For those Italians who have over the past two decades resented Silvio Berlusconi, the arrival of Donald Trump on the US political scene is undoubtedly shocking. But it's too soon to say that Trump is truly the "American Berlusconi." Over the past twenty years, Berlusconi has been described as an anomaly in comparison to leaders in other major Western democratic powers, starting with the US. As The Economist wrote, Silvio was "Unfit to Lead Italy." His opponents would always say that "somebody like him would never become president of the United States."
That Trump, who was considered a joke or an "unfit" character, would rise to the presidency was considered impossible. Impossible from an anthropological, rather than a political point of view, as his success in the primaries has already demonstrated. Exactly like Berlusconi, Trump is a man from the economic establishment, with immense economic resources and an extremely high degree of notoriety. Like Berlusconi, he could position himself as an outsider fighting "establishment" politics. He may emerge as the champion of the middle class and, in a few cases, the working class as well.
The first mistake that progressive elites, politicians, cultural figures and the media have made is to underestimate or ridicule Trump. That only increases his allure among voters looking for something new. The endless stream of satire and jokes only serves to make him even more popular.
The second error would be to underestimate the power of television. Yes, in 2008 Obama rose to power by campaigning on the Internet and launching crowdfunding campaigns aimed directly at citizens with little economic power. But today, eight years later, this entrepreneur's enormous popularity on television is playing a major part in American politics, proving once again that in our contemporary media society, the "new" cannot easily replace the "old."
Without Berlusconi, the discourse of Italian politics would have been far more politically-correct, less violent, and more institutional.
There was another element to Berlusconi's success, one that might be even more important in America than it was in Italy: the allure of a successful businessman, of a "self-made-man." There is an allure to a figure who is perceived to be rich enough that he wouldn't need to use politics to make himself even richer. This is a banal concept, and easily refuted in Berlusconi's case, but it resonated deeply with the Italian middle class. After the ruinous finale of Italy's first republic and the era of professional politicians, Italians believed in a billionaire who was driven only by personal interests. Unsurprisingly, this very concept was one of the leitmotifs in the election campaign that the artists and stars of Berlusconi's TV company used in the 1990s to convince undecided voters: "He created a great company, and he'll make Italy great too!"
Italians experienced over two decades of Berlusconi's blunders, including his unpleasant references to Fascism, sexism (in public and in private), and occasional racist quips. This practically became the norm for Italian politics. Without Berlusconi, there would be no Salvini today, with his questionable language. There would be no Beppe Grillo, a professional comedian who thanks to television, has won over the sympathies of many Italians. Without Berlusconi, the discourse of Italian politics would have been far more politically-correct, less violent, and more institutional. These are facts, and the fear is that in the next few months, the American public will lose the fair play that we Italians have so often envied. It's difficult to imagine that this would NOT happen. But it's even more difficult to imagine how to stop this from happening.
Should we just get used to it, give up, and accept it? In Italy, the political left and its thought leaders believed for years that it was enough to be indignant and to discuss the rise of a different regime. They thought warning Italians of this imminent danger would be enough. Berlusconi was only defeated by Romano Prodi, a leader who was not as obsessed with demonizing his adversaries. His skills lay in exerting his strength as a parochial campaign leader, and his ability to reassure Italians who were frustrated with Berlusconi.
The social and electoral divide between liberal, educated voters and less-educated, more conservative voters is common throughout Western democracies.
In personalized politics, a phenomenon that Italy only acquired halfway through the 1990s, there's no such thing as the rational vote -- someone who carefully considers his or her options from the peace and quiet of their living room. Instead, we have people who are angry, or scared, or seeking hope and reassurance. For rivals of the Berlusconis who play around with Mussolini quotes --Berlusconi was a world champ in this department -- the only adequate response is to wage a strong, emotional campaign. That's what happened in Chile in 1988: when Pinochet organized a plebiscite, opposition forces organized an election campaign that focused on highlighting the horrors of the regime, the victims, the desparicidos. They were condemned to certain defeat. Then, almost by chance (as Pablo Larrain's brilliant movie, No, details) they called in a young advertising exec to help, who invented a campaign based on happiness, smiling families and barbecues out in the countryside. Pinochet grew nervous, built an increasingly aggressive campaign, and ultimately -- against all predictions -- was ousted.
The social and electoral divide between liberal, educated voters and less-educated, more conservative voters is common throughout Western democracies. For the first group -- those Bostonians and New Yorkers who snobbishly look down on Trump -- the greatest test is yet to come. It will be much more difficult than in 2004, when John Kerry was defeated by a far less brilliant George W. Bush. This time, the rival to the democrats may well be a "monster": Trump. Exactly like Berlusconi in 1994, who suddenly blocked the victory already being brandished by the left.
Trump's rivals should write down, and commit to memory, Berlusconi's comment on the leader of the PDS party, Achille Occhetto, in January 1994:
"A man who first got into politics after 1989 and is now busy talking about Communism must be a little naïve. I think he's funny: he'd make a great actor in a traveling theater troupe."
That was the beginning of the end for the Italian left.
Sure, people will protest that Berlusconi changed Italian society and politics, perhaps permanently. I think Berlusconi catered to a segment of Italian society with which the elite were largely unfamiliar.
As far as politics were concerned, Berlusconi was a pioneer in personalizing an election campaign. He was the first to really apply marketing campaigns and strategies to politics. Without him, we would have never had Renzi, the first center-left politician to break with tradition and use the same tools. But in this regard, Americans don't need any advice. In fact, they often anticipate trends that only appear in Italy years later.
On the relationship between the leader and women, between the macho old guy and the girls, there's not much left to add. We don't need to bring up Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart in order to assert that any American leader, faced with sex scandals similar to those that enveloped Berlusconi, would be forced to withdraw immediately. In fact, Berlusconi's wife published a letter in one of Italy's main daily newspapers in which she spoke of "virgins offering themselves up to the dragon." When it comes to this area, America's the one who could teach us a thing or two. In the 1996 film The First Wives Club, Ivana Trump gave a valuable lesson to fresh divorcees: "Don't get mad, get everything!" Many years later, Veronica Lario followed her advice to the letter.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.