Friday, February 19, 2016

Is Donald Trump America’s Silvio Berlusconi?

I just finished reading Joseph Luzzi’s The Two Italies and was struck by how much of his description of the former Italian Prime Minster, billionaire businessman Silvio Berlusconi sounds just like Donald Trump.

I don’t know enough about Italy to evaluate Luzzi’s claim that "the absence of civic culture helps account for Berlusconi’s meteoric rise. Because their political system lacks strong traditions of sacrifice and patriotism, many Italians stood by idly as Berlusconi wreaked political havoc.” However, I couldn’t help but wonder if the erosion of our civic culture (described by Robert Putnam among others) is in part responsible for Americans’ willingness to consider a buffoon like Trump as a serious presidential contender.

Luzzi thinks many Italians admired Berlusconi and wanted to be as rich and powerful envying “his facelfits, seaside villas, marinella ties, sprawling estates and near naked showgirls.’’ Berlusconi is reputed to be notoriously vain and like Trump intent on maintaining a simulacrum of a youthful appearance. He has his facelifts and Trump has his weirdly colored tuft of hair.

Luzzi quotes a New Yorker piece which describes Berlusconi in terms that could easily be applied to Trump:

Berlusconi has convinced Italians that he is someone they can both relate to and aspire to be like. Many men feel that he is being attacked for being irresistible to women (which they would like to be) and plainly human, susceptible to sin (just like them)…The electorate prized him for nearly two decades because he made a show of scorning politics and projected his “realness” all over the nation’s televisions, newspapers, computer screens… Disgusted by years of secret government shaped by an inscrutable party structure , Italians couldn’t get enough of his reality show…
Manipulating his vast communications network, Berlusconi offered Italians “the dream of easy success.”

The similarities between Trump and Berlusconi have been noted by political analyst Rula Jebreal: "The lessons of Italian history ought to make Americans a lot more nervous about Donald Trump than they seem to be. Calculated buffoonery is a longstanding tactic for right-wing demagogues looking to alter national political calculations to their own advantage — masking as farce the tragedy they portend." Jebreal’s article ends with a warning:

So it’s now urgent that America learns the lessons taught (and havoc wrought) when Italy’s political and media establishment underestimated Berlusconi. They viewed him as a joke, an ignorant buffoon, and he was widely dismissed as a comical figure, unfit to lead a serious country. None of that stopped him.

Berlusconi with his delusions of grandeur did a great deal of damage to Italian society but at least he did not have a nuclear arsenal at his disposal. Entrusting America’s enormous military power to a megalomaniac like Donald Trump is beyond frightening.

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