Shades of Mussolini: How Trump Has Poisoned U.S. Politics

The populist mess that former premier Berlusconi left behind in Italy, pandering to paranoia and targeting the weak, shows us that Trump's only the start of a nastier American politics.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a press conference following his victory in the Florida state primary, West Palm Beach, Florida, March 15, 2016.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a press conference following his victory in the Florida state primary, West Palm Beach, Florida, March 15, 2016.Credit: AFP
Ariel David
Ariel David

Donald Trump has recently been compared to many more or less nefarious leaders of the past – from Napoleon to Hitler, from Caesar to Mussolini.

Another comparison that’s circulating is between Trump and former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, the real-estate and media mogul who became Italy’s longest serving prime minister, before being forced to step down in a swirl of sex scandals and tax evasion charges.

Everyone from the New York Times to CNN seems to have noticed the uncanny similarities between the two politicians, which go well beyond a shared obsession with their hair and extravagant boasts of (alleged) sexual prowess. These flamboyant conservative billionaires both successfully parlayed their (alleged) business achievements into a political career, promising to make their countries as successful and prosperous as their companies. And both captured the spotlight by presenting themselves as anti-establishment heroes, beholden to no one and prepared to defend their people from a host of purported enemies: immigrants, Muslims, communists or socialists, and the media.

The first lesson from this comparison is that if the aim is to damage Trump and offer up a cautionary tale of what happens when a perma-tanned demagogue gets elected to office - then these comparisons just don’t work.

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.Credit: Reuters

Critics of The Donald, like those who triumphantly announced that they had fooled Trump into retweeting a quote by Mussolini or those who raise cries of “Hitler” at the arm-raised pledges at his rallies, should consider how, for years, Berlusconi’s adversaries failed to dent his popularity by comparing his government to a fascist regime and pointing at his barely-concealed admiration for Il Duce (and his attempts to exonerate the fascist leader).

Such comparisons don’t easily change hearts and minds. But even if it is unlikely to move any votes, there is some value in drawing a parallel between Trump and Berlusconi, in that it affords us a look into the future of American politics.

If and when Trump is defeated in November, many will breathe a sigh of relief: the danger to U.S. democracy will have passed. But looking at Italy’s post-Berlusconi politics it is clear that the real challenge will lie ahead. Trump, like Berlusconi, has already changed his country’s politics and political discourse forever. However short-lived his political career ends up being, it will be almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

Berlusconi burst onto the political scene in the mid 1990s, at a time of economic and political uncertainty following a series of corruption scandals that ended half a century of Christian Democrat rule in Italy.

Berlusconi defined himself as the enemy of the old political “particracy,”or of the political old guard, despite his close ties to that same establishment, to which he owed much of his fortune. While he certainly did not invent it, Berlusconi perfected the personalization of politics, creating a party, Forza Italia ('Go Italy', the slogan chanted at soccer games of the national team), whose main purpose and ideology was and remains to support any decision its leader takes. Berlusconi used the media to foster a personal relationship with voters, famously signing a “contract” with Italians on live television and promising to deport illegal immigrants, create jobs and slash taxes.

He forged alliances with the political fringes, bringing into his government the neo-fascist National Alliance party and the xenophobic, separatist Northern League movement. Opposition politicians, unfriendly media and magistrates investigating his business empire were branded as “communists” who were behind a conspiracy to bring him and the whole country down.

All the while he cultivated the image of the rich, macho playboy whom many Italians would love to be. He made sexist jokes and homophobic remarks (“better to love pretty girls than to be gay”) and surrounded himself with young, beautiful women both in government and at his famed parties. His alleged dalliances are said to have precipitated his second divorce, and the 79-year-old politician is now engaged to a showgirl nearly 50 years his junior.

Even in the international arena Berlusconi never tempered his calculated repertoire of insults and politically incorrect buffoonery. Ever eager to remind voters that he was an outsider who would respect or bow to no one, he once told a German politician that he should play the role of a kapo in a movie about the Nazis, and repeatedly referred to U.S. President Barack Obama as “tanned.”

Berlusconi’s political fortunes have waned since then, but all his successors, some of whom may publicly loathe him, have adopted at least part of his style and methods.

Matteo Renzi, the young prime minister who leads a fragile center-left coalition, is as adept at using marketing strategies as Berlusconi, and famously branded himself “il rottamatore” – “the scrapper” – who promised to take the old political establishment to the junkyard.

Outside Italy’s narrowing mainstream, comedian Beppe Grillo captured a quarter of the vote in the last elections, in 2013, with his anti-establishment, anti-EU party, the 5-Star Movement. Grillo uses his blog to connect to his voters and runs his party with an iron fist. Behind a façade of direct grassroots participation, it is the comedian who dictates policy and whips up online referendums to summarily expel any MPs or activists who stray from the party line.

And that line is based on Grillo’s paranoid conspiracy theories, like his belief that Europe and the world are run by a secret cabal of bankers and politicians. He has also spoken out against a “Jewish lobby” that he thinks controls the media, backed the theory that the September 11th attacks in the United States were an inside job by the CIA and has called Israel “frightening and irresponsible,” accusing it of “trying to start World War III.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, there is the young new leader of the Northern League, Matteo Salvini, a close ally of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in the European Parliament. Salvini wants Italy to leave the EU, thinks gypsy encampments should be “razed to the ground” and has proposed various “creative” solutions to stemming the flow of refugees into the country, including confining would-be migrants to abandoned offshore oil rigs.

According to the latest polls, if elections were held today, Grillo’s and Salvini’s parties would get between 40 to 50 percent of the vote. And that doesn’t count Berlusconi’s projected 12 percent, which would still grant him considerable political influence.

Trump’s legacy will be similar. Like Berlusconi, Trump was not the first to introduce racist bigotry and populism into the political scene of his country, but he has brought those elements into the mainstream of conservative politics and has broken the old norms of admissible political discourse.  Like Berlusconi, Trump has shown that in a modern liberal democracy it is possible to sway a huge chunk of the electorate, perhaps even a majority, by pandering to people’s frustrations, fears, paranoia and anger and aiming them at the closest, most convenient, weakest target.

When Trump disappears from the political scene, those votes will continue to be up for grabs, and sooner rather than later someone, probably even more dangerous than Trump or Berlusconi, is going to come and claim them.

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.

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