An Italian Explains Berlusconi and the Rise of Italian Populism to Me, an American

After insurgents cleaned up in the Italian election, the disgraced three-time prime minister is somehow relevant again.
March 6, 2018, 9:56pm
Tiffany Rose/WireImage; Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images

The American political system seems crazy, with that Donald Trump guy and all, but the United States is far from the only country dominated by a man many see as patently unfit to hold public office. In Italy, three-time former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi—who has a laundry list of scandals, both financial and sexual, and has actually been convicted of crimes—is once again back on the political scene, despite the fact that he cannot legally hold office until 2019. The leader of the center-right Forza Italia ("Go Italy") Party that won about 14 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections Sunday, Berlusconi said Tuesday he was masterminding a new governing coalition. But the populist-dominated vote produced deeply divided results, with the newspaper La Stampa going so far as to dub the country “Ungovernable Italy.”

While Berlusconi and his nativist allies further to the right dream of power, the populist party that actually won most of the votes falls, ideologically, somewhere between Steve Bannon and Bernie Sanders. As the Washington Post reported, "The two mainstream parties together barely managed to exceed the vote share of the Five Star Movement—an Internet-based movement founded by a comedian that pulls voters from either end of the political spectrum and didn’t even exist a decade ago."

So what's going on in Italy right now, and does it mirror the Trumpian chaos of American politics? I caught up with my Italian colleague Leonardo Bianchi, news editor of VICE Italy, to find out what the hell is going on.


Eve Peyser: How did Berlusconi pull off this comeback?
Leonardo Bianchi: Well, actually he didn't make a comeback. It's quite the contrary—he's one of the big losers of the latest elections. His party, Forza Italia, got only 14 percent of the votes. Plus, he is no longer the kingmaker of the Italian center-right: Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing Lega* (formerly known as Northern League), scored big with 17 percent of the vote, and he's now the true leader of that coalition.

Throughout [the election], Berlusconi looked very old (well, he is), tired, and out of tune. I think Italians are really, really tired of him, even if he still has some support. Moreover, I'm convinced that the "Berlusconi's comeback" actually never existed in the first place, it was only the usual media story about Berlusconi's political immortality. But he is not [immortal], and this election proved it.

Do you think Berlusconi is Italy’s Donald Trump? How are they similar?
I think that Donald Trump is America's Berlusconi—I mean, he came first! Witnessing the rise of the Trump from Italy, we have déjà-vu, because the two obviously have something in common: Both are billionaires, masters of media manipulation, sexists, without a real political ideology and, as journalist Alexander Stille put it, “have a penchant for self-destruction.”

That's where the similarities end. Since the Italian and American political systems that spawned Berlusconi and Trump are very different. Berlusconi, for example, ran for office in 1994 because he needed to shield his companies—and himself, of course—from criminal investigations and trials. And in order to do that, he had to create his own brand-new party.


What else makes them different?
Berlusconi has always had a less violent rhetorical style than Trump. His longtime slogan is, "Love always wins over envy and hate." He also has less strict views on economic protectionism, and he is less nationalist than Trump—he never promised to "Make Italy Great Again" or something like that. Generally, Berlusconi is a more moderate than Trump. Finally, Berlusconi solved his hair issues by having concrete poured over his head.

Why are so many Italians seemingly unfazed by his scandals?
At the height of his power, he basically owned almost all of the media landscape in Italy—his own TV stations, plus government broadcasting, Rai. So much of the public was convinced that he was politically persecuted by "communist" judges [and] envy of his wealth and success. Of course it wasn’t true, but as I said before, Berlusconi is a master of media manipulation and political survival.

But on the other hand, I have to say that there has always been a fierce opposition to Berlusconi, and in the end Italians grew weary of his judiciary problems, which have dragged along for the past 20 years. His sex scandals (the infamous “bunga bunga” parties) also turned away the Catholic vote from him, and I think this played a big role in his downfall.

I wanted to ask about his sex scandals and sexual assault accusations. In 2015, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, a woman who testified in Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" party prostitution case, accused Harvey Weinstein of assault. Italian actress and director Asia Argento is also one of Weinstein's many accusers. Has the Weinstein saga, and Berlusconi's connections to it, resonated in Italy?
Berlusconi’s sex scandals and sexual assault accusations are well known in Italy, and has utterly undermined his reputation and approval rating. His political fall at the end of the last decade was caused by, among the other things, the rise of “Se non ora quando,” a feminist wave. And “berlusconismo” is seen as one of the main reasons Italian feminism had an abrupt interruption in the 1990s.


The Weinstein scandal didn’t resonate that much in Italy, though. #MeToo and the aftermath of the scandal had a real impact only on the young, urban, female population. Many established Italian journalists have publicly labelled Asia Argento as a "whore," which tells you everything you need to know.

How alarmed is the Italian center and/or left by the outcome of the election?
I would say a lot. The Italian Democratic Party reached a historical low (18 percent of the vote) and the very existence of the party is seriously at stake. It could end in intense infighting and splitting. [Former PM] Matteo Renzi, who four years ago was the poster boy of European social democrats, resigned from the party leadership just yesterday, and his political future may be doomed. As for the left, it is even worse: Liberi e Uguali, a newly formed party created by former members of the Democratic Party, got 3.3 percent of the vote—just barely above the threshold level to get into the Parliament. The picture on the Italian left is pretty bleak.

What about the populist Five-Star movement?
The Five Star Movement is the real winner of the election: They rounded up a stunning 32 percent of the vote. They're not progressives or leftists in a strict sense: Beppe Grillo—the comedian who founded the party almost ten years ago—has always said that they are neither left-wing or right-wing, they are "beyond" the traditional political fault lines. As all the other populist movements, they divide the society into two separated and antagonistic groups: “the people” and “the corrupt elite” (la casta, in Italian). They depict themselves as the only true voice of “the people,” exploiting and channeling for their own gains the anti-establishment sentiment that has been sweeping Italy for the past 15 years.


On top of that, they combine tough stances on immigration with leftist socio-economical proposals—like their own version of the basic universal income, called “reddito di cittadinanza.” That’s why I would call them a “centrist” populist movement that has now become a “catch-all party.”

Are any of Italy’s right-wing parties accurately described as fascists?
Definitely, but only the fringe ones. I'm talking about CasaPound, a neofascist movement founded in 2003, who hails itself as the true "heir" of historical fascism. The militants defines themselves as the "third millennial fascists." CasaPound is a social and media-savvy neofascist movement, a bit like the alt-right, but despite the media attention they've garnered, the party performed horribly in the election, with only 0.8 of the vote.

Is it reasonable to compare what's happening in Italy to the anti-EU/anti-elite sentiment to Brexit in the UK, or is it its own animal?
There’s clearly a common trend all over Western liberal democracies, so it can be compared, but it’s also specific to Italy. In Europe, Italy has always been a kind of political lab: we invented fascism, and immediately after World War II, we developed our own brand of populism, the Common’s Man Front.

In the early 90s, the “Mani Pulite” (Clean Hands) judicial investigation prompted the demise of the so-called First Republic and the disappearance of many political parties. The anti-elite and anti-politics sentiment has been the prevailing sentiment at least since then, and now virtually all political parties are “anti-party” parties. I think that the 2018 Election proved that beyond any reasonable doubt.

Are you scared of a Le Pen/Trump-esque figure becoming prime minister?
I'm not that scared, and that's because of Italy’s byzantine electoral law. Right now, we have a hung parliament, and this means that Matteo Salvini—who is the most Le Pen–esque Italian politician—has a very small chance of becoming PM. The next government—if there is going to be a government, since at this moment is not a given—will forcefully be a coalition government, like the ones we had before this election. But if the next government fails, then I fear that there will be room for a stronger far-right turn in Italian politics.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Lega as the Nativist Party League. We regret the error.

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