a model and an endorsement of the radical particularism, by which individuals can make their own private deals with government, that has long served as the main barrier to successful transparent government in Italy. It is not that Berlusconi has ever actually achieved anything as the Prime Minister.  But Berlusconi effectively has united real with official Italy.  This is the secret of his political success, along with his ability to win over crucial political allies by his singular promise as a political entrepreneur.  Together these make Berlusconi’s delinquency possible.

In other words, Saramago’s version of Italian moral indifference has cause and effect the wrong way round.  It is not Berlusconi himself but what makes him possible that deserves emphasis. Now, as the film director Marco Bellocchio has pointed out, when asked about the parallels between his new film about the 1920s, Vincere, and present-day Italy, “the comparison Mussolini-Berlusconi is forced, but in Italy today conformism and resignation also prevail.”  In this context, Berlusconi’s continued popularity in the face of his scandalous behavior and burlesque performativity is readily understood.  Soap operas always follow the same script.

For more infomation on John Agnew and Michael Shin’s Berlusconi’s Italy, visit:

Berlusconi Back in the News

Michael Shin, co-author of Berlusconi’s Italy, considers the personal and professional affair(s) of the colorful Italian Prime Minister.

It has been over one year since Silvio Berlusconi’s victory in the 2008 elections. In this time Italy has been confronted with several pressing issues, some new and some old. From the devastating earthquake in L’Aquila and the trash crisis in Naples to the stagnant economy that is coupled with some of the lowest wages and lowest levels of growth in Europe, it appears that Italy continues to be the sick man of Europe in more ways than one.

Amid this turmoil and malaise, and in perhaps what is best characterized as a parallel universe, lives Mr. Berlusconi. More notable for his gaffes than governing during the past year, Berlusconi has most recently made headlines around the world for his wife’s very public demand for a divorce that in part stems from his allegedly “spicy” relationship with an aspiring eighteen year old model, Ms. Noemi Letizia.

How did Berlusconi get here (again)?

In very much the same way that he took power in the 2001 and 1994 elections. Berlusconi forged electoral pacts with the post-fascist National Alliance and regionalist Northern League, which in theory and in practice oppose each other on several grounds. Notwithstanding such differences, and due to an unexpected resurgence in support for the League across northern Italy and to the lack-luster offering put forth by the rival Democratic Party, Berlusconi emerged victorious. Italians wanted Berlusconi back despite his numerous conflicts of interest, an underwhelming track record, and criticism at home and from abroad.

It would be an overstatement to say that expectations both inside and outside of Italy for the new Berlusconi government were high after his victory. Berlusconi’s few political achievements of the last year, such as temporarily resolving the Neapolitan trash crisis and establishing a new party – the People of Freedom – with his electoral ally of the far-right, have been greatly overshadowed by his antics at the NATO summit, and most recently by questions surrounding his involvement with Ms. Letizia.

Whether or not Berlusconi’s latest personal affair (pun intended) will have broader political implications remains to be seen. Over the years Mr. Berlusconi has proven to be incredibly resilient and cannot easily be written off. That said, this is quite likely to be his last term in office. What will Italy look like after Berlusconi? Probably much the same as it does now, with the same social, economic and political problems. This will be Berlusconi’s legacy. So while the spotlight is currently focused on him, in the shadows is a post-Berlusconi Italy that may be difficult to see and to imagine, but that indeed merits further consideration.

For more infomation on John Agnew and Michael Shin’s Berlusconi’s Italy, visit:

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