But was it the right of the good old days, or the Berlusconi of the good old days? Berlusconi has always been more of an opportunist than an ideologue, with an excellent sense of the political mood. The prevailing winds in Italy today are blowing rightward, and so is Berlusconi. In his Milan speech, he bemoaned that 630,000 “clandestini,” or illegal immigrants, had arrived in Italy since 2014, “and many of them,” he said, “have no means and no way to eat or to make a living besides delinquency.” On his watch, Italy had struck an accord with Libya in 2008 in part to prevent such migration, but that had unraveled with the Arab Spring. The audience applauded. “In Italy, a woman is killed every three days,” he said. “In our platform, we have a code for the defense of women.” He didn’t say it, but the implied message was clear, and it’s one the League has been delivering outright: Immigrants are coming and attacking our women. Statistics show that most women in Italy are killed in domestic disputes by people they know, but the League has seized on a gruesome murder by a Nigerian immigrant and made it a campaign issue.
Mostly, Berlusconi kept trotting out the old saws. As if it were 1994 and he were running for office for the first time. As if he’d never been ousted from power in 2011. He solved the garbage crisis in Naples in 2008. After Russian troops entered Georgia the same year, he mediated between Russia and Europe to prevent a war. As in every single prior campaign, he gave a special shout out to mothers—talking about his own mamma—again getting applause. And he underscored just how implausible and self-contradictory he has always been as a politician. (In this campaign, he’s not alone in that.) He praised the European Union and the fact that it emerged from the Second World War, and said he remembered the bombs falling on Milan when he was a boy. Then he said Europe had deprived Italy of some of its precious national sovereignty. The euro was good, but businesses were suffering. He wanted to raise pensions to 1,000 lire a month—name-checking Italy’s pre-euro currency before correcting himself.
He ended on a confusing note. After they told him to vacate the stage, he said he had one more thing to add—which …. was that Italians love dogs and cats. If Forza Italia came to power, they would take measures to protect strays! Again, audience applause. He again mentioned the “Code for Women,” whatever that was—some kind of measures for victims of domestic violence?—adding it to the list, right after the dogs and cats. By then I had almost stopped taking notes. The audience had begun thinning out, since it was well into Sunday lunch. Why was I even listening? His faithful believed in him, his critics did not. End of story.
Last week I told an Italian journalist that I thought while Berlusconi had done tremendous economic and social damage to Italy, he’d only damaged Italy, whereas Trump in my view was damaging the free world. The journalist told me, privately, that I was underestimating the harm Berlusconi had inflicted. It was an urgent struggle to explain to his young children that the world Berlusconi helped create—everything his children had seen on television for their entire lives—was not the way Berlusconi made it seem. The real damage Berlusconi had done to Italy, the journalist told me, was to destroy the line between appearance and reality.