16 September 2015

Me, Myself and I: the egotist politics of Trumpusconi


An Italian pimp and an American builder decide to run for president…

This could be the beginning of a mildly racist joke, but there is very little to laugh about when it comes to these two characters – who have won and are winning crucial political campaigns in their respective countries. I am talking about Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump, two seemingly unrelated politicians who are products of a messy existential crisis which modern politics seems to have been plunged into.

But what explains their rise? It is clear that Berlusconi and Trump are very similar; both have made money through real estate, invested in media production, have a penchant for irreverence, a certain paranoia towards opposition, and quite a high opinion of their own sexual appeal.

I cannot remember when Silvio Berlusconi became the notorious politician he is today. When I was born, in 1995, he had been Italy’s prime minister for one year already. I got to know him quickly, though. I do remember (vaguely) when he was elected for the second and third time. In my middle class environment he was considered a clown, a dodgy entrepreneur whose sexist jokes and raging egocentrism no one could possibly take seriously. It turned out many did.

Since then, Berlusconi has been a constant presence in the Italian political landscape, leading people like me, who have lived under his dysfunctional rule for most of our life, to lose faith in Italian politics altogether. Now, after briefly disappearing from the political scene (only because he was banned from running for public office) he has revitalised his political party, Forza Italia, and intends to run again – unless he decides to take up Putin’s alleged proposal to make him Russia’s Minister of Economics, of course. That he is known for corrupting politicians, making show-girls members of his cabinet and hosting infamous ‘Bunga bunga’ parties seems not to have deterred his supporters from believing he is Italy’s saviour.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world observed his antics with disbelief and a certain degree of amusement: surely only the flamboyant Italians could pick such a leader, a walking stereotype. Something like that could never happen in, say, the US. Right?

Then Donald Trump turned up.

America seems to have gone crazy, and so have most political commentators trying to figure out Trumpmania. How could he achieve such popularity? What is happening to politically correct America? Why is Trump allowed to say anything he wants – whether sexist, or racist or just plainly wrong – without suffering from an immediate backlash, as all the other candidates do?

The answers can be found in any picture or video of Trump’s speeches.

Pointing a finger to the idolising crowds before the stage, Trump repeats his slogan as a magic spell: “Make America great again”.  The audience, inflamed, claps, screams and waves American flags. There is a promise and an exhortation, in that pointing finger: you, yes, you! Think your life as a suburban supermarket cashier is a hell? Politicians have been screwing you over for your whole life? Immigrants have stolen your job, and taxes taken away your salary? Trump is here for you! Trump is like you! Trump says things as they are! Vote for Trump and I will bring this to an end!

When I saw Trump on the last Republican debate it struck me how familiar his attitude was to me:  substitute ‘Berlusconi’ for ‘Trump’ and ‘Italy’ to ‘America’ and the above paragraph above still makes perfect sense.

I am not the only one to have noticed this similarity. In July, Frank Bruni of The New York Times wrote an excellent opinion piece about the two politicians – describing Berlusconi as Italy’s “very own, a saucy, salty dish of Donald alla parmigiana”, and claiming that he has done “what Trump is still merely auditioning to do: use his country as a gaudy throne and an adoring mirror as he ran it into the ground.”

Bruni’s analysis is both amusing and extremely accurate; it dismisses, however, the possibility that the Trumpmania is going to last. This seems to be the attitude of many other commentators since well before Trump decided to run for president: David Brooks, also writing for the New York Times, takes it further by saying that self-declared politicians such as Trump, object of an oddly widespread personality cult, have “no plausible path toward winning 50.1 percent of the vote in any national election” and “no prospect of forming a majority coalition that can enact their policies.”

But what if that view is wrong? After all, Italians, whom according to Bruni, Americans “bow down to”, have elected Berlusconi not once, not twice, but three times. Sex scandals, evidence of corruption by politicians and civil servants, controversial friendships (to say the least) with the likes of Muammar Gaddafi: nothing has seemed to spoil its popularity with the Italian electorate. Berlusconi was internationally known as a clown – why, then, couldn’t someone as ridiculous a candidate as Donald ‘The Donald’ Trump get elected as GOP leader, and possibly even as the 45th US President?

What I see in Trump’s momentous pointing finger, what I hear in his down-to-earth speeches, isn’t just the gesticulating and bragging of a conceited media tycoon who is so self-absorbed to believe he can comfortably sit in one of the most sought-after chairs of the world. What I see is a highly calculated strategy that doesn’t come from Trump himself – he is nothing but a puppet in the hands of his supporters.

In fact, the power and popularity of these two politicians are the result of a few contingent factors that have little to do with their political abilities and agendas. These factors, completely external from the politicians’ control, are symptoms of the aforementioned existential crisis of modern politics.

First, there has to be a deep and widespread frustration among the general public with the ruling political class. People might resent ‘career politicians’ and their incomprehensible jargon – hence the appeal of ‘fresh’ candidates who ‘tell it like it is’. Second, there has to be a entrenched suspicion of political relationship between and within parties. Especially in countries with strong coalition government or established two-party systems, compromise is an important part of political relations, necessary to maintain wider support in a coalition and unite under a single leader people along a wide span of the political spectrum. Such systems, however, can cause pervasive discontent within the electorate, which does not feel totally represented by any of the actors in the political sphere. There is a constant tension between the individual, who yearns for her political conviction to be upheld with no compromise, and the community – in this case, a political party.

It is often said that such politicians must have towering egos to gain such an enormous support. This evidently applies to Berlusconi, who is known to have compared himself to Jesus Christ, and for Trump, who proudly declared that the difference between him and the other candidates is that he is “more honest” and his “women are more beautiful”. Yes, their egos can barely fit in the theatre and stadiums that they fill with adoring crowds, but is that it? Is their shameless self-righteous narcissism the only ingredient that has cooked up their success?

No, the secret of these two men’s flashing campaigns is not their own egos, but that of their supporters. Berlusconi and Trump – both media-savvy, proprietors of major newspapers –  do nothing but channel their audiences’ widespread discontent with politics and politicians. They are products of modern “expressive individualism” – the desire of groups that traditionally feel under-represented to be empowered by a candidate who expresses their own longing for recognition. They are anti-party men, reflecting the self-righteous position of all those people who see in them a chance for uncompromised, egoistic self-fulfilment.

Trump and Berlusconi are merely instruments in the hands of the people, tools that express nothing more than the increasing egotism of a society where open discussion, mediation and compromise have become swear words.

Sorry, adoring crowds, neither Berlusconi nor Trump are ‘telling it like it is’. They are, plain and simple, telling it like you want to hear it.

Beatrice Faleri is Senior Editor of Perspectives at King’s College London.