Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trump, Berlusconi, and the Blob

This post was published nearly one year ago on Cassandra's Legacy, on Dec 11, 2015. It didn't prophesize the election of Donald Trump, but it outlined the main elements that made his election possible. (UB)

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 billionaire 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, "lower 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 known 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 lifestyle: many people seemed to believe that if they voted for him, they could become like him, and have money, glamor 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"


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)