Today, he might not seem so unfamiliar. There are striking analogies between Italy’s former prime minister and the current front-runner in the Republican presidential nominee race — and not just that both are flamboyant billionaires and former entertainers running for office on anti-establishment platforms.
Although Berlusconi’s political fortunes now appear to be on the wane, looking back at reasons for his erstwhile success might shed light on the current fascination with Donald Trump’s US presidential bid.
They share a flaunted machismo and political incorrectness. This is part of a well-calculated electoral strategy. What Berlusconi had already understood before Trump is that saying outrageous things gets you free media coverage and forces others to engage with what you are saying. So you get to set the terms of the political debate, while shifting its center of gravity in your favor. At the same time, Berlusconi and Trump’s political incorrectness targets a specific electoral group — predominantly blue-collar white males who feel threatened by globalization, multiculturalism and women’s rights. There is an element of revanchism in their discourse, which allows them to attract conservative votes while assuming an air of radicalism.
Berlusconi’s popularity in Italy was also due to his capacity to transform class antagonisms into cultural issues, capturing large swathes of the working-class vote. The fact that he was a billionaire never seemed to distance him from ordinary people. On the contrary, it tapped into their aspirations. Even more importantly, the fact that he had brought commercial television to Italy implied an association with popular culture that set him in opposition to the country’s traditionally left-leaning cultural elites. In the same way, Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric appeals to working-class voters who resent what they perceive as the patronizing attitude of ‘liberal elites’. This suggests the old class antagonism is now translated into a new cultural division which plays out in terms of political style rather than income.
Finally, Berlusconi’s electoral success depended on his alliance with the far-right League of the North, a xenophobic party whose message pivoted almost entirely around the association between immigration and crime. The foundation of this alliance was the convergence of interests between Berlusconi’s predominantly national business empire and the economic protectionism implied in the League of the North’s anti-immigrant stance. In the US, this alliance between business interests and anti-immigration rhetoric had not been as prominent, largely because big business saw itself as wedded to globalization. Trump, on the other hand, seems to have understood that it may be in the interest of small to medium business owners to take a stand against immigration, because it ensures that a large portion of incoming labor is illegal and therefore in a weaker bargaining position. De-linking immigration from economics and re-framing it as a question of crime and security is the best way of pulling this off.
To be sure, there are also some important differences between Trump and Berlusconi. These too may help to shed light on some aspects of the ongoing Republican primary. When Berlusconi sought to present himself as a novelty in Italian politics, there was an element of truth to his rhetoric. Both his political style and his capacity to attract business and working class votes were fundamentally disruptive of the party system that had dominated Italian politics since the end of the Second World War. Trump, on the other hand, must be situated in the context of a longer trajectory in the way in which the Republican Party has run its electoral campaigns over the past decade and a half. From George W. Bush’s early attempts to present himself as an ‘ordinary American’ to Sarah Palin’s nomination as vice-presidential candidate and the subsequent attempt by the party’s leadership to co-opt the Tea-Party movement, the Republican Party has long been toying with anti-establishment populism as an electoral weapon.
Whether they will be able to rein in the forces they have conjured up remains to be seen — but don’t forget that Berlusconi was initially dismissed as wholly unelectable. His political momentum lasted more than 20 years.