Former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, who died on Monday, paved the way for right-wing populists, a billionaire who got involved in politics late and worked to undermine the “institutions of government” and became a pioneer in the field of media.
“He’s the pioneer,” says John Foote, professor of contemporary Italian history at the University of Bristol in England. “He invented everything.”
“Everything about him revolves around his life and his successes as a businessman. Simple slogans and the use of television are all tricks that will be copied by other populists after him,” from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage, from Viktor Orban to Jair Bolsonaro.
Silvio Berlusconi made his fortune in the construction industry, public works, then the media, and ran for the first time in the legislative elections in 1994. In a video statement, he included all the elements of the discourse that today constitutes the basic tool for every populist.
He said at the time that “the country that is right not to place trust in the prophets and saviors, needs conscious people … new men” to confront the corrupt “communist orphans” who are outdated.
He even presented himself as a “working prime minister” seeking to put an end to “politics of idle talk, stupid quarrels and politicians who have nothing to do”.
Berlusconi entered politics with the massive anti-corruption operation Mane Politi (Clean Hands) launched in 1992 targeting the political class. This opened the way for the newly minted Berlusconi in politics.
And it does not matter if, once in power, he protected himself from the lawsuits brought against him by relaxing legislation relating to falsification of financial results, corruption or statute of limitations for financial crimes…
“I am one of you”
Many Italians see many similarities between themselves and Berlusconi. There are the little flaws, the little secrets that will be washed Sunday in church in the confessional: they also hate the tax service and sometimes do not declare their income, and they love young women who show their charms as well as football.
They see themselves paying too much tax to a bloated country while working hard to get a modest salary at the end of the month. Silvio Berlusconi turns to them when he justifies cutting public funds for research: “Why should we pay a scientist when we make the best shoes in the world?”
“Berlusconi embodies the story of a self-made man who is able to dispense with the state thanks to a liberal revolution that will allow all Italians who wish to become entrepreneurs,” says Anna Bonalom, author of “A Month with a Populist” about Matteo Salvini.
“This promise – I am one of you and you can become like me – is the essence of populism,” she said. Berlusconi, who single-handedly confronted the elites to defend the people, amassed wealth despite the obstacles set by a voracious state, speaks simple language that is easy to understand, and establishes a special relationship with women.
And the left-wing “La Repubblica” wrote on Tuesday, “Trump’s approach bears the imprint” of Berlusconi’s approach, under the title “First Populist.”
It was titled “La Stampa”, “Farewell Cavalier”.
The country’s main newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, said it calmly imagined “Italy without Berlusconi”.
As for the Catholic “Lavenerie”, she wrote, “Farewell, Berlusconi, the leader who innovated and divided,” evoking the controversy associated with the beloved and hated businessman at the same time.
The newspaper Il Giornale (right) praised him as “the president of all Italians”.
“None of the greats who made Italy great succeeded in following his example,” she wrote.
Trump thirty years ago.
Daniele Albertazzi, professor of political science at the English University of Surrey, said that Berlusconi is “Trump, but 30 years ago.”
He added that the summary of his speech was: “The political elite deceived you, but here I am, thanks to my intelligence and efforts, I collected billions, and I want to achieve for the country what I achieved for myself.”
Like the former US president, Berlusconi has consistently presented himself as a victim to justify his political or judicial setbacks.
John Foot said Berlusconi considered himself “a victim of the judges, the political system and the institutions of government”.
However, there is a big difference between the two men: the Italian “does not want to change politics for ideological reasons, it is exclusively about him and his business.”
That hasn’t stopped Berlusconi from using the debt card, the powerful identity card of right-wing populists on both sides of the Atlantic. Albertazzi added that it was shocking “when we look at Silvio Berlusconi’s extramarital affairs, especially with young women, when he was eighty years old.”
These contradictions did not affect Trump or Berlusconi, who used abusive phrases, thinking that they approached the vocabulary of “the people”. The first said about women that he liked to “grab them by their genitals,” and the second promised his players that he would bring a “bus full of whores” if his club won.