Breitbart, the news site emerging as the Pravda of the Donald Trump era, published during the campaign an insight that was picked up almost only in Italy. The American website described the Italian capital’s mayor as “Rome’s Trump.” Outside Italy this term doesn’t mean much. In Italy it raised a storm.
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Virginia Raggi, of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, has been Rome’s mayor for the past six months. She was elected against all odds as the populist movement’s candidate to head one of the world’s most difficult cities to manage. Riding on the waves of disgust from the corruption that had spread in the Italian capital, she defeated both Silvio Berlusconi’s candidate on the right and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s candidate on the center-left. Her victory constituted an earthquake in Italian politics, signaling that the days of the “traditional” parties are numbered.
Breitbart News, of whom Steve Bannon was executive chairman, perceived, correctly, that the tendency to see Trump as an American phenomenon was deceptive. Anti-establishment populism has become the old continent’s daily bread (Britain, Austria, France, Hungary and Italy) just like in the United States.
So even if Trump’s entering the Oval Office in less than two months is seen as a seminal moment of the “post-truth” era, Europe has been walking down a clearly Trumpist path for some time now. In many respects, it is even showing the U.S. the way.
At the heart of this entanglement stands, like a remnant of ancient times, the city to which all roads once led: Rome. Since her election Raggi has been in a spin, stemming partly from her inexperience and partly from the establishment’s strong desire to delegitimize her rule. This brings to mind what could soon happen to Trump in the White House.
But paradoxically, there are also similarities between Raggi and her sworn rival, the young Renzi. He was elected prime minister some three years ago as the center-left party’s candidate and is much more experienced, full of good intentions and has a real desire to change things. He is also untainted with Raggi and her likes’ populism. And yet, he too rose to power to kick the establishment, and the traditional politicians are making his life a misery, too.
On Sunday Renzi will face his moment of truth. Italy will vote in a referendum he initiated to bring about a profound change in the government system (a de facto end to the Senate and ensuring the premier a more stable parliamentary majority). Renzi has threatened to resign if the Italians reject his proposal for constitutional reforms – and according to the polls they will indeed say “no.” All those vying to replace him, from the xenophobic rightist Northern League to the Five Star Movement, headed by the wacky comedian Beppe Grillo, are already preparing for Renzi’s fall, which will lead to elections and perhaps to a Trump-style change of government.
The cocktail of populism, anti-immigration sentiments and an “old” establishment that objects to change comprises the poisonous potion that Italy is about to swallow in its turn. Napoleon Bonaparte, a great admirer of Italy, once said “between the sublime and the ridiculous, it is only one step.” Italy, perhaps the most beautiful of states, never had a problem taking that step. The dramatic referendum may be – for it and for all of Europe – a step too far.