Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 6, 2016

Who is the Italian pol Trump most resembles? (Hint–it is not Mussolini)

Filed under: Trump — louisproyect @ 9:47 pm

Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump

Although it is tempting to compare Trump to Mussolini given the similarity of their facial mugging, shoulder-shrugging, and histrionic hand gestures—not to speak of the obscurantist and deeply reactionary ideology—I find it much more useful to see him as aspiring version of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Like Berlusconi, Trump is another master of televised demagogy. And also like Berlusconi, he exploits the backwardness of the average boob tube addict who tends to think in the sort of crude terms we associate with reality TV programs like Trump’s “The Apprentice”. Finally, despite the toxic quality of Trump’s speeches and off the cuff comments, they are about as much of a threat to bourgeois democracy as there was in Italy in the nearly ten years of Berlusconi’s misrule for the simple reason that the ruling classes of both countries would much prefer to maintain through the illusion of freedom rather than the risky use of truncheons and dictatorship.

The connection between Trump and Berlusconi has been made by others but not always with complete alacrity. For example, Robert Kuttner saw Trump as another Berlusconi but also as another Hitler in Huffington Post. He accurately notes that both Trump and Berlusconi tried to bypass traditional political parties in their bid to appeal directly to the “people” using their own considerable fortunes but sees Trump’s business about making America great again as a page torn from Mein Kampf In actuality, every president since Reagan has used this kind of demagogy in the face of a declining economic situation even though Trump tends to do it without bothering to explain how. When he says “we will take their oil” or “we will send the Mexicans back”, it is more in line with empty threats we associate with shows like “Housewives of New Jersey” rather than Heritage Foundation White Papers.

Frank Bruni of the NY Times, who used to be the paper’s restaurant critic, was best at seeing the common origins of the men on horseback as well as informing his readers about others who saw the similarity like the NY Times’s Timothy Egan and Vanity Fair’s Evgenia Peretz:

Like Trump, Berlusconi built his fortune with real estate. He then bought media outlet after media outlet, infiltrating people’s hourly lives, imprinting himself on their very consciousness. A similar impulse animates Trump, who has emblazoned his name not just on skyscrapers and casinos but on mattresses, clothes, cologne.

They’re both after omnipresence, and they both understood early on how crucial television was to that. Berlusconi took ownership of Italy’s airwaves, which he used to broadcast game shows and news programs with women in various states of undress. Trump took partial control of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, and played the lord of all capitalism on “The Apprentice.”

While this by no means exhausts the Trump-Berlusconi corpus, an article by Berlusconi’s countrymen Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, Francesco Ronchi in the essential Le Monde diplomatique hits all the high notes:

Although Berlusconi’s political fortunes now appear to be on the wane, looking back at reasons for his erstwhile success might shed light on the current fascination with Donald Trump’s US presidential bid.

They share a flaunted machismo and political incorrectness. This is part of a well-calculated electoral strategy. What Berlusconi had already understood before Trump is that saying outrageous things gets you free media coverage and forces others to engage with what you are saying. So you get to set the terms of the political debate, while shifting its center of gravity in your favor. At the same time, Berlusconi and Trump’s political incorrectness targets a specific electoral group — predominantly blue-collar white males who feel threatened by globalization, multiculturalism and women’s rights. There is an element of revanchism in their discourse, which allows them to attract conservative votes while assuming an air of radicalism.

Berlusconi’s popularity in Italy was also due to his capacity to transform class antagonisms into cultural issues, capturing large swathes of the working-class vote. The fact that he was a billionaire never seemed to distance him from ordinary people. On the contrary, it tapped into their aspirations. Even more importantly, the fact that he had brought commercial television to Italy implied an association with popular culture that set him in opposition to the country’s traditionally left-leaning cultural elites. In the same way, Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric appeals to working-class voters who resent what they perceive as the patronizing attitude of ‘liberal elites’. This suggests the old class antagonism is now translated into a new cultural division which plays out in terms of political style rather than income.

Finally, Berlusconi’s electoral success depended on his alliance with the far-right League of the North, a xenophobic party whose message pivoted almost entirely around the association between immigration and crime. The foundation of this alliance was the convergence of interests between Berlusconi’s predominantly national business empire and the economic protectionism implied in the League of the North’s anti-immigrant stance. In the US, this alliance between business interests and anti-immigration rhetoric had not been as prominent, largely because big business saw itself as wedded to globalization. Trump, on the other hand, seems to have understood that it may be in the interest of small to medium business owners to take a stand against immigration, because it ensures that a large portion of incoming labor is illegal and therefore in a weaker bargaining position. De-linking immigration from economics and re-framing it as a question of crime and security is the best way of pulling this off.

Two films that can be seen on Amazon streaming are also useful in understanding the similarities. In reviewing “Videocracy”, a documentary about Berlusconi, I referred to Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” a narrative film that many people believe helps to explain Trump’s voter base. Indeed the fellow who wrote the screenplay for “Idiocracy” tweeted that he never expected it to become a documentary, obviously referring to Trump.

In my review of “Videocracy”, I referred to exactly the same kinds of people who would love nothing better than to compete on Trump’s “The Apprentice”:

Watching “Videocracy”, you get the impression that the whole of Italy has been sent to Mike Judge’s future world. We meet a 26-year-old machinist named Rick Canelli who is practicing karate moves on the front lawn of the house he shares with his mother. After he is finished with his work-out, he tells us that unless you appear on television in Italy, you are nothing. Or more exactly, you are condemned to do work as a machinist or whatever capitalist society has assigned you to do as a function of class origins and education. Canelli dreams of being a contestant on what appears to be the Italian version of American Idol, on one of the three private stations owned by Berlusconi. (He also controls the public stations by virtue of being prime minister. All in all, he has 90 percent of the airwaves locked up.)

Canelli says that he will be the first person on TV ever to combine martial arts moves and singing like Ricky Martin. He says that he can be the next Jean Van Damme, but with singing. After we see him auditioning, it is clear that he can sing just about as well as Van Damme. Like most people who audition for such shows (including American Idol, now in its 9th execrable season), he has no idea of how bad he is. But nevertheless they try out because the reality of being a machinist or a nurse for the rest of their lives is unbearable. It is Berlusconi’s dubious distinction to have made what appears to be all of Italy hungering for the chance to be on television in the spirit of Andy Warhol’s 1968 observation that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” In Berlusconi’s Italy, that observation seems truer than ever.

While the film was a first-rate character study of Berlusconi and essential for understanding his American avatar (available on Amazon streaming), it did not begin to probe the depths of Italian society that allowed him to take power. For that, I refer you to long-time radical observers of the Italian political scene like historian Paul Ginsborg and journalist Alexander Stille who have both written biographies of Berlusconi.

In the May-June 2003 New Left Review article titled “The Patrimonial Ambitions of Silvio B”, Ginsborg explains how the sleazy politician/media mogul took advantage of the sexism that pervades Italian society:

Another strong connexion between Christian Democracy and the House of Liberties, all to the detriment of the Left, lies in the long-term patterns of gender voting. After the war the culture of the Church and that of Italian women overlapped in a very strong way. It was with some trepidation that both the French and the Italian Left had agreed to universal suffrage in the period 1945–47. Nearly sixty years later, women over the age of 55 and those who are practising Catholics still show a very marked preference for the centre-right. However, the pattern of women’s voting in the 2001 elections is not limited to this unsurprising fact. An extraordinary 44.8 per cent of housewives—in themselves a significant social category, given the low percentages of female occupation in Italy—voted not just for the centre-right but specifically for Forza Italia. Furthermore, the more television women watched, the more they showed a propensity to vote for Silvio Berlusconi. 42.3 per cent of those who watched more than three hours a day voted for Forza Italia, compared to 31.6 per cent of those who only watched between one or two hours daily. The connexions between housework and the advertising of commodities, between the consumption of goods and the formation of subjectivities, between female viewing and the packaged messages of the charismatic male political figure, are here to be found in striking form.

For his part, Stille supplies crucial information about the dirty role played by the Italian Socialist Party leader in enabling Berlusconi’s rise to power in a Nation Magazine article titled “Emperor of the Air” from November 29, 1999:

It should be mentioned that Berlusconi’s rise to power was made easier by the fecklessness of the Italian left, of which the Socialists are one of the main components.

A promising new left party called Rifondazione Comunista made the mistake of forming a coalition government with the Socialists and bourgeois parties headed by one Romano Prodi. This bourgeois politician, serving possibly as an inspiration for Barack Obama, then proceeded to use his leftist backing as a way to pass legislation that led to the deployment of Italian troops in Lebanon in 2006. The disillusionment of the left in this umpteenth attempt at a popular front led to Berlusconi’s election. Like the U.S., Italian politics appears mired in videocracy and lesser-evil Sisyphean frustrations.

As long as people like Trump and Reagan on one side and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama on the other can continue to keep a befuddled and largely passive population largely under the control of a rigged electoral game, there is no reason for the ruling class to risk everything on a fascist bid even though undoubtedly there will be a need for that in the future as the economic continues its downward slide and the environmental crisis becomes more and more destructive. Who might serve as a new Hitler or Mussolini in those times is not worth considering at this point, all the more so since we have trouble enough breathing life into the mass movements that might ultimately cause the Koch brothers, Bill Gates et al to fund an American version of Golden Dawn.

1 Comment »

  1. For most of twenty years Berlusconi set the tone of politics and popular culture in Italy. Thinking people saw him as the source of the vulgarity that had overtaken the country. He’s now been out of power for a couple of years and his party become insignificant. But nothing much has changed in Italy. The problem was obviously not one clownish bogeyman.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 8, 2016 @ 6:21 pm


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