One reads much these days about how similar Trump and Silvio Berlusconi supposedly are. There’s something tempting about comparing Trump’s political situation to Silvio Berlusconi’s: both are businessmen, held no earlier office before winning a national election, are admirers of Putin, crude, anti-intellectual, and lecherous.
There’s reason to look at parallels between the two; one needn’t look at those parallels exclusively, or with high confidence.
In The Dangers of Anti-Trumpism, Cinzia Arruzza argues that “Silvio Berlusconi’s tenure as Italian prime minister shows how not to resist an authoritarian demagogue.” She’s careful, however, about the strength and weakness of comparing the two:
Trump’s very resistible rise to power is, to a certain extent, more astonishing than Berlusconi’s more predictable first electoral victory. While Trump hijacked the Republican Party, running up against opposition from a large part of the Republican establishment and from the media, Berlusconi used his media empire to both control information and create a new political party, accordingly reshaping the political spectrum….
Moreover, Berlusconi did not agitate for isolationism and protectionism, did not challenge international market agreements, and did not question Italy’s participation in the creation of the European Union and the eurozone — at least not until 2011. Finally, Italy does not play any hegemonic geopolitical role comparable to that of the United States.
These differences are significant enough to caution against facile predictions about the course of Trump’s presidency based on Italian vicissitudes. They do not, however, mean that nothing can be learned from the Italian experience….
That seems right: that there is something to learn, but that something offers a limited, partial understanding.
(In any event, I’ve no confidence whatever that a move toward Arruzza’s suggestion of a “radical and credible alternative” [emphasis added] would be a sound alternative to Trump. Arruzza contends that “it was thanks to the neoliberal and austerity policies carried out by the center-left in the subsequent six years [after Berlusconi was first ousted] that Berlusconi’s power was consolidated [in his return to office].
I’ll not question her sense of the Italian scene, and how a traditional approach only allowed Berlusconi to return to office. It’s enough to observe that Trump is, simply put, a radical populist, and Americans will find nothing but hardship in replacing one radicalism with another. Running away from constitutional and political norms in a different direction won’t make us stronger.)
So for us, of Berlusconi’s example, one can say that there are lessons, but only partial ones.