What Italy’s Failures to Stop Berlusconi Teach Us About Preventing a Trump Comeback

Berlusconi was a clownish right-winger who nevertheless became Italy’s longest-serving postwar prime minister. Whether in Italy or the US, if the left is to stop “right-wing populists,” it must offer a compelling alternative.

Imagine an aspiring politician. He’s a successful businessman whose empire began in construction and real estate; as a television magnate, he long ago secured his status as a household name; a network of political connections has shielded him and his shady business enterprises from prosecution. When he announces his bid for office, many view him as little more than a joke figure—this crass outsider could never penetrate the country’s political institutions. He grabs attention, making the election another one of his drama-ridden television spectacles. Yet, his anti-political promise to break with the old-fashioned political establishment strikes a deep chord with many voters. And as his movement gains more and more momentum, the laughter stops: it’s clear he’s here to stay.

If you’re an American, like me, this sounds like the familiar story of the rise of Donald Trump. If you’re an Italian—also like me—another name might come to mind: Silvio Berlusconi, the longest-serving post-World War II Prime Minister of Italy, who ruled (on and off) from 1994-2011. But Silvio Berlusconi is not Italy’s Donald Trump; Trump is America’s Berlusconi. 

As historian John Foot has explained, Italy has a habit of being the world’s political laboratory, heralding political changes years before they appear in other countries. The first sparks of liberalism caught flame in Florence’s renaissance; Benito Mussolini introduced fascism to Europe and the world; and Bettino Craxi moderated and modernized Italy’s formerly hard-left Socialist Party nearly two decades before New Labour. Similarly, Berlusconi wrote the book on right-wing populism when Donald Trump was just a TV star, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán a party bureaucrat, and Boris Johnson a columnist in various U.K. magazines.

As prime minister, Berlusconi quickly proved uninterested in dramatically transforming Italian society. According to Foot:

“Once he was in power, Berlusconi wasn’t a [Margaret] Thatcher figure. He wasn’t interested in transforming society, but rather in protecting his businesses and his own person. For example, he passed laws that made himself immune from prosecution twice. There were a lot of fairly grotesque moments like that. Many people compared him to an emperor or the king of a court.”

His legacy policy-wise is mostly one of status quo management, spending his years in office implementing laws aimed at protecting himself, his businesses, and his class interests. Yet, he ushered in an era of Italian politics defined by his own image and perennial scandal—an era which left Italy with a scattered, powerless left and a radicalized right.

Trump’s political arc thus far is beginning to bear frightening resemblance to Berlusconi’s 20 years in and out of power—referred to by some Italians as the ventennio (“twenty years,” and a reference to the 20 years of Mussolini). There are also powerful echoes of the Italian center-left’s failed attempts to defeat Berlusconismo in American Democrats’ anti-Trump strategy. That failure to defeat Italian right-wing populism is a cautionary tale to American Democrats and how we can defeat our own Berlusconi.

Berlusconi has been prime minister three times now since his rise to power in 1994. The spectacle never ends—he dramatically rises and falls with a regularity that’s rendered him background noise in Italian politics. As in Italy, so with the United States: the Berlusconis and Trumps of this world don’t go away just because you beat them. Some Italian centrists and leftists might have imagined that, after a broad centrist coalition seized the parliamentary majority from Berlusconi’s alliance in 2006, Berlusconi’s march toward a ventennio was decisively over. Berlusconi’s attempts to overturn the 2006’s election’s results through unfounded allegations of electoral fraud (sound familiar?) went belly-up after the Supreme Court ruled against him. The mild-mannered, mildly boring, Biden-esque Romano Prodi became prime minister on a platform of civility, stability, and “seriousness in government“; many Italians breathed a sigh of relief. Just two years later, Prodi lost a vote of confidence in the Senate, and Berlusconi clinched the majority in a snap election once again.

Ironically, what ended Berlusconi’s final term was not political opposition or his various ongoing criminal cases involving corruption, fraud, and paying for sex with a 17-year-old: it was the 2011 sovereign debt crisis. Berlusconi stepped down in the fall of 2011, and parliament invited economist Mario Monti to succeed him. Monti’s technocratic government governed Italy until 2013. Today, Berlusconi sits in the Senate; he and his Forza Italia party have mostly fallen from their former relevance, controlling only a sliver of both chambers of Italy’s parliament. His ideology, though, was never defeated. In the absence of concerted antiberlusconista strategy, his ideas’ grip upon Italy only tightened. Hard-right parties like The League and the Brothers of Italy picked up the pieces of the fallen Forza Italia, coasting to victory in recent elections while serving voters similar—only more radicalized—promises to those offered by Berlusconi. 

Now, Giorgia Meloni—a similarly explosive far-right populist—sits in the prime ministerial office. Meloni, whose political vision for Italy could most aptly be described as medieval, has spent her career at the helm of a party whittling down Italians’ already fragile right to an abortion, hand-picked aggressive homophobes for Italy’s most powerful offices, and called for bans upon LGBT parenting and sex education. She believes George Soros and the Italian left are conspiring to orchestrate a mass migration from Africa, with the purpose of eliminating ethnic Italians; to this end, she has called for a naval blockade of North Africa to halt immigration. 

Berlusconi and Meloni peddle two separate, sometimes opposing, brands of conservatism. Berlusconi is a familiar face, whose predictability—for better or for worse—has become a major selling point against the younger, untested generation of the Italian right. As part of a recent strategy to position himself as the anti-populist adult in the room, he’s adjusted positions on several important issues. Berlusconi now loudly supports the EU and the eurozone; Meloni has a long history of skepticism of both. While hardly an ally to Italy’s LGBT community, Berlusconi seems to tentatively support gay rights; in a recent speech, Meloni furiously denounced “the LGBT lobby,” “gender ideology,” and “the abyss of death.” Since Meloni’s victory in the September 2022 election, that tension seems to have boiled over. When Berlusconi described Meloni as “patronizing, bossy, arrogant, and offensive” in a note photographed by the press, Meloni shot back by quipping he’d forgotten another trait: “I can’t be blackmailed.” Since, the two have sparred intensely over the allocation of cabinet posts in her government. As a result, one could reasonably doubt the continuity between the two figures. 

But to focus on the name-calling and minor contradictions between the two is to miss the forest for the trees. Berlusconi’s shadow today is far larger than the man himself. He made profound changes to Italy’s political climate, defining the positions of a generation of political leadership. Over the course of his several terms, Berlusconi normalized the far-right’s presence in Italy’s highest offices and its ruling parliamentary coalitions; he preemptively culled moderate-right leaders, fearing they could potentially challenge him one day. Meloni herself was a Berlusconi protégé, serving as youth minister in his 2008-11 cabinet. There would be no Meloni without Berlusconi—her reactionary ideology is not the antithesis of Berlusconismo, but rather the next chapter in its history. The Meloni government’s centrodestra coalition has three leaders—Berlusconi is one.

The failure of antiberlusconista ideology lay in its genesis; Italy’s center-left defined itself only by what it wasn’t, rather than what it was. Their sole political objective became to stop Berlusconi at all costs, repeatedly caving on draconian austerity policies in an effort to hold together their fragile coalitions. In the face of devastating pension reform, sweeping privatization, and erosion of workers’ rights, the center-left’s accusations against Berlusconi of “bringing his office into disrepute” and undermining the “democratic spirit of the Constitution” simply bounced off the Italian public. When they fixated solely upon Berlusconi, they forgot about the issues that mattered to Italians: as poverty grew, savings fell, and unpopular austerity measures piled on, Italians increasingly associated their malaise with the center-left’s leadership (or lack thereof). And each time Berlusconi scuttled the prime ministerial office, the antiberlusconisti declared victory. Berlusconi was out; back to brunch!

As the United States stares down the barrel of Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential bid, these same events appear to be unfolding. While some American Democrats have woken up to the reality that Joe Biden’s narrow 2020 victory was not an excuse to go back to brunch, the party is driving full speed toward the potholes antiberlusconisti fell into throughout Berlusconi’s reign and beyond. Necessary as they may be, legalistic attempts to nail Trump on shady business practices like alleged serial tax fraud aren’t effective political strategy—Italians watched that same tactic fail dozens of times. Defeat by milquetoast centrists at the ballot box never stopped Berlusconi: he just kept trying, and when he finally threw in the towel, a slew of wannabes took his place. Even when economic crisis ended Berlusconi’s final term, Berlusconi’s ideas and style maintained their grip on politics. And where did they lead? To Meloni, who makes Berlusconi look moderate by comparison.

There are no shortcuts to defeating right-wing populism (or what is sometimes referred to as “conservative populism”). It’s not enough to be anti-Trump; we must be pro-something. Lawsuits over decades-old business dealings don’t win hearts and minds: political vision, with accomplishments to back it up, does. Only a principled left organized around core issues important to average people—a failing healthcare system, crushing student debt, the climate crisis, a stagnant minimum wage unable to cover basic living costs—can defeat Trump and Trumpism. Real solutions to those issues, like Medicare for All, free public college, and a $15 minimum wage, happen to be overwhelmingly popular. By continuing the “political revolution” Bernie Sanders spoke of, and offering an alternative to the right that gains votes by means other than fear of the alternative, we can consign the Trumps and Berlusconis of this world to history’s dustbin. 

Italians have squandered countless chances to win back their country—Americans still can, before it’s too late.

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