December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Loud men

By |2018-03-21T19:07:10+01:00August 21st, 2015|"Notebook"|
Berlusconi during his 1994 Forza Italia campaign. His first term as prime minister lasted less than a year.

t a recent dinner in New Hampshire, the conversation turned to presidential hopeful Donald Trump:

“He won’t become corrupt because he is already rich.”

“As a businessman, he understands how the real world works and how to run things.”

“He’ll get the government out of business and streamline red tape.”

“He speaks his mind.”

“He’s a political outsider, who doesn’t owe anyone anything — a self-made man.”

Why did I think I’d heard this all before? I had. Back in 1994, Italian friends said the same things about another outspoken and politically ambitious real estate tycoon: Silvio Berlusconi.

Like American voters wary of a second Clinton-Bush face-off, Italians in 1994 were ready to take a gamble. Berlusconi made his pitch to male, middle class voters who felt threatened by immigration, the loss of jobs in traditionally secure sectors and the changing status of women. Playing the class warfare card, Berlusconi railed against political and cultural elites — the left-leaning coalitions that had ruled Italy after the war.

Like Americans angry about Wall Street money in politics and super PACs, Italians were fed up with illegal party financing, shady business deals and organized crime. The “Clean Hands” (Tangentopoli) scandal of 1992 had overhauled Italy’s post-war political order. The Christian Democrats, Italy’s largest political party for decades, faded away. Berlusconi, boasted that the “wives and boats,” he already owned made him immune to old school corruption.

By the 1990s, Italy’s post-war economic boom had fizzled out. Advancing European unification cut into the protectionism that once shielded Italian industry. Companies consolidated, closed and outsourced. Berlusconi insisted government was the problem. Smiling from billboards, he touted a “contract with the people” he signed on Italian TV. He’d create a million new jobs and invest in grand public works. He said he believed in “the individual, the family, business, competition, efficiency, the free market…” His 1994 campaign promoted a “flat tax” to ease a complex and heavy tax burden.

Unlike Trump, Berlusconi was not mean-spirited. He outsourced the nasty work of bashing recent African and Asian immigrants to his allies, the separatist Northern League party.

Berlusconi was uncut and handler-free. If he thought it, he said it. He offered his plain speaking in contrast to the pedantic tone and “re-varnished and recycled” Marxist-inspired speech of his opponents. He used calculated bluntness to portray himself as an honest neophyte baffled by the strictures and compromises of politics.

Berlusconi accused detractors of envying his lifestyle and success with women. He called himself the “Jesus Christ” of politics (“I’m getting such a superiority complex that I tell myself, ‘Thank goodness I’m here. No one could have done better….'”)

Berlusconi’s boasts of self-made business brilliance were as dubious as Trump’s, whose bankruptcies and bailouts are well known. Berlusconi’s empire owed a debt to his friendship with Socialist leader and 1980s Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, disgraced during Tangentopoli, who helped him smooth early real estate deals and jiggered the sale of broadcasting rights. Political favors rather than hard work advanced Berlusconi’s early career.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni and others have already noted a variety of parallels between the two men, but no one has yet predicted how the similarities might play out if Trump succeeds. Here are some possibilities:

Ad personem legislation: Berlusconi governments approved legal immunity for Italy’s five top government positions, decriminalized accounting fraud (for which Berlusconi was tried) and extended state secrecy to include his villa in Sardinia, which allowed him to block an investigation into building code violations.

The blame game: Whenever Berlusconi fell short on political promises he invariably blamed Communists and judges. The pattern was repeated over 15 years. He was always the political “victim.”

Corruption: A Naples court recently convicted Berlusconi of paying €3 million to corrupt members of parliament in 2006 and 2008, when he was prime minister. He paid €10 million to silence young women about their roles in sex parties.

Plain speaking: Berlusconi caused a diplomatic crisis in 2003 by likening a German member of the European parliament to a concentration camp kapo. He described Barack Obama — and later Michelle Obama — as “young, handsome and suntanned.”

Lack of boundaries: At a 2009 summit Berlusconi ostentatiously made German Chancellor Angela Merkel wait while he took a call he claimed was from Turkish leader Recep Erdogan. He entertained leaders such as Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin at the same Sardinian villa where he hosted the sex parties.

Treatment of women: Berlusconi’s sexual proclivities are by now well known. He showed little if any remorse for publicly humiliating female politicians.

As for his legacy, 20 years of Berlusconi accomplished little. Italy is not much more competitive than Kazakhstan, according to the World Economic Forum. The million jobs never materialized. Italy still scores low on international quality of life surveys. In 2015 Transparency International rated Italy’s corruption on par Greece and Bulgaria. Berlusconi’s personality and presumption also bedeviled the careful and serious work of foreign policy professionals.

Berlusconi was a particularly disruptive and divisive figure on both sides of the Atlantic. The Italian storm finally abated in 2012, when he resigned. I hope “the Donald” won’t bring it to America.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."