With his usual clarity, John Foot reminds us that what we are witnessing right now in the US election campaign had happened before. Twenty-two years ago, to be exact.
Undoubtedly, there are uncanny similarities between Trump and Berlusconi. During the Nineties, Berlusconi allied himself with the Italian neofascist Right and with a populist and openly racist party. In 1994 he promised the world and harvested the votes of those tired of politics-as-usual. He monopolized the political debate and imposed his personal priorities to the entire country. Beyond the misogyny, homophobia, racism, arrogance, questionable business practices, there are other, more worrying aspects. Berlusconi represented the rise of a populist approach to politics that still inhabits political discourse and that has now become endemic in Europe and in the US.
For two decades the Italian political debate revolved around one man. Berlusconi shaped politics to his own image: the self-made man, the outsider, the successful businessman who speaks his mind. His persona dominated the political arena; parliamentary politics was hijacked for private interests. Not unlike Trump, Berlusconi was not only a political figure, he was the representative and the promoter of a culture that gradually took over the country. Berlusconism – with his undermining of the judiciary, his manipulation of mainstream media, and its dismissal of historical facts and scientific knowledge – was an early example of the post-factual politics triumphing now in Europe and in the US.
However, what worries me the most when I look at the US presidential campaign is the flattening of political debate to Trump and to his persona. Mainstream media has stopped discussing policies: the attention is always on the latest controversy, on the most recent absurdity, on the the daily misogynistic or racist remark. If the Italian experience is anything to go by, we should worry. Not only the Italian Left had been unable to fight on Berlusconi’s terrain (i.e. communication) but it systematically failed to put forward its own agenda. The party in power was shaped to the leader’s persona to such an extent that the opposition shaped itself against B. and against what B. stand for. Political discourse shrunk to two binary positions: support or opposition to one man. Our vote during the 1990s and the 2000s was moved only by the urgency of electing ‘anyone but him’. All we had during the Berlusconi era was reactive, defensive politics. Thankfully, the impact of Italian politics upon the larger geopolitical and economic equilibrium was minimal. If the same had to happen in the US, the implications would be felt far beyond the US borders.