Trump and Berlusconi: is this the new politics?

When a political persona is formed and a new kind of politician is introduced to a country’s democratic spectrum, one ought to be ill at ease with the possibility of it becoming or being indicative of a trend, especially if the character (caricature?) in question is someone like Berlusconi. When, on Bloomsday 2015, Donald J. Trump announced his candidacy from the New York building which bears his name, the obnoxiousness of his balderdash speech was enough to alert the world press of his striking resemblance with the Italian media magnate.

 From Rula Jebreal’s, former MSNBC commentator, to that of Italy’s own Beppe Severgnini, author of multiple biographies on Italy’s longest-serving PM, numerous articles of political analysis have been composed, drawing parallels between the two personalities. Now, ten months away from the re-assignment of the world’s most important political post, Trump’s refusal to participate in the Republican debate, mirroring Berlusconi’s long (and successful) record of avoiding public confrontation, draws the two tycoons closer still.  

The resemblance of the two is overwhelming: their similarity is so clear-cut that we need not resort to the contrived comparisons that are often seen in such cases. But if their similarly clementine-tinged public complexion and antics – extreme and unjustified political incorrectness, vague promises of prosperity and security, personal attacks on political opponents – have a large degree of convergence, it is nothing compared to what happens in their private life. The similarities are so evident and numerous that listing them would be as boring as it would be dispiriting. It is enough to mention, lest we become too moralising, their shady business history, their evanescent marriage contracts and their rather addictive habit of frolicking around with their hair, among other things.

With Trump’s rise in US politics, it is easy to believe that history is repeating itself, but as a tragedy rather than a farce, or even that Berlusconi and Trump are setting a precedent for the rise of a new kind of politics and political leader. In fact, it is exactly this common theme that unites the previously mentioned stream articles spawned by Trump’s presidential race: what can recent Italian history teach the US, or the world more broadly? Very little, fortunately. Trump’s unexpected ascent has its roots in the anti-establishment sentiment of Republicans and, after years of Fox News’ fear mongering, traditional run-of-the-mill xenophobia. Conversely, Berlusconi’s electorate was not rooted in the Italian far right, nor was his success brought about by Italian disillusionment with its political class. Following a corruption scandal that virtually wiped out all Italian political parties except in the far left, Berlusconi occupied and exploited the political vacuum created, attracting votes in the millions, for there genuinely ‘was no alternative’, to adapt Thatcher’s famous slogan. The difference between the two cases is as subtle as it is important, for an alienating party system serves democracy better than a non-existing one in preventing the rise of demagogues. Italians really lacked an alternative, while Americans fortunately don’t.

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Herein lies the main difference between the two businessmen, which will surely reflect on the results come election day. Trump’s victories in the primaries set him in good stead, but on the other side there is a solid Democrat opposition, recently strengthened by the change in voter demographics and Trump’s very own polarising effect. In short, Trump cannot win, and this isn’t merely wishful thinking. American citizens will be glad to not experience twenty years of buffoonish government, with its inevitable economic decline and national humiliation.

Western democracies are not experiencing the rise of a new kind of politics, and the private and political resemblance of the Berlusconi-Trump duo does not indicate the future rise of anti-political businessmen or, as the humble Italian once defined himself, men of ‘Providence’ to power, but is rather a freak coincidence, which shares no common origin or future.