14 December 2015

Mr Silvio and The Donald

By Alberto Mingardi

Italy, sadly, has long been a forerunner in “democracy deterioration”. Not only in the 1920s but also when we elected our own version of Donald Trump some twenty years ago.

Comparing Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump seems rather obvious: colourful hair (or the remains thereof) and their macho attitudes have been mentioned a number of times as common features. And yet, politically speaking, how useful is it to compare the two?

Mr Berlusconi first won an election in 1994. He was then prime minister for only six months, before a palace coup took him out of the job. He was to return to the prime minister office two more times: in 2001 and in 2008. In a twenty years run, he won three general elections (1994, 2001 and 2008), lost two (1996 and 2013), and lost another by only 30,000 votes in a country of 60 million people (2006). For a man fond of ranting about professional politicians, he’s been a pretty successful one. Trump has still to prove himself in politics, but he has excited the imagination of many – to the despair of the establishment.

Professional politicians seem to be dull and remote from real life: but you can’t say that of either Berlusconi or Trump, both of whom were successful businessmen. And yet, Trump came from money whereas Berlusconi was a genuine self-made man. The son of a bank clerk, he rose from petty bourgeois to zillionaire by importing satellite dishes into Italy and, crucially, by successfully challenging the Italian state television monopoly. Gratitude for a wider, and less patronising, supply of TV programmes may have propelled Berlusconi’s initial electoral success: likewise, his ownership and management of AC Milan, a football club, certainly helped.

Their business backgrounds inform much of Trump’s and Berlusconi’s politics. The implicit promise of Berlusconi’s involvement in politics was: if I ran my businesses so well, I can take care of the government very well too. This is part of Trump’s appeal too. In part, their appeal is based on the idea that executive functions in business and in politics are perfectly fungible. But they are not.

Mr Berlusconi has been a stellar electoral campaigner – but a poor prime minister. In 2001-2006, he was constantly running the Italian state with a budget deficit higher than 3% of GDP. The longest serving of Italy’s prime ministers after 1946, he delivered neither the liberalisation of the Italian economy which he often promised, nor a sustainable reduction of the country’s tax burden. An entrepreneur of vision, who invented Italian commercial television out of nothing, he was at best an unscrupulous accountant as premier.

Mr Berlusconi and Mr Trump are truly at one in their foreign policy. Their business background makes them consider deal-making as the primary object of a political leader in the international arena. Mr Trump’s solution for Ukraine is “I’ll talk to Putin”. Mr Berlusconi did plenty of that. They might be right that overreaching principles in foreign policy may be an obstacle to “getting things done”. But what things should be done is something their political rhetoric doesn’t deal with much.

I’ve already mentioned that Mr Berlusconi came out of television. He was not initially, like Trump, a TV star: but the man behind the scenes. It is a testimony to Berlusconi’s craftsmanship as an entrepreneur, that he quickly mastered the medium, in a way that no one else on the Italian political scene could match. He spoke plain, understandable Italian, without resorting to technical jargon or politicians’ newspeak.

Mr Berlusconi has the reputation of being a gaffe-machine (he famously called President Obama “handsome and suntanned”), of the politically incorrect kind. Mr Trump has also played the politically incorrect card over and over again. Mr Berlusconi, however, was never quite as abrasive. His gaffes were usually loaded with slightly vulgar jokes, of the kind a naughty kid will tell to his fellows. Mr Trump answers a demand for liberating obscenities, which is possibly a consequence of the repression of free speech on US universities and elsewhere.

Italians voted for Mr Berlusconi being fully aware of some of his personal shortcomings. Though his famous parties only became news in the late years of his political life, he was always known to have a taste for women. He was widely suspected to have an elastic relationship with the truth too: though he always denied he ever paid bribes. On the contrary, Mr Trump denounced the political system as “broken” because politicians are on sale, as shown his own many and hefty donations to politicians.

Mr Berlusconi entered the game when the Italian political system was in shambles: the judiciary had wiped away most of the old, moderate political parties with charges of corruption. Though the implicit promise that the rich are more expensive to corrupt may have played a role in Berlusconi’s rise, he often self-styled himself as a heir to those moderate parties, which he considered to be less corrupt enterprises than the victims of a left-wing judiciary.

In one sense, Mr Berlusconi and Mr Trump are truly different. One established a new political party from scratch, building on the ruins of the old party system. The other is playing within the game: and possibly there are firewalls he won’t be able to crack. His venture looks more like the political equivalent of an America’s Cup race or a Himalayan hike for a bored billionaire.

The greatest similarities are not those between Berlusconi and Trump, but between the reaction of the respective political establishments to their rise. In 1993, any serious expert in Italy thought Berlusconi was a joke and considered he couldn’t get more than a handful of votes. Even though he appealed to many people’s convictions (over the fact, for example, that taxes were too high), he was dismissed as a hopeless dilettante. The antipathy of the establishment – which came to define itself out of its opposition to Berlusconi – didn’t do him any harm. Hated and scorned, Mr Berlusconi has been the cornerstone of Italy’s political life for twenty years.

Alberto Mingardi is the Director General of Istituto Bruno Leoni (www.brunoleoni.it), Italy's free-market think tank, and an Adjunct Scholar with the Cato Institute (www.cato.org).