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The rotten populist legacy is everywhere

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Berlusconi may be gone, but Trump’s still here. The rotten populist legacy is everywhere

The former Italian PM, who combined celebrity antics with rightwing populism, laid the groundwork for Trumpism



When he hurriedly left the prime minister’s official residence, Palazzo Chigi, for the last time on 16 November 2011, Silvio Berlusconi looked like a humiliated man. Italy’s finances were in trouble, with international investors betting against the country’s treasury bonds; prosecutors were on his heels due to the infamous “bunga bunga” scandal, which involved an underage sex worker; European allies Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel had made their displeasure with him public. Few would have guessed at the time how much future politics would follow Berlusconi’s populist template.

Berlusconi has died at 86 – he had been in hospital in Milan, undergoing treatment for a lung infection. Yet look around, and you can see his legacy everywhere. In fact, the years that followed Berlusconi’s exit from office vindicated his political style, which combined extreme personality politics, a skilful use of visual media and an unashamed demagogy – all to tap into voters’ disillusionment and cynicism about the status quo. It is hard to think of another politician more prefigurative of politics to come.


Many rightwing populist politicians who were dominant in the 2010s have been compared to Berlusconi, the first among them former US president Donald Trump. Like Trump and well before him, Berlusconi insisted on the fact that he was not a career politician but rather a successful “self-made entrepreneur”, who had decided to enter politics to save his country from leftism. Like Trump, Berlusconi owed his success to his extraordinary use of TV, which, in his case, was made easier by the fact that he owned most of the country’s private TV channels. And finally, very much like Trump, Berlusconi took the political scene by storm by ignoring all the norms of institutional courtesy and politeness, preposterously presenting himself as a victim of judges and electoral authorities, while never shying away from the most vulgar and sensationalist tactics to capture public attention – including his famous penchant for sexual jokes.

Berlusconi embodied what Antonio Gramsci described as the Italian people’s “taste for the operatic”, with his rallies and TV interventions featuring moments that would have befitted a variety show. In terms of political content, though, he was simply a neoliberal: his revolution was one of cutting taxes and red tape and deregulating labour. In fact, he is best seen, historically, as the link between neoliberalism and populism.

In Italy, Berlusconi was instrumental in allowing the far right to enter mainstream politics, forging alliances with the separatist party Northern League and with the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party, from which the party of the current prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, is descended. (Meloni first came to the limelight by serving as the minister of youth in the last Berlusconi government.)

Curiously, with hindsight, the shift of Italian politics ever further to the nationalist right has made Berlusconi appear relatively moderate. Yet his constant attack on workers, his reported links to the mafia, his manipulation of the legal system, his disastrous economic policies that have accelerated the country’s industrial decline, and his celebration of extreme individualism all set the conditions for Italy’s current reactionary turn.

A key element of his success, which has been mimicked by rightwing populists worldwide, was his ability to transform accusations against him into fuel for his survival. Berlusconi’s career was famously dotted with prosecutions for mafia-related, corruption and tax-evasion crimes. In response, he adopted a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, he vigorously insisted that he was innocent, the victim of communist judges – the most persecuted person in human history. On the other hand, for the benefit of his more disingenuous supporters, especially those from a business class often engaging in illegal or borderline practices, he often winked at the fact that his behaviour was not all that pristine, but whose is?

The echoes with Trump’s current legal tribulations in the US are clear – and don’t augur well for those who think the former president’s fate will be sealed by one moreindictment.

In Italy, Berlusconi’s rise was made possible by the fatigue that Italian liberal-democracy cultivated in ordinary people, ever since the Tangentopoli corruption scandal of the early 1990s. In other countries, rightwing figures have preyed on similar sentiments of disillusion towards politics that does not seem to advance the interests of anyone but the elite.

As long as politics is seen – sometimes with good reason – as a big “swamp” (to cite Trumpist rhetoric) of corruption and hypocrisy, the cynical politics that Berlusconi pioneered, and rightwing populists perfected, will continue to triumph. The only way to break this toxic spell is to reinfuse politics with a moral yet tangible mission that actually delivers concrete improvements for the citizenry. This is precisely what Berlusconi failed to do.


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Hard to tell if populism is worse than authoritarianism.

Trump is Teflon.

Trudeau, Biden, Hillary Clinton, pivot and deflect. Same difference, just more professional looking.

Either are scandal plagued.

People hate Trump because he is most corrupt of all of these people am sure, but truly because just like Berlusconi, he is a total d****ebag. 

Clinton comes across as an educated librarian. 

Biden comes across as a grandfather in a nursing home.

Trudeau comes across as that white friend who gets offended on your behalf.

All of the above, comes across as better than Trump.

Only thing separating the above pack, is one's corruption level turned criminal. 

The other knew how to straddle the line and stay within it. Also, they knew one of the laws of power, is to never get your own hands dirty and never to outshine your master.

Trump doesn't know a thing about diplomacy. If he did, just like the many before him, he would have gotten away with the crimes he has committed.

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