America's Billionaire Populist Political Outsider

Trump and Berlusconi thus share a vanity-soaked hyper-masculinity with special appeal to the disaffected (white) man. They come off as "just guys" who say what is on their minds and can relate to the ordinary man in the street, although in Trump's case this has a particular racial tinge; blacks and Latinos are few and far between in his audiences.
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By Marla Stone and John Torpey

As Donald Trump scooped up Super Tuesday victories, panic turned to hysteria over his increasing appeal for large enough segments of the Republican electorate. Political pundits search for an appropriate comparison to the Trump phenomenon -- in some heated cases going as far as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. But there is a much more recent and closer parallel: Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister for much of past twenty years.

Like Trump, Berlusconi entered the political stage as a political neophyte whose chief credential for high office was his entrepreneurial success, his status as Italy's richest man, and his out-sized ego. Italy's billionaire populist and media mogul, owner of Italy's largest media conglomerate Mediaset, ran on a platform of neo-liberal economic reform and anti-government resentment. Moreover, Prime Minister Berlusconi forged a political movement largely dependent upon accusations of a "red nemesis" lurking behind Italy's center-left political parties and its anti-corruption judiciary. Despite the fact that Berlusconi's success as a businessman and mass media owner in the 1980s and 1990s depended upon just the system he rallied against, he presented himself as the only one capable of cleaning up Italy, putting it back on a free market path, and restoring the country's greatness.

Anti-political to the core, Berlusconi created a party 'Forza Italia' (Good Italy) based on the chant of the 'Blues' of the national soccer team, AC Milan, which he owns. The melding of entertainment and politics, and the subsumption of the one by the other, was complete, in part because Berlusconi controlled much of the Italian television and publishing markets and could be sure of uncritical attention whatever he did.

As a rich man and a celebrity, Berlusconi played on people's fantasies of extreme wealth and power, and especially on male fantasies of cavorting, Nero-like, with very young models and television actresses. Trump offers similar intimations that the disaffected and forgotten white working-class men who are his chief base of support might one day lie back on the couch and be fed grapes by luscious, subservient courtesans.

Trump and Berlusconi thus share a vanity-soaked hyper-masculinity with special appeal to the disaffected (white) man. They come off as "just guys" who say what is on their minds and can relate to the ordinary man in the street, although in Trump's case this has a particular racial tinge; blacks and Latinos are few and far between in his audiences. The support he received from Hispanics in Nevada is a reminder that there are many Latinos in the U.S. who oppose further immigration from south of the border; they are not interested in having more competition for their jobs. Trump's authoritarianism, with this constant veiled threat of violence against opponents, is central to this phenomenon of the anti-political outsider with little patience or respect for democratic practices.

Like Berlusconi the back-slapper, Trump campaigns as if he wants to be our Schmoozer-in-Chief. Those who claim that New York doesn't represent the rest of the country should note how often Trump tells people grandly but emptily that he "loves them" and that "they're great guys" and "good friends of mine." Everybody wants to be friends with schmoozers like this, in part because they have no particular substance to be at odds with. Its unpolitical quality is part of the appeal, and this is clearly working with many who cannot hope to share in Trump's wealth.

The two businessmen-populists built their personae and gain media attention through insult and inflammatory discourse. Where Trump rails again Megyn Kelly's menstrual cycle and derides his opponents as "low energy" or a "clown," Berlusconi once told a German Social Democratic member of parliament he should play a concentration camp guard in a movie.

Not coincidentally, these demagogic figures appear at times of crisis in the political system. Berlusconi emerged onto the scene when the postwar Italian party system was felled by corruption and scandal and the Italian economy had failed to adapt to changing conditions. Trump rises as the Republican Party losses its center, fragmenting into battling radical factions. Both present themselves as "above party," because they sense - correctly - that people want an "outsider."

While their self-presentation and rhetoric of national reassertion may seem buffoonish to educated folk, to others they offer a direction and set of answers in a confused time. Trump and Berlusconi are crystal clear about whom to blame for their country's woes. For Trump it is immigrants, especially Mexicans, and of course Muslims, whereas for Berlusconi it was the former Communist Party, which he insisted was determined to build a Stalin-style dictatorship in Italy even after the demise of the Soviet Union. For Trump and Berlusconi, it is a world of "us" vs. "them" - an appealingly simplistic analysis in a time of global uncertainty.

Finally, neither of the two men objects to aligning himself with truly dark forces when necessary: Berlusconi governed in coalition with the just barely post-Fascist party, while Trump declines to clearly disavow the white supremacists drawn to his cause.

What is comforting about the puffed-up, billionaire who inherited $200 million - as even Ted Cruz now points out - before building the empire he now boasts as having built himself? Like Berlusconi, Trump offers a figure onto whom the disaffected can project fantasies of a kind of security reminiscent of the days of "Mad Men" that seems to have evaporated during the years of civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, and economic globalization. As Italy's experience warns, it's a comfort that comes at the high price of eviscerated democratic institutions and a crippled economy.


Marla Stone is Professor of History and Department Chair at Occidental College, with a specialization in modern Italian History.

John Torpey is Presidential Professor of Sociology and History and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York, Graduate Center.

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