Read: The problem with calling Trump a “reality-TV president”
When those political connections dissolved in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Italian Socialist Party and the entire postwar political order in a bribery scandal, Berlusconi made the leap into politics. Even his supporters saw this move as motivated less by love of country and more by love of self: a desire to protect his personal business interests and to evade prosecution with parliamentary immunity.
Berlusconi was an opportunist more than an ideologue in a highly complex country where different networks of power have long transcended the traditional divide between right and left. But his initial success and then his staying power were tied to one basic strategy: He created a viewership that became an electorate, and that electorate helped bring him to power and keep him in power. Control television, and you control reality. In his three tours as prime minister (from 1994 to 1995, then from 2001 to 2006, and again from 2008 to 2011), he dominated the airwaves.
In power, Berlusconi had a strong hand in shaping coverage on the state broadcaster, especially the RAI1 television channel, which has always been a government mouthpiece. The channels of his private Mediaset network offered game shows and scantily clad women, cooking shows and song-and-dance numbers. They were particularly popular with women of a certain age who didn’t work and had time to watch daytime TV, and these women became a pillar of his electorate. Berlusconi helped create a “bling bling” sensibility before bling was a thing. (For more on this, I recommend the 2009 documentary Videocracy and two feature films by Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty and Loro.)
Read: Why is Silvio Berlusconi back (again)?
From the outset, Berlusconi faced judicial investigations—into his business dealings, then later over accusations of bribing judges, tax fraud, and paying underage women for sex. In 2013, two years after leaving office, he was convicted of tax fraud and performed community service at an old-age home as penance. In 2014, he was acquitted on separate charges of paying an underage woman for sex, but he’s now facing trial on charges of bribing witnesses in the earlier trial, which brought to life the “bunga bunga” sex parties that were the hallmark of late-Berlusconi-era decline. That story has now gone from tawdry to grim: Italian prosecutors are investigating the mysterious death of a 34-year-old former model who was one of the witnesses Berlusconi is charged with bribing in the earlier trial.
But who could keep track of all these trials? Certainly not most Italians, who often have had their own bad experiences with the slow wheels of the Italian justice system. The cases were impossible to follow, but what was impossible to avoid was Berlusconi railing for years on television against “communist” judges who were on a witch hunt against him. He once called himself “the most persecuted person in the history of the entire history of the world and the history of man.” Always prone to this kind of exaggeration, he came to believe his own words, however outrageous. Or maybe he assumed no one believed him. It was never clear.