ROME—A press corps obsessed with a complicated judicial investigation. A millionaire television personality turned politician who casts himself as under attack by the courts. A party beholden to that leader, and a base that will stand by him—aware of his deep flaws and his penchant for stretching the truth. A political opposition so divided, it can’t easily form a coherent argument for what it stands for, only for what it stands against.
I’ve seen this movie before, but not about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. No, I saw the one that was set in Italy and starred Silvio Berlusconi. Like so many other American remakes, the one with Trump is bigger and louder, and the male lead wears rather ill-fitting suits. But the version I witnessed foreshadowed the current American predicament and offers some insights into what can happen to a democracy when image becomes disconnected from reality.
Before the “bunga bunga” came the “bling bling.” In the last two decades of the 20th century, before social media became the vortex it is today and the primary means of channeling emotions, Berlusconi rose to power in an era of television. He was at once Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump—a real-estate magnate who invested in television stations and then used his political connections to help him expand his broadcast empire.
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.)
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.
Still, there was a grain of truth in his rants. Berlusconi faced a stronger opposition in the form of the judiciary than in the Italian Parliament. And that just reinforced his sense that politicized judges were out to get him. The result of this dynamic was simple: It reinforced people’s own prejudices. No matter how many showgirls came to light, no matter how many accusations of fraud and dirty dealing, loyalists to Berlusconi stood by him. They needed him. If Italy is a patronage society, he was the patron in chief. They forgave him his flaws. They believed in their reality, and his critics believed in theirs. Ontological facts were of little use.
While ordinary people didn’t have the time or interest to follow Berlusconi’s legal tangles, the press became obsessed with them. So much so that it lost track of—or maybe never had any interest in—covering the country’s underlying problems: the economy, unemployment, financial insecurity. Mentioning these things, which have become the rallying cries of Italy’s current populist government, was almost taboo in the final years of Berlusconi’s mandate, as if the mere mention of basic economic facts had become a political attack.
What finally drove Berlusconi from office wasn’t a political opposition—the weakness of the center-left was a major factor in his continued success—or legal trials that would have caused other world leaders to exit. It was the European debt crisis. Berlusconi agreed to step down in the fall of 2011, when bond spreads were so high that Italy risked default. A technocratic government was put in place and made unpopular reforms such as raising the retirement age.
Now Italy is governed by populists who came to power in a protest vote against those policies. Berlusconi’s domination of the political landscape for so long made this possible. While the economy floundered and the television era was eclipsed by social media, the electorate went from cynical to angry.
Looking back on Berlusconi today, he almost seems quaint and folkloristic. He was a reflection of the society that produced him, but he wasn’t governing the most powerful country in the world, with access to the nuclear codes. Today, the most powerful man in Italy is Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and deputy prime minister from the League party, whose slogan is “Italians First.” He sees Berlusconi as a vestige of the past. It turns out he was also a harbinger of the future.