Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi Are Two Misogynist Peas in a Pod
Several weeks ago, I was in a rock pub in a small Dutch city, sat comfortably around a table with a handful of old friends from Italy, Australia, and Sweden. As the night lengthened and empty glasses piled up, the conversation turned political—and, as reliably as Swiss clockwork, it veered toward Trump.
My friends were equal parts horrified and tickled at this latest mess we Americans have managed to blunder into, but one of them, a native of Milan, seemed less amused than the others. As talk centered on the Donald’s red-faced buffoonery and nonsensical proclamations, everyone present wrote him off as a clown, a reality TV stunt—surely, he wasn’t serious. It was all a game, it had to be. After Luca drained his last glass, he turned to me, a troubled look crossing his fine features. “You know, we thought Berlusconi was a clown, too,” he muttered darkly. “And look what happened.”
What happened was a reign of terrific farce that stretched over nine years and nabbed Berlusconi the laurels of Italy’s longest-serving, post-war prime minister. The real estate tycoon-turned-politician bullied his way to the top and stayed there for nearly a decade, weathering the kind of storms Trump’s opposition can only dream of and proclaiming himself bigger than Jesus in the process. His exact quote—“I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I sacrifice myself for everyone”—reeks of the same paternalistic Daddy-knows-best attitude that Trump affects whenever he’s promising to “protect” the American people, and make America “great again.”
The number of parallels between the two billionaire politicians is impossible to ignore; as much as Trump’s detractors love to characterize him as a blowsy Hitler-in-training, Trump’s real spiritual predecessor is still alive and well in Italy. It’s not Mussolini (despite Trump’s approving retweet of one of the infamous fascist’s most well-known quotes); rather, it’s Il Cavaliere, the vampiric capitalist nightmare who painted himself as a rakish, unsinkable man of the people—even as he was bleeding them dry.
Men like these crave luxury and excess; they thrive on it, strive for it, and sometimes—depending who you ask—kill for it. And for such men, beautiful women serve as the ultimate status symbol, markers of their virility, desirability, and sexual dominance—those traits most coveted by the impotent and insecure. To them, women are trophies,”God’s most beautiful gift to men,”—prizes to be won and discarded once their sparkle is decreed to have faded.
Trump and Berlusconi are both big fans of models, and of attractive young women in general—Berlusconi so much so that while he was in office, he cultivated a habit of promoting young women who caught his eye to important party positions, regardless of their experience. His infamous “bunga bunga” parties also brought the aging magnate up close and personal with a steady stream of nubile young women (some of whom were later proved to be sex workers), several of whom went on to accuse him of sexual misconduct.
Meanwhile, Trump is on his third model marriage and spent years shepherding hopeful beauty queens through his various pageants’ swimsuit competitions and talent shows, about whichhe boasted: “When I bought [Miss Universe], the bathing suits got smaller and the heels got higher and the ratings went up.” He regularly makes headlines for his spectacularly tone-deaf comments about anyone who crosses him, nursing a particularly intense grudge against FOX’s Megyn Kelly, whom he has at various times characterized as a “bimbo,” “crazy,” and, most egregiously, appeared to reference her menstrual cycle when he squawked that “she’s got blood coming out of her wherever” after she had the gall to call out some of his previous sexist remarks about women in an interview. And remember, pre-Presidential Trump was a foul-mouthed reality TV don who had no problem calling women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” (and that was in public—one wonders what choice words he reaches for behind closed doors).
Trump prefers his women quiet. His current wife, Melania, is a cipher wrapped in furs. As the other candidates’ spouses pound the campaign trail, press the flesh, and emphasize their own accomplishments, the Slovenian-born mother of Trump’s youngest scion, Barron, has been reduced to her looks and implacable, imperious demeanor. She seldom appears at campaign events, leaving the gig of courting voters and smiling tightly through Trump’s rallies to her Stepford-esque step-daughter Ivanka; when pressed about her own political opinions, she demurs pointedly, preferring to play the ice queen rather than the warm, maternal First Lady-in-waiting Americans have been trained to expect.
This branding comes by her own design, albeit with a heavy influence from Trump, who delights in his ability to flaunt her, his glittering, exotic jewel. A recent New Yorker profile of Mrs. Trump the Third recalls the time he literally reduced her to property, referring to her as “my supermodel” at a 1999 appearance in Philadelphia before hitting the Howard Stern show and dissecting her physical attributes with the grace of a fourth grader hacking up a dead frog in science class. Melania’s palpable disinterest in her husband’s campaign would be funny, if it didn’t say quite so much about the man who would be king. When the woman who one assumes loves him more than anyone else can’t muster up a scrap of conviction in his suitability for the job besides a monotone opinion that he’d be a “great” president, the Donald’s blustering insistence of his own superiority starts looking shaky.
Trump seems unfazed, though, preferring to focus on himself. The only time during his campaign that Melania was given even a fraction of the attention that Donald lavishes upon Donald was that brief, bizarre few days in which he used her as an excuse to taunt his former rival, Ted Cruz. When Trump took to Twitter and posted an unflattering photo of Cruz’s wife Heidi next to one of Melania in all her taut, airbrushed glory, he was essentially trumpeting, “My girl’s hotter!” and marking that as yet another “win” for himself. Once again, his antiquated worldview classifying women as objects and chattel was put on full display . . . and this was him being nice. The way he speaks about—and often, directly to—the women he’s encountered before and during his presidential bid is simply astonishing, recalling Berlusconi’s own infamously offensive remarks.
They’ve both made headlines thanks to their affinity for spouting demeaning, ugly insults about women, so it’s not altogether shocking that both men have also been embroiled in sexual scandals. A lawsuit alleging that Trump had raped teenage girls 20 years ago recently made some ripples before being tossed out of court. Other allegations that Trump had sexually harassed and assaulted a woman in the early 1990s surfaced in a 1997 lawsuit, which was ultimately dropped. Then of course, there was also his ex-wife Ivana’s claims that he’d raped her when they were married, although she has since clarified she didn’t mean rape “in the criminal sense.”
Across the ocean in Italy, Berlusconi’s sins took center stage for several years, and left a permanent stain on his already tarnished reputation that culminated in a 2013 conviction for paying for sex with an underage sex worker. “The Great Seducer” was savaged in the British press, lampooned in newspapers worldwide, and yet, he persevered—prospered, even. His victims fared far worse, and the poisonous impact he had on the way Italy treats its women still lingers. Instead of outright repression—which seems to be what the libel-happy Trump favors—he took a more insidious route toward undermining of women’s autonomy.
Under Berlusconi, the Italian media landscape (over which he exerted primary control, thanks to his ownership of Mediaset, the country’s largest media corporation) was flush with bare flesh, macho men, softcore porn, and giggling, submissive female figures. He stocked the airwaves with his own preferred feminine caricatures, laughing off any protests and reverting to his jocular, vaguely menacing image whenever he encountered opposition. Overall, Berlusconi appeared to consider the whole “women’s rights” thing a joke. He famously appointed a self-described “anti-feminist,” same-sex marriage-opposing former showgirl with zero government experience as Minister of Equal Opportunities, and routinely offered thoughts on women’s financial security that verged on the Medieval. “Look for a wealthy boyfriend,” he once suggested at a 2010 rally, shocking a crowd long used to his antics. To the frustration of the citizenry, even the ranks of the government began to fill with so-called velines, voluptuous beauties with minimal qualifications beyond their ability to fill out a blazer.
His time in office was a terrible time for women: workplace discrimination was rampant, women’s rights were an afterthought, and even the country’s dedicated efforts to combat domestic violence were weakened by Berlusconi’s offhand remarks about rape. In 2010, two years after he regained power, the World Economic Forum pegged Italy as 74th in the world for its treatment of women—behind Colombia, Peru, and Vietnam, seven places lower than when he took office.
Both men seem to mistake craven lasciviousness for charm, and a red-blooded appreciation for the female form for some kind of laudable virtue. Whether it’s Trump brutally insulting Carly Fiorina’s appearance and obsessively harassing over FOX’s Megyn Kelly, or Berlusconi casually opining that in order to prevent rape, “we would need as many soldiers as there are beautiful Italian women,” and defending his licentious reputation by saying, “it’s better to be fond of pretty girls than to be gay,” both men use their “plainspoken” image as a handy conduit for casual misogyny whenever women (or their rights) are involved.
The hard pivot to the right that has accompanied Trump’s push for the nomination has also led him to one of his most damaging gaffes yet, though the wording was such that the staunchly anti-abortion Berlusconi would have applauded. When Trump yelled out that women who get abortions “should be punished,” it proved to be too much for even his fervent fanbase. The bewigged candidate recanted and rearranged his statement later that same day, but the damage was done. After that, even some Trump-friendly women realized just how little our lives matter to him, this self-styled playboy billionaire with the wife who never speaks.
These two men are canny businessmen, and crafty survivalists: the living embodiment of the “fuck you, I got mine” sentiment that powers the ugliest heights of capitalism. That’s how Berlusconi held onto power for so long, and why Trump has already gotten this far. They trade in illusions, in promises that, if we believe in them, we’ll someday be as rich and fabulous as they are, instead of left behind to scrap over leftovers. Sure, they’ve got their flaws, but who doesn’t? They’re just like you and me—they’re on our side, they just happen to be wearing suits that cost more than the mortgage you’re not sure you can afford and treating women like collectibles.
To merely look at them is to look at two sides of the same greasy coin. Both men epitomize bourgeois success, their twin countenances dripping with gilded watches and tailored leather as they decry the evil “liberals” who want to swoop in and ruin their fun. They’re marinated in privilege, long basted in self-satisfaction until the once-sweet taste turned rancid and they needed to pile on more wealth, more marble, more glitter to cover up the stench. Their faces are both tinted the lustrous orange of a baked ham left too long beneath the heat lamp on a cruise ship buffet—the kind of tan that trumpets strength and masculinity while hiding soft, unlined hands. They both seem like the type of man who would name his genitals after a Roman tyrant, and then make sure to mention that fact at dinner parties.
The penchant for hyperbole, the unsavory business connections, the rampant sexism, Messiah complex, the astonishing amount of ego and dearth of self-awareness—truly, Trump and Berlusconi are two peas in a gilded pod. Italy survived Berlusconi, but the current state of the Mediterranean nation is still tenuous at best: wracked by economic woes, a roiling political situation, and pervasive gender inequality.
They barely made it out alive.
Now, with his formal nomination as the Republican nominee less than a hair’s breadth away, the question bears asking: Can America—and more specifically, American women—survive Trump?