Opinion

Trump a La Berlusconi: The 'Maverick Martyr' of American Politics

Apparent chaos and incompetence were ploys that consolidated Trump's Italian twin Silvio Berlusconi's grip on power, while styling himself as a Christ-like lone crusader and savior of Italy.

Donald Trump and  Silvio Berlusconi.
REUTERS/Carlos Barria, REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

One might be excused for thinking that U.S. President Donald Trump’s first weeks in the White House will also be his last. Surely – many anti-Trump hopefuls whisper – the shocking statements, the ensuing media pressure, the bungled appointments and legislation, the confrontations with the judiciary and the intelligence community, will somehow end up in resignation or impeachment. And even if Trump magically manages to hold on to power, surely his public support will be so low that he will never win a second term, right?

Well, perhaps. But there is also a chance that Trump’s apparently erratic behavior and aggressive response to criticism may be a ploy to help him consolidate his power, in keeping with a political script that has already been successfully tested in another Western democracy. 

Before and immediately after the U.S. elections, many observers pointed out the similarities between the Trump phenomenon and the rise to power of Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media mogul who dominated his country’s politics for more than a decade with his own brand of anti-establishment and nationalistic populism. Those similarities have only deepened since Trump took office, and a close examination can give us some understanding of the president’s behavior and how this unique chapter in American politics will develop.

Throughout his years in power (a brief stint as premier in 1994, then again in 2001-2006 and 2008-2011) nary a day went by without Berlusconi making headlines with another cringe-worthy remark, whether he was belittling women, laughing at gays or labeling foreign leaders Nazis. Like Trump, Berlusconi courted the extreme right, promoting anti-immigrant legislation and asserting the “superiority” of Western culture over Islam in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. He also enraged many Jews by minimizing Italy’s fascist past and claiming that “Mussolini never killed anyone.” And while building himself up as a lightning rod for controversy, Berlusconi pushed through legislation that was often criticized as benefiting only himself, his business interests and party cronies.

Comedians had a field day, the media lambasted him, millions poured into the streets in mass protests calling for “resistance” (sounds familiar?). And every time Berlusconi doubled down with his response and escalated the conflict: journalists were “envious” liars and puppets of leftist “elites,” judges who blocked his legislation or investigated his business deals were “mad” or “mentally disturbed,” and his political opponents were dismissed as “communists.”

And despite Italy’s failing economic fortunes and the constant upheaval that his rhetoric generated, Berlusconi’s supporters never abandoned him. At every election, expectations and polls predicting his political demise were upended by another unexpectedly strong showing of his conservative coalition.

Political judo

Knowingly or unknowingly, Berlusconi had learned to use the constant flow of criticism, rage and hatred directed at him to boost his political fortunes and damage his adversaries. In the eyes of his supporters, the hostility their leader faced only cemented their belief that he was indeed a lone crusader fighting against an entrenched and corrupt establishment, a martyr targeted because he was standing up for the little guy, or, as Berlusconi himself once put it: “the Jesus Christ of Italian politics.” 

This strategy worked so well that in 2013, with the country mired in recession, Berlusconi lost the election by just a handful of votes, even as he was being buffeted by tax fraud accusations and a massive scandal over sex parties with underage prostitutes (he was later convicted on the first charge and cleared on the second).

So, when Trump lashes out at the media, the judiciary and anyone who does not agree with him, he is not necessarily showing signs of instability or erratic behavior, but may just be taking a page from Berlusconi’s playbook.

Like a skilled judo fighter, Trump is using his enemies’ strengths to his advantage, trying to present their constant attacks as proof that his administration is being victimized for attempting to fulfill its promises and that any signs of chaos or incompetence are merely propaganda or sabotage by hostile members of the establishment.

Silvio’s solo show

Another lesson from the political war of attrition in which Berlusconi and his adversaries engaged is that for years this polarizing figure remained the only personality at the center of the stage. With Berlusconi in the eye of a constant media storm, few opposition leaders could make an impression and present themselves as potential alternatives.

By being just against Trump and not clarifying what they are for, those who oppose the president are playing right into his hands. While the focus remains solely on him, and the opposition fails to come up with credible alternative leadership and address the issues that brought Trump to power in the first place, the Donald can look forward to a long and prosperous political career.

There is one final warning that can be drawn from Italy’s Berlusconi years. Whether it takes a month or a decade for Trump to fade away, his brand of politics will stick around for much longer. The millions who have been convinced that the entire system of government needs to be torn down, are unlikely to go back to voting for establishment candidates. 

In Italy, Berlusconi’s party continues to poll at around 12 percent, but most of the void left by his fall in popularity has been filled by the Five Star Movement (M5S), founded by comedian-turned-rabble-rouser Beppe Grillo. The movement has been quickly gaining favor among Italians through populist promises such as granting a stipend to all citizens, nationalizing banks, and taking the country out of the Eurozone. The M5S took 25 percent of the vote in 2013 and last year managed to get mayors elected in several key cities, including Rome. 

The capital’s new administration, much like the one in Washington, has been plagued by resignations, scandals and accusations of incompetence, but this has barely dented the movement’s popularity on a national level. Polls continue to see the M5S as the most popular party in Italy, because once again their failings, and the ensuing criticism, are being successfully painted as unfair backlash from a decrepit and crooked establishment. It matters little that this fierce adversary is usually only vaguely defined and that the structures that should replace it are even less clearly described. 

For the populist pied pipers in the United States, Italy and across the world, all that matters is that the despised and dying system can never actually die. The 'swamp' must not be totally drained. The 'dishonest, lying media' must still survive, even in a truncated form. The ‘system’ must always be there to provide a comfortable scapegoat and the sine qua non for the 'movement' to  fight on: forever one vote, one election, one show of support, one revolution away from victory. 

Ariel David is a Tel Aviv-based reporter for Haaretz and other English-language publications. He has worked for five years as correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome, covering Italy and the Vatican.