By Pasquale Gianni
ITALY — Donald Trump has been making big waves, mainly for his divisiveness, racism and willingness to do or say anything to keep himself in the spotlight. None of this should come as a surprise to the average American staying somewhat current with the news. What most people do not know, however, is that Europe has become almost as invested in U.S. presidential politics as everyday American voters. This is especially true in Italy, where American presidential primary results are closely reported. Italians everywhere I go are asking me with excitement and mild concern what I think may pan out. It is a fascinating and unique election cycle, but for Italy, it also looks somewhat familiar. Trump’s right-wing populism looks eerily similar to that of Silvio Berlusconi’s, the on-and-off prime minister of Italy from 1994-2011 and self-proclaimed “Jesus Christ of Italian Politics.”
Berlusconi and Trump are high-profile, corrupt billionaires who believe in a platform of anti-corruption (ironically) and do not trust the government. Their personal wealth allows them to claim independence from big money interests, as they are largely self-financed. Both are overly nationalistic: Berlusconi’s party is named “Forza Italia” (Go Italy!), and Trump’s campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again.” Notably, the two share the incredible ability to speak in generalities, while managing to avoid laying out policy specifics. Truthfully, most Italians would still be unable to lay out Berlusconi’s convictions, aside from retaining power and attention. Instead, they emphasize a reliance on personal leadership. Something like, “I will lead this country to greatness because I am a winner and I am very rich,” is something you would hear from Berlusconi and Trump. In both cases, the man is bigger than the ideas, or even the party. The entire republican establishment is fighting vigorously to bury Trump to no avail. Meanwhile, Berlusconi actually created his own party to serve his interests and surround himself with only his devout loyalists.
However, Berlusconi’s popularity, has begun to wane. The 79-year-old’s popularity has been plagued by never-ending scandals including bribing senators, paying for prostitutes, having sex with underage girls, dealing with the mafia behind closed doors and shady business deals. A recent national public opinion poll taken in the country has him and his party at only 11.8 percent support.
So why did it take Italians so long to end their love affair with Berlusconi? Also, what propelled him to the highest Italian office in the first place? These are questions we should be asking ourselves given the uncanny resemblance of Trump’s rise in politics to that of Berlusconi. For starters, Berlusconi benefited from the Italian media’s financial stake in parts of his campaign and was friendly with media moguls.
His scandals were also well-reported in the 1990s, but they actually increased media coverage, as he would brush the scandal off with comedy. For example, when caught in a prostitution scandal, Berlusconi responded, “Yes, I am very level-headed when it comes to all decisions in life, except when it comes to women. For them, I have an incredible weakness; I love women and women love me. At least I’m not gay.” And Italians bought it because a guy who is willing to speak his mind despite being politically incorrect is admirable. (Sound familiar?)
Often in media, name recognition is more important than you would think. A recent analysis has found that Trump garnered more media coverage in the last six months than the rest of the candidates, both democratic and republican, combined.
Trump also has 99 percent name recognition within the United States, more than any other republican candidate. Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So, if you are thinking of voting for Trump, for whatever reason, consider the situation in Italy. If you think Berlusconi worked out well for Italian democracy, then perhaps Trump is your guy.