Will Italy’s Leader Fall to Trump’s Hate Contagion?

Matteo Renzi put everything on Obama-Clinton support for his referendum. Now, Trump’s shock win has Italy’s (and Europe’s) ‘barbarians’ salivating at taking him down, too.


ROME—Less than a month ago, Matteo Renzi was floating on air. Fresh off the pages of Vogue, and still glowing from the limelight for being honored at President Barack Obama’s last state dinner, the maverick Italian prime minister seemed to have the world at his feet. “This is my last visit and state dinner as president,” Obama said as he introduced Renzi. “We saved the best for last.”

And it couldn’t have come at a better time as Renzi prepares to lead his country forward in a crucial Dec. 4 reform referendum that is easily the make-or-break moment of his career. Having Obama throw him a party and endorse his cause was extremely useful back home.

“The upcoming referendum to modernize Italy’s political institutions is something the United States strongly supports because we believe that it will help accelerate Italy’s path toward a more vibrant, dynamic economy, as well as a more responsive political system,” Obama said at a joint press conference with a visibly delighted Renzi gushing enthusiasm. “And so I am rooting for success, but I think [Renzi] should hang around for awhile no matter what.”

Fast-forward to Nov. 8. All that fairy dust Obama sprinkled now surely feels a little bit like poison ivy. Renzi, like pretty much the rest of the world, was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the presidential race. But he was one of the few world leaders to say it out loud. “I’m rooting for Hillary,” he first said last February, adding that, despite his endorsement, he would work with whoever is inaugurated in January 2017.

Now he may not get that chance.

Since Trump’s win, Italy’s anti-establishment Five-Star movement, led by former showman Beppe Grillo, has been bolstered in its opposition to the upcoming referendum vote. And the energy is clearly tied to the Trump victory, echoing sentiments that have been gaining speed around Europe all week.

“This is a general ‘fuck off’,” Grillo wrote on his popular blog after Trump gave his acceptance speech. “It is those who dare, the obstinate, the barbarians who will take the world forward,” Grillo wrote. “We are the barbarians! The real idiots, populists and demagogues are the journalists and the establishment intellectuals.”

Indeed, Trump’s hate contagion is spreading across Europe at an extremely unsettling pace. And those who endorsed Trump to ridicule are now having an “I told you so” moment.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban endorsed Trump for his anti-immigrant stance. Had Clinton prevailed, human-rights activists there might have gained a little wiggle room. But she didn’t, and Orban feels vindicated for building a border fence to keep out mostly Syrian refugees. “We are two days after the big bang and still alive,” he said Thursday. “What a wonderful world. This also shows that democracy is creative and innovative.”

In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, who also endorsed Trump basked in the afterglow of his victory and enjoyed a bump in her own polls ahead of presidential elections next spring in which she was once considered a long shot because of her xenophobic views. Not any more. It’s almost as if Trump’s win makes anything unthinkable now possible—even someone like Le Pen leading France.

“Nothing is immutable. What has happened this night is not the end of the world, it’s the end of a world,” she said in Paris after the historic Trump victory. “The political and media elites that were heavily chastised this morning can no longer ignore it.”

In the Netherlands, far-right Geert Wilders, who is campaigning to “ban the Quran” to prevail as prime minister in Dutch elections next March, felt reason to gloat about Trump’s victory. “He reclaimed democracy for the American people,” he told The Washington Post. “It can indeed be an enormous incentive in Europe and the Netherlands to see that if people start moving in a certain direction, it can be done.”

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Back in Italy, far-right Northern League party leader Matteo Salvini is also enjoying a bump in popularity after Trump’s victory. Salvini, who even traveled to a Trump rally in Philadelphia last fall meet his idol, mocked Renzi for putting his eggs in Clinton’s basket. “His trip to see Obama and his good wishes toward Clinton have ended up today as a farce,” he said.

Silvio Berlusconi, whose comparisons to Trump have spawned the unsavory term “Trumpusconi” tweeted, “In America they voted No” after Trump’s win, making a connection to Italy’s referendum, which he opposes. One of his party faithful, Renato Brunetta, has even called for Renzi to resign now after unsuccessfully supporting Clinton. “From this day forward Matteo Renzi is politically finished, he is a dead man walking,” Brunetta said in a statement. “No other European country sided with one of the two contenders like Italy did. Now Renzi must reap the consequences and take responsibility for his bad choices.”

Renzi originally said he would resign if his referendum fails, and recent polls show that there are more Italians than not still undecided just weeks ahead of the crucial vote, which The Economist and others say would make Italy governable for the first time in its modern history.

Renzi has since stepped back and said he would stay, but it’s not clear at all if his Democratic party would even be able to keep him, given the bad blood after the Clinton loss. The referendum is not as big as Brexit, but, if it fails and Renzi’s government falls with it, a very real scenario is that Grillo’s gang could sweep into power. If they do, they vow to hold an Italexit vote to let Italians decide whether they want to stay part of the European Union.

Lupo Rattazzi is a Harvard Kennedy School-educated Italian entrepreneur who is the president of leisure airline company Neos. He is also a member of Italy’s most prestigious Fiat-founding Agnelli family. He is actively campaigning for the referendum to pass, but worries the Trump victory signals trouble ahead. “It will be damaging because, as you can see as a result, the forces of revulsion are already raising their ugly head,” he told The Daily Beast. “Having said this, Grillo gloating about Trump tells you something about the level of prevailing confusion and bad faith.”

Indeed, it’s hard to see the logic in Grillo’s support for someone like Trump, who he has nicknamed “Corncob” and who he never fully endorsed going into the elections. Apparently it’s always easy to be on the side that’s winning. “Corncob has told everyone to piss off: Masons, banking conglomerates, the Chinese,” says Grillo. “Maybe he will become a moderate. I can already see him saying: ‘Yes, I said so, but we were on the campaign trail…’ Even so, the world has already changed.”