In the Aftermath: the Berlusconi/Trump Parallel Continues

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On February 26 I posted on Disinformation a piece entitled Donald Trump and Berlusconi: Repeat History in the Making. At that time Trump had just won the primary election in New Hampshire—and nothing else. No one seriously considered him as the potential nominee for the Republican Party. On October 3, I posted a needed follow-up piece: Might History Repeat Itself? http://disinfo.com/2016/10/might-history-repeat/. The unthinkable had, in fact, happened: Trump was the nominee, and was then almost even in the polls with Hillary Clinton. I warned, again, about the similarities with self-made billionaire/outsider Berlusconi, who had been elected prime minister of Italy for the first time in 1994 against all odds, polls, and pundits’ prognostications.

Now that the “surprise” has made itself manifest to the world — though it was hardly a surprise to me — I suspect that it would be useful for American readers to explain what happened to Berlusconi once he was elected, in order to know what to expect will happen to Trump.

Schematically:

Like Berlusconi, Trump has business interests of many sorts and, apparently, in many countries. There will be instances of conflict of interest, and there may well be conflict-of-interest investigations.

Young and beautiful women. Italians are no prudes—Italy is the country of Messalina and Caligula and, in recent times, the country in which a porno star became a congresswoman (before being ousted, she offered to have sex with Saddam Hussein in return for peace in the Middle East, which, come to think of it, might have been a better idea than invading Iraq). But Berlusconi’s obsession for beautiful and young, at times very young women was eventually exposed if nothing else as a factor that took away too much time and energy from his duties as prime minister, as well as a sign of senility. It remains to be seen if Trump’s similar proclivities were/are as marked; if so, and if proved in court, they may spell his demise in a decidedly more prudish country such as the US (ultimately, Berlusconi never technically engaged in sex with a minor because the age of consent in Italy, if one of the participants has some kind of influence on the other, rises to 16 from 14 years).

Unlike Berlusconi, Trump does not own TV outlets. Back in 1994, all of Berlusconi’s TV outlets endorsed him before the elections, which caused public outrage and the coming into being of the par condicio law: a broadcast law that guarantees equal treatment to all political parties during elections. While on the subject, it might be expected for the Trump administration to try to legislate a par condicio law for the US. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of mainstream media has been seen not only to be biased in favor of the democratic candidate and party, but part of their propaganda. Much as Berlusconi’s resorting to his own TV channels to promote himself before the elections reminded one of a Banana Republic, so should the mainstream media’s relentless disparaging approach in dealing with Trump.

Which brings directly to a correlated issue: should the Trump administration try to pass a law that guarantees equal treatment from the media to all political parties during elections, there may well be an insurrection from the Left, deploring nothing short of an assault on freedom of speech. The right to express one’s opinions freely without fear of censorship or, worse yet, retaliation from the government is indeed one of the founding blocks of a democratic society. Berlusconi often stated that provisions should be made, however, when freedom of speech morphs into an all-pervasive choir in favor of a homogenous view, and agenda; since diversity is such a central goal for liberal beliefs, he affirmed, diversity of opinions should not be denounced as dissent, but accepted as a key ingredient to the democratic recipe.

Judiciary activism. Berlusconi has been tried in Italian courts in many, many, and then many more cases. To this day he maintains that most of the Italian magistrates lean to the Left, and therefore he is the victim of a judiciary persecution. In fact, he has often stated that the judiciary acts as a political entity, which, he has emphasized, is highly anti-constitutional. The consensus among Italians is that the truth lies somewhere in between: while Berlusconi is certainly no saint, far from it, it is true that before entering politics, although he was already a billionaire and a very high-profile public figure, he was not attracting the attention and investigations of magistrates as he did ever since he became prime minister.

Persecution from the media. Berlusconi felt all along that the media by and large was opposed to him, some of them belligerently. Once he famously or rather infamously called out two TV personalities who, while on state-owned TV channels (RAI), carried out veritable and extended trials against him, one of them even employing a de facto prosecutor (who looked like an odd hybrid between a judge and a priest and who, while smirking, methodically enlisted Berlusconi’s alleged crimes as if they were a litany). Berlusconi’s point of contention was that such mock trials (incidentally performed in disregard of the adversarial system, and that is, the chance, for the “defendant” [in the mock trial], to defend himself or to be defended by someone) should not be permitted on state-owned TV programs, more or less the equivalent of PBS. The two talk-show hosts were temporarily banned. Duly outraged, they made a lot of noise about what became known as the “Bulgarian Diktat” (as Berlusconi had uttered it while in Bulgaria), which considerably boosted their ratings once their shows resumed, and turned them into freedom of speech heroes—at least in the eyes of half the Italian population.

That, in Berlusconi’s view, is a defining characteristic of the post-WWII Left: while the Left is wont to engage in a great deal of intolerance, or at times outright hostility, toward divergent views, when it happens to lose the elections, it has a chameleonic talent for transforming itself into the victim if not the martyr of violated constitutional rights. Berlusconi missed no chance to emphasize such a schizophrenic behavior time and again.

“Fascist” and “racist”. During Berlusconi’s long tenure either as prime minister or as head of the opposition, the word “fascist” was used by the Left to truncate any nascent discussion; whether or not it was warranted, its effect on any possibility of dialogue was lethal. The same applies in contemporary America to the word “racist”. It is the ultimate dialogue-killer, and is used as freely, but often as unwarrantedly, by the Left. 

The (assumed) moral and cultural superiority of the Left, its resulting smugness, and its preference of abstract ideology over empirical reality. To the eyes of the European center-Right, the position of the American Left has finally become equivalent if not identical to the one of the Western European Left. Both draw their inspiration from the book A Critique of Pure Tolerance, by Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse, published in 1965, and a few other treatises in the same vein. Such a seminal book fueled the 1968 youth protests in Europe and, in the 1970s, became the vademecum of terrorists from the ultra-Left who assiduously put into practice its implied tenet of “just violence”. While the book was the combined effort of US academia, at first it found fertile ground in Western Europe, where Communist parties were legal and part of the political fabric in various countries. America was then one of the superpowers, strongly opposing Communism during the Cold War, and public adherence to such an ideology by young people would have been self-sabotaging. Besides, in the US social revolt was channeled into rock music, which, it might be noted en passant, did not produce the many casualties that ultra-leftist terrorism caused in Western Europe. Today, however, with Communism having imploded almost everywhere in the world, the ideas of that book have oddly resurfaced in America. Whether those who go by them are aware of such a book is irrelevant: in all likelihood they have absorbed them from their professors, and/or such ideas have simply become a behavioral common denominator irrespective of their origin. The contribution by Marcuse, then the reigning doyen of leftist ideology, Repressive Tolerance, is a particularly telling essay in its unwittingly prescient portrayal of what the world has been witnessing in contemporary American society. In it, the philosopher from the Frankfurt School, pontificating at the time of writing from Brandeis University, states inter alia:

Withdrawal of tolerance from regressive movements before they can become active; intolerance even toward thought, opinion and word, and finally, intolerance in the opposite direction, that is, toward the self-styled conservatives, to the political Right—these anti-democratic notions respond to the actual development of the democratic society (…).

Who would have guessed, wonders the European center-Right, that Marcuse’s plea for intolerance and, elsewhere, for “just violence” would find, today, an echo in the US, which the world reveres as the largest democracy (consistently forgetting about India)?

Berlusconi’s first government was short-lived because it lost the support of one of the parties of its coalition, the Lega Nord, then headed by a true xenophobe and racist, Umberto Bossi, who vehemently campaigned for Northern Italy’s succession from the impoverished and “parasitic” South. But Berlusconi, who was many things but never a xenophobe or a racist, persisted as leader of the opposition, and would become prime minister three more times. For twenty years Italy was bitterly divided between his supporters and detractors, the latter being far more vociferous but not more numerous. Mercifully, since the ratification of the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution in 1951, in the US no person may be elected president more than twice. So at most Trump will be in office for eight years. It could be argued that American democracy owns him the (specious?) debt of having rid the country of the lineage of two families, the Bushes and the Clintons, as the dynastic concept of having the son, or brother, or spouse of a president become in turn president should strike Americans as distinctly anti-democratic.

Italy remained extremely polarized for twenty years; the US are currently very polarized. The only way out may be the creation of a third party that eschews the traditional left-right paradigm. Something of the sort happened eventually in Italy in a very convoluted way which would take too long to explain (and besides such a party, although very sizable, by being unwilling to form a coalition with any other party, is still constitutionally not allowed to govern). It is to be hoped that the political complexities and convulsions of the country of Cicero, Caesar, Machiavelli, the Borgias, Mussolini and so on and so forth will not be experienced by this younger and normally much more constructive country.

  

Guido Mina di Sospiro

Guido Mina di Sospiro

Guido Mina di Sospiro is an award-winning, internationally published novelist born in Argentina but raised in Italy who lives in the United States.

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.
Guido Mina di Sospiro