by Pietro Galeone
Many look to Italy as the next big electoral riddle to crack. With national elections coming up on March 4th and a political arena as fragmented as rarely before, the outcome is far from predictable.
It is virtually obvious that no single party will have a sufficient majority to rule, and it seems more and more unlikely that any of the currently announced coalitions will either. The next Italian government will probably be supported by a broad majority to be formed after the vote – nothing new for the 72-year-old democracy.
And if the story is well known, so are some of its protagonists. One name above all elicits as much surprise as it does amusement: Silvio Berlusconi. The Arcore magnate was thought to have retired from politics for good, having spent as much time in Palazzo Chigi as in the tribunals under the most varied charges. Berlusconi is running with his original party, Forza Italia, after his project of unifying center-right political forces under the single organization Popolo delle Libertà failed, and smaller parties resurfaced (incidentally, this is what might be currently happening with the Italian left under the Partito Democratico, but that’s another story). And the probability that Forza Italia will be again in a governing coalition is nonzero. The question that most foreigners – and some Italians as well – ask is: why? How can Berlusconi still have political traction after three mandates of self-serving legislation, rising debt, and broken promises?
The answer, I believe, has nothing to do with what he has done or failed to do. It has everything to do with who he is and what he stood for when he first ran. It has to do with the heart and feeling of the voters he has been able to enchant.
In 1994, Berlusconi won with more than 42% of the votes a very contentious election. Parliament was being re-elected after the previous legislature – the shortest in Italian history – was terminated early. The country had been hit hard by the scandals of the Mani Pulite (i.e. clean hands) investigation, which brought to light a widespread system of corruption between several prominent businessmen and the established political parties that had been involved in virtually every government of the previous decades. Berlusconi rose to power by promising more jobs, fewer taxes, and most of all a break from old politics – a kind of “draining the swamp” someone would say. A quick look at his 1994 videos, and at the frequent contradictions in his statements at the time, shows that there were no solid policy proposals: just a desire for change and the rejection of the previous left-leaning government system for the sake of Italy’s integrity.
Berlusconi thus appealed to the disappointment of Italians who felt betrayed and alienated by a political system that prioritized business ties over good governance. His politics was – and continues to be – of the heart, not the brain. In multiple occasions he even spoke of his as “the Party of Love.” And exactly here lies the reason for his persistence in the political arena: his votes are not bound to achieving any specific goals and policies, but rather to the love for his persona. He established this unique relationship with some of his original voters, exploiting their anger at the time and channeling it into a support that transcends facts and achievements. From his campaign slogan “Thankfully Silvio’s here” to statements such as “I was chosen by God” (11/27/1994) and “I’ve been better than anyone else at everything I’ve ever tried” (8/13/1994), it’s easy to see how he intentionally chose to make his politics about himself rather than about his actions in government.
Does any of this ring a bell? If so, it’s probably because Donald Trump seems to have learned Berlusconi’s lesson better than anyone so far and has find the optimal time to apply the recipe. Just insert in the previous analysis of Berlusconi’s election the 2016 US context, with rust-belt voters unhappy about their situation after eight years of Obama administration and a Democratic nominee placing herself in direct continuation of traditional politics. Trump was able to fuel and exploit the anger of these voters, thanks to a preexisting –albeit softer– anti-immigration and anti-globalization discourse, offering himself as the new alternative in rejection to a stagnant system that neglects the “forgotten men and women of America” (he has said this too many times to cite all their dates).
Just like Berlusconi, he makes broad promises and says whatever seems most popular in the moment, regardless of whether that involves contradicting himself and offering no concrete plan. Just like Berlusconi, he built his support around the love for his persona and his aura of success, always referring to himself as the best at anything he does and “the most/least” of whatever he needs (“I’m the least racist person,” “the smartest man,” etc.). And just like Berlusconi, he manages to retain this support regardless of what he actually does or fails to do, and will continue to appeal to a core of voters in the future due to the almost sentimental bond that characterizes this politics of anger-turned-fanaticism. Trump himself seems to understand this very well, as he put it in his own terms: “I have the most loyal people, I could stand in the middle of 5th avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
An interesting test to this theory is to see how supporters react to skepticism or criticism towards the President from the press or the justice system. Berlusconi was often reprehended for his clientelistic approach to politics and was later involved in several investigations and trials regarding his conduct both in and out of office. Similarly, Trump has been criticized for his lack of transparency regarding his financial situation as well as possible familial conflicts of interest, and his administration is under scrutiny in an FBI investigation. In response, the supporters of Berlusconi and Trump not only fail to question the innocence and morality of their leader, but also quickly run to a counterattack: in both countries investigators are attacked personally and their work is defined a “witch hunt” even before it comes to any conclusion. This is because the politics of the heart runs so deep that it is easier for voters to believe conspiracies against the President rather than doubt him.
Of course to believe that the presidencies of Berlusconi and that of Trump are essentially the same would be both a gross mischaracterization in general and a misreading of my opinion more specifically. There are numerous differences in the national challenges with which the two candidates were faced and the in features of their electorate. Yet when it comes to the nature of their core support there is this element of commitment to the personas of Silvio and Donald that makes the expression and resilience of their support strikingly akin. Especially when political climates are uncertain – as they are today especially in Italy and the US – the appeal of a strong man that promises to solve all the problems in return for devotion is as powerful as ever. That’s why these controversial figures are bound to remain relevant in the political arena; it doesn’t really matter how effective their policies are or what promises might be broken, or even what indictments might come their way. As long as Silvio or Donald is able to say what his voters want to hear, they will keep loving and supporting him.
Pietro Galeone is a first-year PhD student at Bocconi University, in Milan, where he studies Economics and Finance with a focus on applied macroeconomics. He was born and raised in Bari, Italy, where he lived until the age of 19. After high school, he moved to Massachusetts, where he studied at Harvard and earned a B.A. in Social Studies with a secondary degree in Astrophysics. His academic focus field and personal research is on the politics and economics of the European Union, which has led him to a work term at the European Parliament in the committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs and in the International Trade committee.