“Italy Feels Our Pain” is the title of an article in the New York Times from June 2016. It compares Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump. While I rarely write opinion pieces, this one is written from the political point of view of a liberal, or, I would even like to say, a rationalist.
During the tenure of Silvio Berlusconi, many Italians were embarrassed by, but also accustomed to, their prime minister being the butt of the world’s jokes. Now America has a pagliaccio (clown) all of its own, who confounds and appalls most of Europe.
Italy deserves an additional reaction—relief: There is another country that is vulnerable to a narcissistic, randy, ridiculous billionaire. Now it’s America’s turn to be idiots. But underlying all of the jokes are some serious issues.
Nationalism and isolationalism are taking hold in both Europe and the United States. And Trump is preying on the fears and anxieties underlying these trends. Leaders on the far right are being seriously considered in Europe; Great Britain voted on Brexit; and there is a concern about the revival of fascism. And yet Italy, the birthplace of fascism after WWI, seems like it is one of the more easygoing countries in Europe, at least for now.
Italians complain that Renzi is uninspiring and unimaginative. Even if true, isn’t that preferable to a rash megalomaniac? Italy definitely has problems… from migrants to banks to constitutional reform. There have been strikes in Milan (trains) and Rome (garbage) and possibly ones that will affect flights. But Italians claim that Berlusconi looks tame next to Trump. Good point.
Berlusconi came to power by saying that he was outside the professional political class. Same for Trump. Berlusconi was a superrich businessman who knew how to use the media (hell, he owned the media). Check mark for Trump. Berlusconi pledged to use his entrepreneurial savvy to restore Italy’s economic might. Same for Trump. Then, of course, there is the objectification of women. Check mark for both. And when it comes to fraud, both are classics.
While Berlusconi had his rants and scapegoats, it was hardly on a par with Trump’s racist vilifications of Mexicans and Muslims. And Trump has a hundred times more power to screw up the world. While Trump is our pagliaccio, laughter in both Italy and the United States pales next to the panic over the price we could pay. Trump cannot be dismissed as comical.