• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

A generous CounterPuncher has offered a $25,000 matching grant. So for this week only, whatever you can donate will be doubled up to $25,000! If you have the means, please donate! If you already have done so, thank you for your support. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Is Trump the American Berlusconi?

For a long time Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi appeared as an impenetrable phenomenon to foreign observers. He was routinely dismissed as an exotic anomaly tied to the idiosyncrasies of Italian political culture.

Today, he might not seem so unfamiliar. There are striking analogies between Italy’s former prime minister and the current front-runner in the Republican presidential nominee race — and not just that both are flamboyant billionaires and former entertainers running for office on anti-establishment platforms.

Although Berlusconi’s political fortunes now appear to be on the wane, looking back at reasons for his erstwhile success might shed light on the current fascination with Donald Trump’s US presidential bid.

They share a flaunted machismo and political incorrectness. This is part of a well-calculated electoral strategy. What Berlusconi had already understood before Trump is that saying outrageous things gets you free media coverage and forces others to engage with what you are saying. So you get to set the terms of the political debate, while shifting its center of gravity in your favor. At the same time, Berlusconi and Trump’s political incorrectness targets a specific electoral group — predominantly blue-collar white males who feel threatened by globalization, multiculturalism and women’s rights. There is an element of revanchism in their discourse, which allows them to attract conservative votes while assuming an air of radicalism.

Berlusconi’s popularity in Italy was also due to his capacity to transform class antagonisms into cultural issues, capturing large swathes of the working-class vote. The fact that he was a billionaire never seemed to distance him from ordinary people. On the contrary, it tapped into their aspirations. Even more importantly, the fact that he had brought commercial television to Italy implied an association with popular culture that set him in opposition to the country’s traditionally left-leaning cultural elites. In the same way, Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric appeals to working-class voters who resent what they perceive as the patronizing attitude of ‘liberal elites’. This suggests the old class antagonism is now translated into a new cultural division which plays out in terms of political style rather than income.

Finally, Berlusconi’s electoral success depended on his alliance with the far-right League of the North, a xenophobic party whose message pivoted almost entirely around the association between immigration and crime. The foundation of this alliance was the convergence of interests between Berlusconi’s predominantly national business empire and the economic protectionism implied in the League of the North’s anti-immigrant stance. In the US, this alliance between business interests and anti-immigration rhetoric had not been as prominent, largely because big business saw itself as wedded to globalization. Trump, on the other hand, seems to have understood that it may be in the interest of small to medium business owners to take a stand against immigration, because it ensures that a large portion of incoming labor is illegal and therefore in a weaker bargaining position. De-linking immigration from economics and re-framing it as a question of crime and security is the best way of pulling this off.

To be sure, there are also some important differences between Trump and Berlusconi. These too may help to shed light on some aspects of the ongoing Republican primary. When Berlusconi sought to present himself as a novelty in Italian politics, there was an element of truth to his rhetoric. Both his political style and his capacity to attract business and working class votes were fundamentally disruptive of the party system that had dominated Italian politics since the end of the Second World War. Trump, on the other hand, must be situated in the context of a longer trajectory in the way in which the Republican Party has run its electoral campaigns over the past decade and a half. From George W. Bush’s early attempts to present himself as an ‘ordinary American’ to Sarah Palin’s nomination as vice-presidential candidate and the subsequent attempt by the party’s leadership to co-opt the Tea-Party movement, the Republican Party has long been toying with anti-establishment populism as an electoral weapon.

Whether they will be able to rein in the forces they have conjured up remains to be seen — but don’t forget that Berlusconi was initially dismissed as wholly unelectable. His political momentum lasted more than 20 years.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

 

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti is assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York (CUNY).  Francesco Ronchi is lecturer in political science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 16, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
How Turkey’s Invasion of Syria Backfired on Erdogan
Chitrangada Choudhury – Aniket Aga
How Cotton Became a Headache in the Age of Climate Chaos
Jack Rasmus
US-China Mini-Trade Deal: Trump Takes the Money and Runs
Michael Welton
Communist Dictatorship in Our Midst
Robert Hunziker
Extinction Rebellion Sweeps the World
Peter A. Coclanis
Donald Trump as Artist
Chris Floyd
Byzantium Now: Time-Warping From Justinian to Trump
Steve Klinger
In For a Dime, in For a Dollar
Gary Leupp
The Maria Ramirez Story
Kim C. Domenico
It Serves Us Right To Suffer: Breaking Down Neoliberal Complacency
Kiley Blackman
Wildlife Killing Contests are Unethical
Colin Todhunter
Bayer Shareholders: Put Health and Nature First and Stop Funding This Company!
Andrés Castro
Looking Normal in Kew Gardens
October 15, 2019
Victor Grossman
The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later
Raouf Halaby
Kurdish Massacres: One of Britain’s Many Original Sins
Robert Fisk
Trump and Erdogan have Much in Common – and the Kurds will be the Tragic Victims of Their Idiocy
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal in the Levant
Wilma Salgado
Ecuador: Lenin Moreno’s Government Sacrifices the Poor to Satisfy the IMF
Ralph Nader
The Congress Has to Draw the Line
William A. Cohn
The Don Fought the Law…
John W. Whitehead
One Man Against the Monster: John Lennon vs. the Deep State
Lara Merling – Leo Baunach
Sovereign Debt Restructuring: Not Falling Prey to Vultures
Norman Solomon
The More Joe Biden Stumbles, the More Corporate Democrats Freak Out
Jim Britell
The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables
Howard Lisnoff
More Incitement to Violence by Trump’s Fellow Travelers
Binoy Kampmark
University Woes: the Managerial Class Gets Uppity
Joe Emersberger
Media Smears, Political Persecution Set the Stage for Austerity and the Backlash Against It in Ecuador
Thomas Mountain
Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Wins Nobel Peace Prize, But It Takes Two to Make Peace
Wim Laven
Citizens Must Remove Trump From Office
October 14, 2019
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
Class Struggle is Still the Issue
Mike Miller
Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?
Patrick Cockburn
As Turkey Prepares to Slice Through Syria, the US has Cleared a New Breeding Ground for Isis
John Feffer
Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency
Dean Baker
The Economics and Politics of Financial Transactions Taxes and Wealth Taxes
Jonah Raskin
What Evil Empire?
Nino Pagliccia
The Apotheosis of Emperors
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A Passion for Writing
Basav Sen
The Oil Despots
Brett Wilkins
‘No Friend But the Mountains’: A History of US Betrayal of the Kurds
John Kendall Hawkins
Assange: Enema of the State
Scott Owen
Truth, Justice and Life
Thomas Knapp
“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution
Rob Kall
Republicans Are Going to Remove Trump Soon
Cesar Chelala
Lebanon, Dreamland
Weekend Edition
October 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
CounterPunch in Peril?
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail