On February 26 I posted on Disinformation a piece entitled Donald Trump and Berlusconi: Repeat History in the Making. Well before Trump became the republican presidential candidate, simply by drawing a comparison with Italy’s self-made-billionaire-turned-into-prime-minister Silvio Berlusconi, I concluded by noting, “Like him or dislike him, Trump is a force to be reckoned with.”
Against all predictions, Donald Trump is now in a neck-to-neck race with Senator Clinton for the presidency. The unthinkable, or rather the inconceivable is happening: Trump has a shot at the White House. While I cannot claim to be endowed with oracular powers, I can continue to draw a comparison with Berlusconi, and explain what happened in Italy back in 1994, when he achieved the unthinkable and went on to become prime minister for four times.
Berlusconi graduated in law in 1961; he then set up a construction company and quickly became a residential housing developer around his native Milan. Ten years later he launched a local cable television that grew into Italy’s biggest media empire, Mediaset, controlling the country’s three largest private TV stations. His huge Fininvest holding is now comprised also of Italy’s largest publishing conglomerate Mondadori, the daily newspaper Il Giornale, AC Milan football club (which he has just sold to Chinese investors), and dozens of other companies.
In the early 1990s Italy’s political scene was devastated by Mani pulite (Italian for “clean hands”), a nationwide judicial investigation into political corruption. It quickly led to the demise of the political parties and alliances that had been in power, or at the opposition, since the end of WW II. It was then, in 1993, that Berlusconi, a complete newcomer to politics, decided to found his own center-right party, Forza Italia, “to save Italy from Communism” he declared time and again, though many of his detractors said that he did it to save his companies from financial ruin.
The following year Berlusconi won the general elections and became, in one of the greatest upsets in the history of western democracies, prime minister, heading a coalition with the right-wing National Alliance and the secessionist Northern League (yes, you’ve read correctly: “secessionist”—the Northern League back then was hell-bent on obtaining secession from the south of the country). For the next twenty years, Berlusconi would either be prime minister or head of the opposition; for as many years the country was deeply divided between those who supported him and those who loathed him.
At this juncture, it is useful for American readers to focus on the atmosphere in Italy back in 1994, when Berlusconi managed to win the elections against all predictions.
With the typical acumen of a businessman who knows that timing is essential to success, in the early 1990s he fully realized that the ancien régime had come undone, with an ensuing vacuum of power. He could count on his TV stations for campaigning, and was by nature adept at communicating with people, also at rallies, as it turned out. Unlike Trump, it must be noted, he spoke eloquently but very straightforwardly, consistently avoiding convoluted explanations or political jargon. Another difference was that he enjoyed cracking jokes, and he smiled a lot. Of course, his rather vociferous detractors hated his so called sense of humor and, more in general, his antics. Like Trump, in his largely improvised speeches he consistently wallowed in common sense, something that seemed so alien to any ideology.
In 1994 Berlusconi ran against one Achille Occhetto, the last secretary-general of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and, then, the first leader of the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), the democratic socialist successor of the PCI. For the elections, he would lead the Alliance of Progressives (with “progressives” meaning very much “liberals”), but he was very much the incarnation of the recycled communist party, and millions perceived his policies as old hat. Very few pundits, however, if any, realized what people really felt not only about Occhetto, but about the political machinery in general.
While Berlusconi was described by most of the mainstream media as an amateur, a gaffeur, a clown, a corrupt businessman looking for an exit strategy, they did not realize that the more they piled insults upon him, the more millions of people identified with him, and felt that, like them, he was being treated unfairly or even odiously by an elitist and corrupt establishment. The insults were not limited to Berlusconi; anyone voting for him, according to the Alliance of Progressives and its myriad, outspoken supporters, was an uneducated boor, or better yet an ignorant and racist subhuman. As a result of that demonization, many ended up voting for Berlusconi never admitting they would.
It’s not that Occhetto didn’t put up a fight, and how! In a nationally televised debate, for example, Occhetto scored a significant win against Berlusconi who seemed choked-up, stifled, even inarticulate. As a career politician, Occhetto was much more used to talking; he appeared civilized, focused, and didn’t say anything gratuitous, let alone outrageous. But it was precisely this predictability, this conformity to the old ways, this grayness that a vast portion of the electorate had come to dislike and distrust alike. Italy was mired in scandals and unprecedented corruption; Occhetto belonged to the old school. While he was not personally under investigation, his former party was, and consequently he was perceived as a byproduct of that corrupt old school that had so ill-served the country. On the other hand Berlusconi – though he had been a close friend (and beneficiary of “favors”) of former prime minister Craxi, who had fled to Tunisia at the very onset of the Mani pulite investigation – was perceived by many as a breath of a fresh air, as someone from the outside with self-evident business skills who could revitalize the country’s economy, and the country by and large, by starting over.
The silent majority, true to itself, was rather silent; back then, judging from the clamor produced by the other side of the barricade, nobody among the people in the know thought that Berlusconi stood a chance. He was at best an embarrassment to himself and to the country to be forgotten the moment the elections were over. But with the elections the silent majority broke the silence by making a very loud statement in favor of the self-made billionaire/underdog.
There are so many analogies if not outright parallels with the current US political scene, if this were a film, it could be criticized for bad scripting. I suspect that it may be useful for Americans to transcend the insular confines of the national political debate and realize that a very similar situation took place fairly recently in a western democracy, and that its outcome was, then, as utterly unthinkable as it would be now in 2016. Time will tell, but should another great upset come to pass, no one ought to be shocked: it would be nothing but an instance of history repeating itself.
Mina di Sospiro’s novel The Story of Yew (the memoirs of an age-old tree), published in the UK, is permanently featured on the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and has been translated into many languages, as has From the River, the memoirs of a mighty river. Both books have met with critical acclaim. He is the co-author of the disinformation® book The Forbidden Book, co-authored with Joscelyn Godwin, and Publishers Weekly’s recent staff pick The Metaphysics Of Ping-Pong, published by Quest Books.
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