Once upon a time, Italy embraced its own politically incorrect billionaire-turned-politico. And yet the real shift toward Trump-style nationalism came after Berlusconi's departure.
Italy is a relatively young democracy: It was not until the overthrow of the Fascist regime and the end of War War II that the republic was born. It was the June 2, 1946 referendum that put an end to the monarchy and gave way to a republican system.
For almost five decades, the country was led by the centrist Christian Democrats, until a huge corruption scandal known as Tangentopoli and the consequent judicial actions known as Mani Pulite (Clean Hands). It was then, amid a huge crisis, that Silvio Berlusconi emerged. The richest man in the country, Berlusconi pitched himself as a down-to-earth guy who could talk like a common person and make non-politically correct jokes. He said he would get rid of a corrupt system and fix Italy's many ills.
And yet, Berlusconi was no Donald Trump, as this op-ed in the Italian daily La Stampa suggests. Berlusconi appealed to hope and a positive future, using his huge media empire to broadcast it to the world. He even managed to keep the xenophobic secessionist Northern League party under control — a key ally to collect votes in the north of the country.
Berlusconi was eventually forced out of the political scene because of a tax fraud conviction. Social networks became an open battlefield to conquer votes. And the mood shifted. The Northern League is now known as the League and its leader, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has immigrants as its main enemy. It managed to appeal to people's fears so much that it has become the number one party in Italy, according to polls. And good old Silvio, who is now 83, is running for the European elections. But his party is now well behind in the polls.
TURIN — A quarter of a century has passed since that January 26, 1994, when Silvio Berlusconi entered politics with a message to the nation broadcast by all public and private television networks. Since then, almost everything has changed in our political system, even in the center-right coalition, which has been shaken by the Salvini cyclone to the point of losing many of the traits that had defined the cultural and political universe of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
Historian Antonio Gibelli illustrates the scope of that distant event in a book titled January 26, 1994. The book analyzes the implications of a crucial moment in our history, when, taking advantage of the political gap left after the countrywide political scandal known as Tangentopoli, Berlusconi managed to get rid of the old center parties with negligible ease, while at the same time ensuring the loyalty of the "extremists' of the Northern League.
By the end of that evening, more than 26 million Italians had watched Berlusconi offer himself to the country with an appeal capable of seducing an electorate that was lost and confused after the collapse of the so-called First Republic. Never before, except for the president of the republic, had a politician been granted such visibility without questions.
More than 26 million Italians had watched Berlusconi offer himself to the country
That was, according to Gibelli, the real date of the transition "from the republic of the parties to the era of movements dominated by charismatic leaders and marked by demagogy." Offering "goods and entertainment," Berlusconi managed in just nine minutes — the full duration of the recording — to undermine the two dominant cultures of republican Italy: "the Catholic and the Communist, both characterized by a strong anti-individualistic and anti-consumer attitude," writes Gibelli.
The book describes all details of the event, including the definition of the scenic elements for the broadcast: The set's backgrounds, the support lights for the filming, the fateful nylon stocking placed on the camera to erase wrinkles. And there are the salient elements of that message. The simplicity of the language, first of all ("the average viewer has the mental evolution of a boy who is in second grade and is not even sitting in the first bench," Berlusconi would later say). And then, in no particular order, the naming of an enemy (Communism dented by the fall of the Berlin wall), mobilization against tax pressure, the "clearance" of fascism, the abandonment of the "paradigm of superiority of politics over common people" with the very early awareness that "only by speaking ill of politics and parties could consensus be achieved."
Berlusconi during the National Assembly of Forza Italia — Photo: Massimo Di Vita/Mondadori Portfolio/ZUMA
It was then that Berlusconi adopted what would become the cultural signature of his hegemony: The replacement of reality with the "representation of reality." Despite the dizzying indebtedness of his companies (according to data referring to 1992, the debt of his Fininvest media company then amounted to three times the assets of the group — 3.3 billion euros against 1.3 billion), he kept on presenting himself as a successful entrepreneur, with his autobiography to guarantee his political leadership, managing to make his personal interests coincide with the general interests of what he called democracy.
And it is precisely in these elements that the main differences lie between Berlusconi's right and Salvini's League today. The electorate is largely the same; but if then it was a promise of "regeneration" to keep it together — an optimistic challenge to the future based on the illusion of a perfect market, to be accepted and valued as it was — today it is fear that has taken over: fear of the globalized world, fear of sharing the spaces of one's daily life with "others," a desire for security. These are all feelings that find refuge in the League's sovereign populism.
A television full of very powerful suggestions and seductions
Salvini is not a successful entrepreneur who offers his companies as an institutional model; he is a professional politician, not a company manager. He's a popular leader who supports AC Milan without being its president. He doesn't play down politics. He glorifies it, rather, as a guarantee of security and stability. And, above all, where Berlusconi entrusted the construction of his charisma to television, Salvini is able to legitimize his leadership by linking it both to the "physicality" of the territory, to the barriers erected physically to exclude and separate, and to the controversy that he incessantly feeds in the virtual world of social media.
Gibelli's book suggests a close parallel between the forms of political organization and those taken on by mass media. Thus, for example, for most of the 20th century, the hegemony of the printed word corresponded to the modern "mass party" with magazines, newspapers, posters, books, leaflets defining its identity and organizational profile. When Berlusconi appeared on the scene, print media had already been overshadowed by the unprecedented dissemination of television, "a television full of very powerful suggestions and seductions ... strongly shaped by the language of commercial advertising." It was a videocracy that Forza Italia represented very effectively on the political level.
Today, the decline of Berlusconi's right can also be interpreted as a sign of the advent of digital populism that replaces the pervasiveness of television and finds in the privileged relationship that Salvini maintains with the online sphere the tools for building another and different leadership compared to Berlusconi.