June 15, 2023

Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi, the boastful billionaire media mogul who was Italy’s longest-serving premier despite scandals over his sex-fueled parties and allegations of corruption, died Monday. He was 86… A onetime cruise ship crooner, Berlusconi used his television networks and immense wealth to launch his long political career, inspiring both loyalty and loathing. To admirers, the three-time premier was a capable and charismatic statesman who sought to elevate Italy on the world stage. To critics, he was a populist who threatened to undermine democracy by wielding political power as a tool to enrich himself and his businesses.” AP News

Many on both sides argue that Berlusconi’s success paved the way for right-wing populists such as Donald Trump:

“Two decades before Mr. Trump appealed to Americans left behind by globalization, Mr. Berlusconi was capturing the imagination of the ‘forgotten men’ of Italy by promising new jobs and tax cuts… By day, he garnered votes from the working class. At night, he invited his guests to admire an artificial volcano erupting real lapilli in the boundless garden of his oligarch-friendly, 126-room villa on the Sardinian coast…

"Long before Mr. Trump cried ‘witch hunt’ and labeled the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a ‘psychopath,’ Mr. Berlusconi was denouncing a Communist plot brought by judges in ‘red robes’ who were out to destroy him…

“Whether he intended to or not, Mr. Berlusconi was decisive in creating the type of celebrity politics that Mr. Trump used to take power and transform American politics. The two political celebrities, who shared so much, had one more thing in common. Both thought they were the only ones who could save their countries — and in return, they were accused of being the sole cause of their countries’ ills. It’s testament to the outsize influence of both showmen that, for a spell, such a simplistic view could seem not just plausible but true."
Mattia Ferraresi, New York Times

“His first entry into politics and rise to the prime ministership in 1994 were greeted with the same shock and horror with which Donald Trump was met two decades later. Berlusconi was a charismatic performer whose disdain for convention shocked Rome… His career spanned the era of the Third Way, the New Democrats, ‘compassionate conservatism’ and a multitude of other centrisms that sometimes delivered prosperity but rarely offered imagination or aspiration…

“Berlusconi was portrayed as a dangerous right-wing populist, but his policies differed little from this consensus in practice. He proposed a major tax reform to bring more of Italy’s economy into the open, but he couldn’t get it through the legislature. He also failed to implement the ‘Contract with Italy’ he borrowed from Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in 2001…

“Berlusconi’s political heirs on the right have tried to maintain his spirit of contention while grasping for workable policy ideas—a pattern current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni appears to be following. Most of Europe’s left never overcame its initial aesthetic distaste for Berlusconi, which reflected their disdain for his voters. Not having learned anything from him, they’ll be haunted by his political ghost for years to come.”
Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

Other opinions below.

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From the Left

“[Berlusconi] turned his celebrity into a magnet for Italy’s forgotten everyman, gaining four stints as prime minister and forging an enduring political influence… From his taut, perma-tanned appearance, to his mockery of women, his railing against immigrants, his abuse of political power to further his personal business dealings and his confrontation with the courts, Berlusconi was the very model of the modern right-wing populist

“Berlusconi's playbook included ridiculing institutions from the central bank to the judiciary. Accusations that he bribed judges, cheated on his taxes and paid underage women for sex — his infamous ‘Bunga Bunga’ parties made international headlines — helped boost his popularity among Italians who distrusted elites… Ultimately, Berlusconi was involved in more than two dozen criminal court cases during his political career. They involved allegations of vote buying, sex with underage women, tax evasion, lying under oath, bribery and wiretapping.”

Rachel Sanderson, Bloomberg

“Berlusconi demonstrated that institutional guardrails are, even in supposedly consolidated democracies, much weaker than politicians and political scientists had assumed. The threat he embodied was in his example; he himself remained a deeply personalist politician, who relied on his charisma and cared mostly about his own interests. Berlusconi’s successors are just as willing to bend the rules or exploit their image, but for purposes that could do much more severe damage.”

Yascha Mounk, The Atlantic

From the Right

“Silvio Berlusconi, a fixture on the Italian political scene for decades who died this week at age 86, wasn’t the predecessor of Donald Trump. He was the successor to Bill Clinton and the predecessor to Harvey Weinstein. There was a time, and it was not ancient history, when the most gauche thing you could do in American political life was to take seriously Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct…

“Great men, Clinton’s defenders said, have great appetites—look at John F. Kennedy!—and everybody in the world understands this except Americans. As Anne Swardson wrote from France in the Washington Post in 1998: ‘It is widely agreed here that this sort of contretemps, whether justified or not, could not happen in France. The public not only tolerates the oft-stated, but unproven, fact that its leaders stray from the strictures of marriage, it does not care, and neither do the media.’…

“Our attitudes about sexual behavior may have changed, but we haven’t given up the deeper and more fundamental attitude that made Berlusconi and Trump and Clinton and Weinstein the men they were—which is, of course, power worship. People worship power that is close to them because they hope to be able to use some of it for themselves—having connections in high places is the only real reason Hunter Biden isn’t working at a car wash and Hillary Rodham Clinton isn’t an obscure emeritus law professor, while being close to Weinstein was good for a lot of Hollywood careers right up until the nanosecond it wasn’t.”

Kevin D. Williamson, The Dispatch

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