Friday, December 11, 2015

Trump, Berlusconi, and the Blob


For about twenty years, Mr. Silvio Berlusconi has been the blob of Italian politics, absorbing everything thrown at him and transforming it into votes. Now, Mr. Trump seems to be using the same strategy in the US. 


Watching the news about the presidential race in the US from Italy gives you an eerie sensation of familiarity. This Donald Trump, he looks so much like.... yes, so much like a new incarnation of the concept of the billionaire turned politician: Silvio Berlusconi.

If you haven't lived in Italy during the past 20 years, it is hard for you to understand how much the figure of Silvio Berlusconi has permeated Italian politics and culture. When Berlusconi started his political career, in 1994, it would have appeared utterly impossible that a billionare and a womanizer would dominate Italian politics so much and for such a long time. Berlusconi was not a nice guy, never tried even to look like one. He was by no means the kind of figure that had traditionally attracted votes. He didn't have a party behind him; no clear ideals, no political ideology, no detailed economics program, nothing like that. Yet, he was successful and the only reason why by now he is not in active politics any more is because of his age (he'll be soon turning 80).

How did Berlusconi manage to be so successful? We can summarize his strategy in a few points:

1. Exaggerated promises; such as "a million new jobs," or, "less taxes for everyone".

2. Demonization of enemies: reds, gypsies, immigrants; these ethnic or political groups were continuously under attack, accused to be the origin of all troubles.

3. Continuous media presence. Berlusconi was a true genius in how to obtain media coverage, and not just because he owned a major media group. He obtained attention by all sorts of reckless behavior and outrageous declarations. Berlusconi's sexual exploits are well knows and, among his most outrageous declarations, he compared himself to Jesus Christ, and he said that those who didn't vote for him were idiots.

This combination worked wonders: Berlusconi's electoral pool was, as he himself said, with "people at the level of the second year of junior high school." He ruthlessly exploited their increasing economic difficulties; many people really believed in his promises, failing to notice that they consistently failed to materialize. He played on their desperation, funneling their rage against minority groups. He dazzled them with his flamboyant life style: many people seemed to believe that if they voted for him, they could become like him, and have money, glamour, and women.

Berlusconi's opponents never understood that mounting their campaigns against him, they were working for him, helping him gaining even more media attention. Over and over they underestimated him, considering him just a fad, soon destined to disappear, only to find him bouncing back, stronger than before. He became a true political blob, absorbing everything thrown at him and transforming it into consensus and votes.

Today, we can recognize the same tactics being used in the US by Donald Trump, another billionaire turned politician. Like Berlusconi, he makes the same kind of exaggerated promises ("make America great again"), he demonizes minorities (Latinos, Moslems, Blacks...) and he is a master in getting media attention by is outrageous declarations.

So, we are seeing the birth of another political blob: like Berlusconi, also Trump seems to be able to absorb everything thrown at him and turn it into consensus. And his opponents seem to be failing into the same trap that Berlusconi created for his opponents. They don't realize that by mounting their campaigns against Trump, they are working for him, helping him to gain even more notoriety.

So, what's going to happen? Is Donald Trump destined to shape American politics for a couple of decades, as Berlusconi did in Italy? Of course, it is impossible to say with any certainty and it is true that there are differences; for instance, Trump doesn't own a large media group, as Berlusconi did. Trump is also starting his political career at nearly 70, about ten years older than when Berlusconi did the same. So, there is a chance that Trump will be less successful than Berlusconi.

However, we are clearly seeing a problem with democracy. When times are tough and life becomes difficult, many people tend to blame someone - typically a different ethnic or political group, and to become desperate enough to believe in the promises of the current would-be savior of the country. It is enough, often, to send him to power. It has happened many times in the past, and the results have never been good.



Note: similar considerations on the Trump/Berlusconi couple were proposed by Rula Jebreal on the "Washington Post"


17 comments:

  1. I find frighteningly plausible. But, Ugo, if the answer is not to have a campaign against this kind of blob, what can we do positively? I would very much welcome your views, or anyone's views, on how we can successfully counter this kind of "blob" strategy.

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    1. It looks to me like the problem isn't so much with the "blob" and what to do about it, but is in the last paragraph of the post -- we are entering the period when everyone will be looking for someone to blame. That includes people who are nominally on the "right" side of issues, but it will be equally destructive no matter who does it.

      We have a sustainability crisis and civilization is on a collapse course because of that. However, we also have huge wealth inequality and a long list of very real purely social problems. So some people will blame illegal immigrants for their economic problems, and most would agree that is bad. But in the same time huge masses of people will be/already are blaming "the rich" for their own problems whether those are purely social in nature or they derive from the consequences of the sustainability crisis (of course, those may not be neatly separated, but that only makes the problem worse). And that will be totally counterproductive -- the rich can be blamed for wealth inequality and other social ills. But the problem here is biophysical and has to do with the behavior of everyone, rich and poor. So what will happen/is happening is that different groups of society will use otherwise very real grievances to absolve themselves of their part of the blame, which will block whatever tiny possibility there was to do something about the situation.

      You can see that phenomenon in action now in Paris (and in previous editions of that particular theater performance), and you will see a lot more of that in the future. In the process, there will be plenty of opportunity for demagogues and con-artists to take advantage of the situation.

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    2. I don't think there is anything that we could "do" - except trying to reduce the damage. The age of the demagogues is an unavoidable phase of the decline of democracy, or so I think.

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    3. OK, but may I press you on that? How can we reduce the damage?

      I agree, we are in a time of what one may call "atavism" -- also in the terms of W. R. Bion, being kicked back to the "basic assumption of dependency". It is possible to work at something along the lines of personal development as one approach, or strategy, to counter this?

      I'm aware that this has in some senses been tried, in different ways, before. Maybe now we have some ways of using the technology to help us? I'd like to be developing this...

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    4. Hard to say, Simon. One thing that I would note is that the "left" has views on media strategy that are truly archaic. But that changes little. Individually, we can only try to keep our integrity and hope that the storm will pass. It will take a while, though.....

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    5. And also work to keep our society alive. It may not be perfect, but the plunge back to stone age would be worse.

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    6. Georgi, Thank you for pointing out "plenty of opportunity" in the situation as you framed it. Truing to keep my integrity and sanity through all the hocus pocus of saviors to redeem us and demons to blame is tough but not enough. My purpose to is to find ways to thrive through it all. Perhaps as existing systems release energy through disintegration, more opportunity will emerge to use some to reshape our society which is not perfect nor well suited to long term survival in my opinion which is why it is failing. Personal development as mentioned by Simon seems a good way to improve abilities to thrive.
      I think Trump has a great chance to become President and would have a great chance whatever party he espoused because it is not about either party now, it is about the circus.
      Thank you Ugo for articulating a problem of blame and saviors in Democracy.

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  2. Here is an amusing "conspiracy theory" for you. Contrary to what the mainstream media is trying to make it appear to be Mr Trump is not a very wealthy and therefore independent (though Republican) candidate. Even though he certainly has plenty of money the same people are behind his candidacy as were behind Berluconi and are also behind Hillary Clinton. But the context is now different and Donald's purpose is different from Silvio's. It is to guarantee that Hillary will win. Naturally in the process he can enjoy himself all he likes being more or less HIMSELF. His daughter and Chelsea (Clinton, NOT Manning) are already good friends so who knows ? Maybe in a few more years if the world is still around they can run on the first double female ticket? Or maybe a three way gender AND racially sensitive ticket can be organized that also would include Obama's eldest daughter? What might they think of next? (whatever people are prepared to believe)

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  3. Right wing demagogues like Trump and Hitler or charlatans like Hellary Clinton and Obama arise in the final stage of Capitalism when it has consolidated all power at the center, eaten all the resources that its Imperial Storm Troopers can control, and started to eat its own children by infecting their minds with irrationality.

    USA Today in one sentence.

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  4. I notice there's no mention of the extremely cynical choice the pre-Trumpster political parade was offering to the polity: A "Back to the Past" 1992 ticket featuring yet another Bush vs. Clinton (will Bush Quayle or will he Gore Clinton?). This supreme failure of both parties to break out of the calcified politics of maintaining a status quo that is rapidly spinning into disaster is the main reason behind the Trumpster's rise. At least Obama's campaign allowed the electorate some Hope for Change, even if it was, like all politician's promises, mostly hot air. But neither the atavistic GOP nor the so-called "progressive wing" of the Democratic Party, which believes we can all live just as now, only with "Green" electric cars - offers anything more than a continuation of the pell-mell rush to ecocide with its inevitable ensuing extinction. Trump may not, okay, will not, change any of this, but he'll make people feel it's not THEIR fault, it's because of those damn ..... (fill in the blank).

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  5. There is a very nice tweet around "Trump is what would happen if the comments section became human and ran for president" :-)

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    1. or rather.. democracy.

      Right or wrong, scary or not...

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  6. I find your Trump/Berlusconi comparison apt, Ugo. However, whatever Trump has absorbed, he has not--yet--turned it into votes. The first caucus and primary elections haven't put the t-blobs vote producing powers to the test. Presuming he captures the GOP nomination, he still has to absorb a lot of non-Republican voters to win the presidency. I fear he might, but....

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    1. Right. I used the wrong term; I said "votes", when I should have said "consensus" (I have modified the text accordingly). And, yes, in everything there are similarities and differences. Berlusconi and Trump look like each other in many things, but it is not obvious that they'll follow the same trajectory

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  7. A nice precursor article here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/09/21/donald-trump-is-americas-silvio-berlusconi/ going into more detail.

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    1. Thanks for the link. I hadn't noticed that article; I placed a link to it in the post

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  8. John Birmingham's take on Trump ;

    Trump is winning the polls because millions of voters like what they hear. That's what happens when you spend 20 or 30 years using racism and culture war to distract poor dumb white folk from the brute realities of the class war they lost a long time ago.

    http://www.smh.com.au/comment/opinions-are-pouring-onto-the-airwaves-print-and-online-as-donald-trumps-opposition-20151210-glkgnp

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)