Was Silvio Berlusconi the “Trump before Trump”? Only in some ways — but they’re disturbing

Was Silvio Berlusconi the “Trump before Trump”? Only in some ways — but they’re disturbing

Ever since Donald Trump entered the political scene, I have heard parallels drawn between him and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian billionaire and four-time prime minister who died June 12 at age 86. The comparisons perhaps seem irresistible: two tycoons, two entertainment personalities, two grotesque and murky characters, two right-wing politicians with egotistical personalities.

But the similarity between them is only superficial: Berlusconi was not Trump; they are two different cataclysms.

For one thing, Berlusconi was in no sense an outsider. He spent his early life among the legal and business elite of Milan, and as a politician his role was to keep the status quo intact — not to destroy the system but to protect it, as it had protected him for years (preventing him from going to jail, for example.) He never promised to drain the swamp; his mission was quite the opposite. 

Berlusconi’s entry into politics, in fact, was a desperate self-rescue attempt.

The Italian political system established after the immediate post-World War II period, known as the First Republic, began to collapse in the early 1990s, engulfed by corruption scandals. Within a few months, a fortress that had seemed impregnable had crumbled to the ground. The First Republic’s most powerful political figure, former prime minister and longtime Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi, fled to Tunisia in 1994 to avoid arrest, while handcuffs were being snapped on many other current and former government officials.

After the political system’s collapse, the outcome approaching elections seemed written in advance: an overwhelming victory for the left. That isn’t what happened.

Whatever their supposed political differences, Craxi had acted as Berlusconi’s guardian angel, in an arrangement that provided both men mutual political immunity. But with Craxi gone, end the entire First Republic with him, Berlusconi was without protection and faced the risk of either prison time or joining his friend in Tunisia.

His response, in a certain sense, was brilliant. Within two months, Berlusconi founded and put together a brand new political party, Forza Italia.

He presented himself and his party as a new, alternative, but as Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in “The Leopard”: “Everything must change for everything to remain the same.” 

Certainly Berlusconi did not begin to build his party empty-handed: He was a billionaire with a media empire that included print media, TV and radio, along with financial companies, real estate, cruise lines and so on. One could say he was more like Rupert Murdoch — or his fictional counterpart Logan Roy — than like Donald Trump. 

Overnight, Berlusconi’s empire was made to serve his political campaign. He converted the offices of his finance company, Fininvest, into Forza Italia offices. His sales reps began to recruit candidates and promote political events.

Berlusconi was a billionaire with a media empire that included print media, TV and radio, along with finance, real estate, cruise lines and so on. He was more like Rupert Murdoch — or his fictional counterpart Logan Roy — than like Donald Trump.

All the actors, publicists, journalists and assorted hangers-on around Berlusconi became his influencers, his supporters, his spokespeople and often his candidates. A party anthem was written (purportedly by Berlusconi himself, who had been a lounge singer on cruise ships in his youth) and set to music, a catchy tune repeated endlessly by his radio stations and TV channels. Cities, towns and even the smallest villages were filled with posters, flyers and billboards of him, smiling, handsome and reassuring.

For his party’s signature color Berlusconi chose the same shade of blue used by Bill Gates for Microsoft Windows, creating a mechanism of immediate recognition and unconscious trust. That’s an example of the way nothing was left to chance in Berlusconi’s enormous political promotion. Every effect was calculated and curated for effect.

The entire Italian peninsula was invaded, to its remotest corners, by a political party that did not yet exist. In small towns, street vendors who usually transported goods in tiny vans were paid generously by Forza Italia to dump their cargo of fruit and vegetables in favor of futuristic LED displays that looped Berlusconi’s messages. In that transformative year of 1994, Italy felt like a summation of the worst dystopian futures of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Ursula Le Guin combined.

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At that time I was in graduate school, preparing my dissertation in the semiology of cinema. My professor, a fierce leftist, alert to the hypnopedia that Berlusconi was putting into practice, decided to abandon academic life and enter politics, as many other intellectuals did at that time. I decided to follow her example and changed my thesis topic: Goodbye “Language and Aphasia in the Cinematography of François Truffaut”; hello “Showbiz Politics: The American Model and the Forza Italia Model.”

My university had been founded by Umberto Eco, and its professors were (and are) well-known intellectuals, famous for their cultural depth and leftist politics. The professor I asked for my thesis, Alessandro Dal Lago, was a well-known radical, a combination of elements that did not make me welcome in Forza Italia circles. When I began asking party officials for contacts and information for my thesis, every door was slammed in my face.

Remember, this was 1994: Although the internet existed, it was not yet a viable source of information. Not knowing how else to study that phenomenon that was overwhelming my country, I decided to infiltrate it.

I was living in Milan, both one of the world’s fashion capitals and Berlusconi’s headquarters, and to support myself in college I did some modeling work. I signed up with the agencies that Forza Italia used to hire hostesses for its rallies, which borrowed the American political term “conventions.”

Decades later I became the U.S. correspondent for Il Manifesto, a leftist Italian daily, and attended a real American political convention for the first time. That confirmed what I had only suspected at age 20. Forza Italia had merely mimicked the aesthetics of U.S. party conventions, which (at least until the Trump era) reflected actual political parties with their own histories and distinctive worldviews. Forza Italia’s so-called conventions were superficial parodies. 

Berlusconi’s political message, if we can call it that, was simple: The left is dangerous and on the verge of destroying our society. I’ve been forced to stand up to save Italy from communism and defend freedom. Does any of that sound familiar?

Of course, the large center-left party in Italy was (and still is) a very long way from socialism or communism, which may also sound familiar to Americans. Even to call it leftist was by the ’90s something of a stretch. Yet Berlusconi’s message, thanks to endless repetition, had taken root.

Berlusconi’s political message was simple: The left is dangerous and on the verge of destroying our society. I’ve been forced to stand up to save Italy from communism and defend freedom. Does that sound familiar?

When I began to work as hostess at Forza Italia conventions, I began to see that world from the inside. We were not dressed in the skimpy outfits of the debonair young showgirls who served as ubiquitous backdrop on Berlusconi’s TV channels. We looked more like morose secretaries from an office comedy, with uniforms consisting of midi-lengh blue pleated skirts, white shirts and Hermès-style scarves around our necks, reminiscent of those worn by the “young Italians” of the Mussolini era.

Our tasks were simple: Smile, to smile, show guests where to sit, clap on command.

These conventions always opened with the Forza Italia anthem — sung in chorus, with everyone standing. Then various personalities would appear on stage in rotation, repeating the same script with different words: Their was an enormous risk that Italy would end up in a communist dictatorship of the Stalinist type, and only Berlusconi could help us avoid this fate. (Or, to coin a phrase: “I alone can fix it.”) We had to be grateful to him! After all, he was sacrificing himself for us, and the least we could do was to persuade our friends and family to vote for him.

Closing the testimonial parade there was always a special guest, preferably a pop star or an actor, who would throw in a personal anecdote meant to humanize Berlusconi and bring him closer to the people. After each such speech, It was the hostesses’ job to get the audience on their feet, applauding vigorously, while the Forza Italia anthem began to play. We sang the song all over again in full at the end of the event, with balloons descending and slogans chanted enthusiastically.

As the crowd left, we gave out gift-packs containing Forza Italia pins, machine-autographed photos of Berlusconi, a tiny bottle of perfume and a Forza Italia scarf. We encouraged them to wear it: “Look at this beautiful scarf! So elegant!”

All this was completely unheard of in Italian or even European politics, where party meetings were informal, functional assemblies that might include actual discussion of policies and positions.

As sociologist Émile Durkheim once put it, ritual “is not identified with the whole religious or magical system, but is, so to speak, the executive arm of that system.” Since Forza Italia had no history or substance. ritual was essentially its entire system.

To me, even at the time — the left-wing graduate student in hostess drag — every element of this ritual appeared glaringly obvious. I wondered why it wasn’t like that for everyone.

This was not a work of covert persuasion. it was all on the surface. But in the following weeks and then years, I saw an entire country buy into that carnivalesque rhetoric, that bandwagon of “dwarves and dancers,” as we said at the time, and bring it into government. So it no longer seemed extreme or even strange when Forza Italia allied itself with characters who were, until very recently, entirely unacceptable — like the former fascist party now led by Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s current prime minister.

Now Berlusconi is dead, but the damage done by his 30-year transformation of Italian political life will long outlast him. Without him, Forza Italia will probably disappear, but the far more efficient and sincere fascist movement led by Meloni definitely won’t. 

Perhaps there is a final, fatal similarity between Berlusconi and Trump. To avoid a prison sentence, Berlusconi politically imprisoned his entire country. The outcome in America has yet to be determined.

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