Italy’s Trump

J.R. Mucciolo, Loyola:

As we enter the third week of Donald Trump’s presidency, Americans have already gotten a taste of just how expectedly unpredictable their new Commander-in-Chief will be. Over the course of the election cycle, Trump ran a campaign that seemed to contradict most existing political norms, and if there is anything that we can count on, this will not be a conventional presidency, as evidenced in part by Trump’s apparent disdain for the political establishment which he now leads. Given the lack of precedent in American history for a political personality like that of Donald Trump, citizens and pundits alike have struggled to anticipate how the president’s agenda will be shaped over the next four years, or even what his next immediate action will be.

In the absence of a figure in American politics that would help us to better predict Trump’s term, we must look abroad to find historic examples of what Trump may have in store for this country. Of these, one model that closely resembles the rise of Donald Trump may be Italy’s experience with Silvio Berlusconi, who was the country’s prime minister for nine years between 1994 and 2011. The similarities between the two are evident in both their personalities and their policies, and while there certainly may not be an exact means of calculating what the next four years will hold, Berlusconi’s premiership may offer the closest blueprint.

Much like his American counterpart, former Prime Minister Berlusconi is a man of incredible wealth who first rose to Italy’s highest office in 1994 with an anti-political campaign whilst riding a wave of populism. The movement was born largely in response to judicial proceedings that had more or less consumed Italy’s leading parties.  Despite their wealth, both men have managed to maintain their association with the common man; Berlusconi has been described as “the guy everybody is fond of at the local bar, whose stories of money and women, know matter how inflated, make everyone laugh.” Similarly, key to Trump’s victory was his ability to relate to the “aggrieved outsider,” as he “aligned more with the cultural sensibilities of blue-collar whites than with his peers in society.”

One of the most notable aspects of Donald Trump’s atypical campaign was his often ridiculed, but effective utilization of Twitter, “which garner[s] enormous media coverage and allow[s] Trump to drive his message home.” Berlusconi, on the other hand, was the beneficiary of his monopolization of the Italian media industry. This ownership of several Italian media outlets allowed Berlusconi to constantly promote his policies and spin media coverage in his favor. This was a vital tool for Berlusconi throughout his tenure, and one would expect Donald Trump to similarly utilize his tool of choice, Twitter, throughout his term in as his own means of managing the news cycle.

However, much like Trump’s many business dealings, Berlusconi’s proprietorship of various media outlets represented a significant conflict of interest that, along with other legal battles, dragged Berlusconi to court for years. Just as Trump dramatically paraded the mounds of paperwork that terminated his ties to his many companies at a recent press conference, “Mr. Berlusconi resigned all his executive positions and directorships and pledged to have no day-to-day involvement in running the business.” But, like Trump, “he did not divest…[the] result [of which] was an unending series of scandals.” The groundwork for similarly dogging troubles has been laid for Trump, as he has already been named in a plethora law suits for his conflicts of interest. It remains to be seen what further action President Trump plans on taking to further remove himself from his businesses; regardless, he may not be able to shake the constant inquiries into the ethical dilemmas that his numerous interests pose.

Trump and Berlusconi are perhaps most similar in their roles as mavericks, and as representatives for the common man against a corrupt political establishment. Trump found this to be a wildly effective campaign strategy, presenting himself as the outsider in a field of presidential candidates who, by traditional standards, were all markedly more qualified than himself. However, Trump may learn as Berlusconi did, that this effective campaign tactic may not equate to an effective strategy for governance.

Over the course of the election cycle and his first days in office, Trump has shown few qualms about creating political enemies, and Berlusconi’s strategy was scarcely different. While these messages have galvanized the bases of both leaders, Berlusconi “found out how difficult it is to upend entrenched political and social habits if you do not patiently cultivate allies, media and public opinion, and ceaselessly negotiate and barter in Parliament.” In this regard, Trump may be better suited to jump this hurdle than Berlusconi; he prides himself on his negotiating and deal-making prowess in the business world. He will be in great luck if these skills carry over to his new role as leader of the free world. If this is not the case, however, and Trump cannot cultivate allies at home and abroad, he may find his role as President Trump to be much more difficult than his time as campaigner Trump.

While Berlusconi faced a myriad of trials throughout his political career (by his own estimate, “2,500 court appearances in 106 trials, at a legal cost of €200m” in a twenty year span), it was not until 2012 that he was found guilt of a crime. Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud for the purchase of TV rights by his firm, Mediaset, “via two offshore companies, to avoid paying taxes in Italy.” While Berlusconi never faced jail time, the conviction did serve as a nearly fatal blow to his political career, as his colleagues voted to oust him from his position in parliament.

Berlusconi’s legal troubles should serve as an ominous warning for Trump, who has thus far refused to release his own tax returns. The Berlusconi tax scandal not only sunk the ex-prime minister politically, but also sent the Italian government into a state of great uncertainty. As calls from critics for a glimpse of Trump’s tax returns are unlikely to subside, it would be interesting to see how their release would impact Trump’s presidency and if the experience would at all mirror that of Silvio Berlusconi’s.

Just as this may serve Americans as a guide for what we may expect in the coming years, it should also serve as a cautionary tale for President Trump. The premiership of Silvio Berlusconi was an unquestionably troubled one, and Italy has been left rattled by his time in office. Donald Trump may face the same pitfalls that tripped up Berlusconi, and he should be attentive to learn from these mistakes in order to ensure the greatest chance for a successful term.

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