Opinion | Before Trump, There Was Berlusconi

ROME — The tycoon-turned-politician spent his career mixing entertainment and power, escaping sex scandals and remodeling his party in his own plasticized image. He claimed elections he lost were actually stolen from him. Law enforcement scrutinized his businesses and he incessantly praised his longtime friend Vladimir Putin. Struggling to beat him politically, opponents relied on prosecutors to oust him through the courts. But he managed to turn even that to his favor, raising the specter of political persecution to re-energize his electorate and remain firmly at the center of his country’s politics for years.

That sounds a lot like Donald Trump. But it’s actually Silvio Berlusconi, who died on Monday at the age of 86.

Four times Italy’s prime minister, Mr. Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for three decades and fundamentally reshaped its landscape and imagination. The ebullient entrepreneur, who was raised in a middle-class family in Milan and once sang cheap love songs on cruise ships to make a buck, rose to prominence as the mastermind of Italy’s commercial television. In the mid-1990s, after the fall of the First Republic, he devoted himself to politics with remarkable energy. In many ways, Mr. Berlusconi’s story is an inextricably Italian one. But it also goes beyond the peninsula. In leveraging his fame and celebrity to gain power — and managing against all odds to retain it — Mr. Berlusconi provided a template for Mr. Trump’s own political career.

The parallels between them are obvious. The two had exorbitant egos, openly admired strongmen, were obsessed with TV and had a penchant for kitsch furniture and lewd jokes. Perhaps most important, they both possessed an instinctive ability to tap into the passions of the populace. One came from real estate, the other from media: They met halfway, in the borderland of entertainment. They also shared a predilection for the politics of paranoia. 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.

Mr. Berlusconi’s tricks and oddities to elude his critics rivaled, perhaps even exceeded, those of Mr. Trump. The hush money Mr. Trump allegedly paid to Stormy Daniels seems almost mundane compared with the time Mr. Berlusconi called the police claiming that Karima el-Mahroug, a 17-year-old guest of one of his infamous “bunga bunga” parties who had been arrested, was a niece of the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. To whatever charge, Mr. Berlusconi always had an answer.

Mr. Berlusconi’s conspicuous fortune, estimated at $6.8 billion and comprising dozens of companies operating in media, finance, sports and real estate, was the bedrock of his political project. He preached his own version of the prosperity gospel, arousing hope in Italians disheartened by a corrupt political class and economic stagnation. 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.

An oxymoronic figure, Mr. Berlusconi preached “ethical anarchy” while giving succor to the far right, tickling people’s passions with the exploits of his soccer team and surrounding himself with an ever-changing court of advisers, friends, lackeys and acolytes who hoped to take advantage of his proverbial generosity. 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.

Because Mr. Berlusconi never separated the personal from the political, his fall happened on both fronts simultaneously. Relentlessly grilled by his political opponents for trying to bend laws to his own advantage, he spiraled into an increasingly rowdy lifestyle. His name became universally associated with the sex parties he insisted on defining as “elegant dinners.” When in 2009 Mr. Berlusconi picked candidates for the European Parliament from among the female guests of these gatherings, his second wife, Veronica Lario, publicly protested against this “shamelessly tacky” behavior and filed for divorce.

Two years later, a letter from the European Central Bank ended his career as prime minister, and a sentence for tax fraud soon pushed him out of the Senate. But he wasn’t done yet. Acquitted three times in trials related to his sex parties, he was readmitted to Parliament in 2022. Despite waning electoral support for his party, Forza Italia, he remained a major figure in Italian politics, most recently playing a pivotal role in the formation of the current government. His ability to ride a roller coaster of setbacks and comebacks can be defined only as Trumpian, or perhaps Mr. Trump’s resilience is Berlusconian.

Beyond the prominent similarities between the two men lies a telling difference. Mr. Berlusconi was a sunshine-in-my-pocket kind of guy, exuding optimism and hope for the future. He had an almost Reaganesque trust in the free market and the unencumbered initiative of individuals — a far cry from Mr. Trump’s protectionism. While Mr. Trump’s image is defined by the grim, enraged gaze contemplating the unfolding of American carnage, the Italian leader’s personality was best conveyed by his perennially broad and shiny smile. He really was himself when he entertained his guests with foul-mouthed jokes and festive songs. His persona had a “Dolce Vita” quality that is alien to Mr. Trump.

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 (@mattiaferraresi) is the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani.

Source photographs by Pool and Giuseppe Cacace/Agence France-Press/Getty Images

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