I, like many Americans and international citizens interested in the fate of the country, am tired this morning. I'm sick, and exhausted, and still riding the comedown from the adrenaline that kept me up and vomiting all night. (Spare a thought for the non-US citizens, who love your country and have friends or family within it, and who watched this unfold with the complete helplessness of an observer without a vote to stop the chaos.) But we have woken up into a new reality, and we must face it accurately; and, in that sense, international history can be helpful. Reading the patterns of the Trump path to the presidency has been unusual for Americans, but a little more familiar for residents of other countries, and one in particular: modern Italy. Italy has experienced two different leaders who engaged in shades of Trump-like behavior across the 20th and 21st centuries, and both of them could prove to be models of the presidency he offers to America over the next 4 years.
One, of course, is Mussolini. The line from Trump to fascism isn't nearly as far as it should be; but Mussolini, unlike Trump, didn't really bother with democratic process when it came to seizing power after years of losing at the ballot box, instead using his Blackshirt army of followers to take it by force in 1922. And Trump is such an untested quality that we haven't yet determined what echoes of Mussolini he may or may not carry into the White House. The other parallel, which has been raised here and there with increasing urgency in the course of the electoral campaign, has been Silvio Berlusconi — and that particular figure in Italian politics may prove to be very instructive for the realities of life under Trump. If it's a similar sort of rule, the US is in for a long, protracted, scandal-ridden, but perhaps not totally ruinous, ride.
Why Trump May Be Berlusconi 2.0
A charming, morally disreputable entertainer with a past entirely outside politics, significant self-claimed business acumen, a right-wing perspective and an alarmingly orange face wins power in a shock transformation of political precedent. Sound familiar? It's not just Trump; it's the path to power of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who ruled Italy on and off from 1994 to 2011 and continues to be influential behind the scenes, despite serious heart problems.
The similarities are pressing, and have been noted before, mostly earlier in 2016 when the race looked to be going overwhelmingly Clinton's way. Parallels start in the personality department, paired with a lack of political experience at the start of their careers. The BBC has called Berlusconi a "charismatic showman," and a political expert told CBC back in March that "both are loud, vain, cheeky businessmen, amateur politicians and professional womanisers". Berlusconi, like Trump, started as a real estate tycoon and a media magnate, though he stayed off television for the most part in favor of owning television stations (he also had a previous career as a singer on cruise ships). And he was one of the most openly sexist leaders in modern memory, allegedly calling Angela Merkel an "unf*ckable lardass," noting that preventing rape would require "as many soldiers as there are beautiful Italian women," and getting embroiled in multiple sex scandals, including one involving an underage prostitute that went all the way to the High Court. He made headlines again in 2016 by commenting that a top job in Roman politics wasn't for mothers.
Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia, was, like Trump's Republicanism, also meant to be a break with the past, and he entered the 1994 election with only three months to go until polling day, casting the entire procedure into chaos. He attracted people with his business acumen, ideas about being tough on external threats, and promises that he would reform a "crooked" system. Eerily similar, no? On the surface, Trump's mandate in the Senate and House of Representatives doesn't resemble what happened after the 1994 elections for Berlusconi; he came to power as part of a loose coalition that fell apart spectacularly after seven months. It's worth noting, though, that considering the amount of dissent among prominent Republicans to Trump's platform and personality, he may face a bumpier ride in passing his mandate than it may seem.
What Berlusconi's Italy Can Tell America
The realities of Berlusconi's Italy may shed some light on the scenarios people have been imagining about the future since Trump won over the electoral colleges last night. His main legacy was scandal. He had so many it's difficult to articulate them in one article: sex scandals, corruption scandals, allegations of tax fraud, and his practice of bringing attractive young women from his television channels into politics despite their clear lack of any qualifications. His other was his utter, mysterious ability to escape the consequences of his personal actions: he was elected to power again and again, using his political influence to shield himself, and his bizarre, offensive charm to prompt dismissal as a buffoon while he stole past the post.
"Like Trump," Annalisa Merelli warned at Quartz back in February, "Berlusconi consistently seemed too absurd to be true. And yet he was. He won elections again, and again, and again, thriving off any and all attention. People didn’t take him or what he said seriously. Then one day we woke up to find our government overrun by criminals, our economy destroyed, and our cultural mores perverted to the extent that the objectification of women was commonplace. There was no more laughing left to do." This is the one thing that a Trump presidency may involve, and it's a quality that distinguished him in the electoral race: an ability to bounce back from scandals that would flatten the chances of anybody else. If Berlusconi is a model, Trump may be part of our political landscape for a while to come, before finally losing his edge in a hail of disillusion.
Berlusconi's financial irregularities and patent sexism and racism (this is the man who called the Obamas "sun-tanned") weren't the only issue with his legacy, though. The Economist did a scathing review of his economic policies over his tenure back in 2011, and called him the "man who screwed an entire country" for creating an Italy with stagnant growth, rampant unemployment (particularly among women) and a gigantic debt crisis. It was that which finally soured the Italian public on him as an official, when he proved totally incapable of resolving the country's huge debt issue and keeping the eurozone happy. Incompetence got him in the end, but only eventually.
But Italy in the mid-1990s is not America now. Trump inherits a healthy unemployment rate, though the actual growth of the US economy isn't anything special. After an intensely strange night, the stock markets have now largely leveled off and seem to be waiting to see what happens next. He's also looking to hire some money-educated people to manage the economy: Goldman Sachs wonk Steven Mnuchin is rumored to be up for the job of treasury secretary and billionaire Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary. Neither has held up an entire economy before, so things may get hairy, but at least he hasn't put a Miss Universe in the positions.
Under Berlusconi, sexist divides in an already frequently deeply sexist country were reinforced, and attitudes towards immigrants hardened, including an expatriation law proposing to send all refugees "back home." But the biggest social issue, according to Politico, was that he showed no interest in keeping his campaign promises. "The cornerstone of his campaign had been the slogan 'less taxes for everyone' and an assurance that his government would never put 'its hands into Italians’ pockets.' But during his administration, Italy’s overall tax rate rose, hitting 54 percent in 2013, the highest level in Europe. As a candidate, he had promised to solve the country’s homelessness problems; once in office, he cut funds for public housing." Far from resolving peoples' faith in politicians, Berlusconi made everything much, much worse.
How Is Italy Faring In A Post-Berlusconi World?
The reality of Berlusconi's public career was that it was ended by a combination of too many legal scandals, health problems, and a very annoyed European Union. He himself was given chance after chance by an enraptured Italian public, who couldn't seem to rid themselves of the delusion that he would eventually turn around and treat them properly. It was a bit like the prototypical abusive relationship.
Since that point, Italy post-Berlusconi (who, by the way, refuses any comparison to Trump on the grounds that Trump inherited his wealth and managed it extremely badly, while Berlusconi built his own fortune illegally) has been a strange place. A book on the new era published in 2015 recommended that Italians "look in the mirror" before blaming all their issues on their past problematic leader. Post-Berlusconi Italy has tried to undo some of his damage; it decriminalized illegal immigration and mounted huge rescue missions for boat refugees, for one thing. However, it's also deeply chaotic: the current government is a left-right coalition, and the Five-Star Movement, a political party founded by left-wingers but getting support on the right, is challenging it with a new "anti-politics" mandate. Part of this is down to Berlusconi, but part of it, rather like in America, is down to deep institutional problems in the country's politics. (The current party is trying to fix this with a massive reform package that will face a referendum in December).
While Berlusconi was the agent of some seriously heinous nonsense, particularly for women and immigrants, Italy, like the US, has to confront the fact that their own power structures and ideologies got the man in power and left him there. And those are the key to making sure that Trump is kept in check, held accountable, and not allowed to plague the country's politics for over a decade.