It’s time for a little deja vu.
A flamboyant demagogic mogul with no governing experience had just been elected to lead the nation, and I was trying to understand why he even wanted the job. I posed the question to a young politician who knew the guy. The politician said: “When you’ve got everything as a businessman, what else can you do with your life? The only thing he loves is a challenge. To pass himself off to posterity as the man who changed the system — that’s the greatest challenge. Challenge can be like a drug.”
And what a drug high this was. Lots of people had laughed at the mogul — especially his TV shows, which featured girls in tiny bikini bottoms, and his simplistic campaign slogans (“one million new jobs!”). Lots of people also feared the mogul – because he assailed immigrants and had forged ties with neo-fascists. He was not expected to win, yet he did. As the young politician grudgingly conceded, “His personal approach is to never give up.”
This was in April 1994, back when I was a foreign correspondent. I was in Italy, talking with Fabrizio del Noce, a deputy in the Italian parliament. We were discussing the meteoric ascent of the new prime minister, corporate titan Silvio Berlusconi – the so-called “citizen outsider” who had successfully stoked a populist backlash against the “corrupt” political establishment.
I’m hardly the first person to draw parallels between Trump and Berlusconi, but rereading my ’94 stories is truly an eerie experience. Check out these passages:
The overnight rise of Berlusconi is unprecedented. It also raises serious conflict-of-interest issues, even among some supporters who fear that the new leader could be a threat to democracy…
Berlusconi declined to say when, or under what circumstances, he would give up his massive private holdings. The conflict, he said, would be “studied”…He has already spurned the idea of an American-style blind trust that would run his empire while he holds office. He has also rejected the appointment of a “guarantor” who would ensure that his empire doesn’t get special treatment…
“I go for (Berlusconi) because it is best for my job,” said the Rome representative of a plastics firm, plucking at his monogrammed shirt. “I have to gamble on the businessman. But you can see that his power is extremely dangerous. You could see it during the election, the way he was promoted on the (TV) networks.”
Neo-fascist politicians are being invited to join Berlusconi’s government. “Finally, we are part of the democratic scene in this country!” exulted Roberto Borango, a member of the neo-fascist Northern Alliance party. He added, “I am personally not an extremist,” and insisted that Italians had voted for the Berlusconi “because of a general discontent with the economy and the old politicians,” not because they yearned for dictatorship.
You may be wondering how Berlusconi performed in office (he did three stints as PM between 1994 and 2011). For starters, this passage, from Britain’s Guardian newspaper, might resonate: “His tenure became synonymous with the everyday demeaning of women — particularly on television – as sex objects, as the prime minister regularly insulted and mocked women in public, even making sex jokes at public events meant to honor women’s achievements.”
He regularly attacked the media, particularly when it investigated his ongoing conflicts of interest, declaring at one point that reporters were using television “as a criminal means of communication.” He was constantly targeted for prosecution, and fought off the prosecutors by sliming them as commies. Guy Dinmore, a former correspondent for the Financial Times, says: “What he did was to perpetuate the old system he inherited, (where) corruption was rife, and people were almost encouraged by Berlusconi not to pay their taxes. Italy was a swamp…and he made it worse.”
But what about Berlusconi’s economic promises? They died. The million jobs never happened, the national debt got worse, taxes went up, government spending had to be cut. When he resigned for good in 2011 — while enmeshed in numerous fraud and corruption trials – Italians danced en masse in Rome’s plazas. (In 1994, a restauranteur named Renato Colapeitra told me that the man’s promises would ultimately come to naught: “There’s always a new conductor coming in to change the orchestra, but, in the end, the music is always the same.”)
Still, it took a very long time to yank Berlusconi off the public stage. He lasted so long in part because his critics and political opponents were so tactically inept. And therein lies a potential lesson for the bereft Democrats.
Luigi Zingales, an Italian-born finance professor at the University of Chicago, wrote last week: “Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.”
Zingales said that the key to defeating Trump is to focus on issues, not character; to focus on nuts-and-bolts programs that will attract the alienated voters who gravitated to Trump. That’s how the Italian politicians finally seized the reins from Berlusconi. In Zingales’ words, “the Democratic party should learn this lesson.”
Yeah, we’ll see about that.