ROME—Think of a prominent male politician with bad hair, bad jokes and lots of money. One who has demonstrated egoism, racism, sexism and homophobia – often at the same time. He has been married multiple times and, for him, women fall into two broad categories: “she’s too ugly to sleep with” and “of course she wants to sleep with me.” Final clue: he has been handily elected to lead Italy three times. No, it’s not Donald Trump, it is Silvio Berlusconi.
Italians have been warning Americans about the glaring similarities between thrice-elected Italian prime minister and the Republican front-runner since shortly after the New York real estate baron entered the political race last year. “Both are loud, vain, cheeky businessmen, amateur politicians and professional womanizers,” Italian political columnist Beppe Severgnini wrote in one of a number of noteworthy comparison columns last fall. “Both have a troubled relation with their egos and their hair. Both think God is their publicist, and twist religion to suit their own ends.”
But “Il Cavaliere” (the Knight) and “The Donald” have much more in common than hefty bank accounts and hairstyle challenges. They also share a “leave-it-to-me” wink wink, nudge nudge political style that plays into voters’ vulnerabilities and fears. Berlusconi first came into power in 1994, when Italians were desperate and wary of politics as usual. The country was licking its wounds after violent internal terrorism during the years of lead followed by the Bribesville scandal and Clean Hands investigation that rocked the establishment, highlighting a culture of bipartisan corruption that sent prime minister Benito Craxi into exile in Tunisia, where he later died without ever serving his prison sentence in Italy.
“Berlusconi came to power at a peculiar point in Italian history,” Michael Day, author of Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall From Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga told The Daily Beast. “And after a grim decade and a half of industrial strife and terrorist violence stoked by the Cold-War, the public was ready to lap up Berlusconi's hollow promises of a bright new feature. He took his chance brilliantly.”
Berlusconi was a self-made man, taking a relatively small sum of money, which, it must be noted, was of questionable provenance, and turning it into an enviable fortune tied to real estate development. He also owned a popular soccer team, which, to an Italian, equates with having the keys to heaven. Whenever political opponents pressed him on policy matters, he responded with what amounted to bread and circuses, taking a page from ancient Roman emperors who used superficial entertainment as diversions in times of strife. “When a center-left rival challenged Berlusconi over his economic competence during his first election campaign, the TV and football mogul simply responded: ‘How many Intercontinental [soccer] cups have you won?’,” says Day, noting that he then called those very opponents communists for good measure.
Of course the political situation in the United States is far different than it was in Italy in the early 1990s, but Trump is clearly using the same tactics to present himself as a plain-talking anti-establishment candidate who is just like everyone else, fed up with the status quo.
Neither man can possibly relate to the everyday concerns of their constituency, many of whom are under-employed or just wishing for a better minimum wage. Instead they seek to hoodwink desperate dreamers into believing that if they just sign on the dotted line, the riches will be theirs, too. Berlusconi used to quip that all women want to be with him, and all men want to be him. It was partially true. After all, the billionaire media tycoon started his career as a vacuum cleaner salesman and cruise ship crooner whose rags-to-riches success story is only missing the glass slipper.
Putting aside for the moment Berlusconi’s tax evasion and bribery sentences, for which he had to do community service and pay a hefty sum, most everyday Italians cannot fathom the wealth and power that Berlusconi has. By way of example, Berlusconi pays his second ex-wife Veronica Lario $1.5 million a month in alimony—a month!—which his skilled attorneys managed to whittle down from the $3 million monthly support she asked for to support the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed.
Trump got off much easier in his many divorces, opting to settle for lump sums worth many millions rather than the sort of maintenance Berlusconi can easily afford for the rest of his life. These men are super wealthy, spending what some of the voters make in a year on one evening out. Berlsuconi apparently handed out envelopes filled with cash to the young women who attended his bunga-bunga parties as entertainment. And who can forget Trump’s garish admission that he doesn’t need anyone else’s campaign donations because, as he said, “I’m really rich.”
When Berlusconi was running for office, that incredible divide between ‘have and have not’ actually helped him. Many Italians were convinced that he would do for their country what he did for himself. Of course that wasn’t to be, and his multiple court cases including 2,5000 trial dates during his 17-year reign as prime minister ranging from extortion and tax evasion to outright bribery and false accounting, instead proved that he still did for himself at the expense of the country.
Writing in Quartz, Italian journalist Annalisa Minnella brilliantly summed up the bottom line. “Like Trump, Berlusconi consistently seemed too absurd to be true. And yet he was. He won elections again, and again, and again, thriving off any and all attention,” she says. “People didn’t take him or what he said seriously. Then one day we woke up to find our government overrun by criminals, our economy destroyed, and our cultural mores perverted to the extent that the objectification of women was commonplace. There was no more laughing left to do.”
Indeed, Italians stopped laughing a long time ago. Who can forget the vast array of cringe-worthy gaffes by which Berlusconi embarrassed the nation, from calling American president Barack Obama tan, not once but twice, quipping that his wife sunbathed with him because “she’s tan, too.”
And then there was the time he was overheard referring to German chancellor Angela Merkel as “an unfuckable lard ass.” And his bromance with Vladimir Putin and the famous fiasco involving Putin’s bed, a gift from the Russian president on which Berlusconi allegedly bedded a call girl who described the affair in too much detail.
It’s entirely feasible that Trump would take a page out of Berlusconi’s playbook when entertaining heads of state. And why not, when you’ve got multiple mansions at your disposal. Berlusconi famously hosted heads of state at his Sardinian Villa Certosa, including the Czech prime minister who was caught, quite literally with his pants down, in the so-called Skinny Dip scandal.
And who can forget when Cherie Blair described the night she and British prime minister Tony Blair were serenaded by Berlusconi as “the best night of my life.” Whether it was the fake erupting volcano or the fireworks that spelled out “Viva Tony” remain unclear, but Trump might as easily woo foreign heads of state in such spectacular form.
Of course no one knows if a Trump presidency would look anything like a Berlusconi premiership, but if the preview is any indication, it might.
Writing in the Washington Post Italian-Israeli journalist Rula Jebreal says America should take heed. “So it’s now urgent that America learns the lessons taught (and havoc wrought) when Italy’s political and media establishment underestimated Berlusconi,” she says. “They viewed him as a joke, an ignorant buffoon, and he was widely dismissed as a comical figure, unfit to lead a serious country. None of that stopped him.”
And how the mighty fall. Italians remember well the night Berlusconi finally lost his edge. He resigned to street celebrations with Italians throwing coins at his car as he left the presidential palace while a professional choir gathered outside his home to sing “Hallelujah” a cappella. Somehow it was befitting of a fallen king.
America is not Italy, and the person who could be the next president of the United States might not have even entered the race yet. But take note: in Italy, many people who thought the idea of Berlusconi was ‘just crazy enough to work’ quickly learned that instead it was just plain crazy. Let’s hope America doesn’t fall for the same joke.