Silvio Berlusconi: The Godfather of Trumpismo

According to Henry Kissinger, “Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen.” Don’t tell that to the Italians. The parallels between Donald Trump and former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi are as striking as they are frightening. Both men catapulted their way to power by running against the establishment as outsiders, billionaire “every men,” freed by money and power to be as lewd as anyone.

Mixing show business with politics, Trump and Berlusconi, both tireless salesmen, promoted their own personal brands as solutions to political gridlock and national malaise. Despite their notable conflicts-of-interest, these strongmen present themselves as a panacea for all their countries’ woes without offering any comprehensive political programs for relief. The cult-of-personality surrounding both men gives them both a sort of Teflon defense against personal scandals: attacks on the cruder aspects of their personalities—their raunchy rants and sex scandals—don’t stick and do little to derail their quests for political power. And what does it tell you that both men have also developed close relationships with another vainglorious world leader, Vladimir Putin? 


To get the Italian perspective on Trumpismo—what might be called the Berlusconi Doctrine, American-style—we turned first to our favorite public radio paisan, Sylvia Poggioli. Poggioli gives us a broad reportorial take on the havoc wrought by Italy’s own vulgar, business-minded, anti-professional TV mogul.

Alexander Stille—the Italian-American journalist who articulated his own connections between bunga bunga banter and Trumpian masculinity for The Intercept in March—adds a more theoretical interpretation. Stille helps contextualize Berlusconi as “the first post-modern politician”—a master of visual media and entertainment politics who can effortlessly spin truths to his advantage.

Also joining us is Sabina Guzzanti, the satirist and filmmaker who emerged as one of the prominent Italian gadflies in the Berlusconi era. Guzzanti mercilessly provoked the thin-skinned prime minister and his Mediaset broadcasting empire with ruthless critiques and satirical jabs on her late-night TV show Raiot. After the program was muted by censorship and lawsuits, Guzzanti crystallized her critique of Berluscanismo in the 2005 documentary Viva Zapatero!


Bill Emmott, former editor-in-chief of The Economist, rounds out our program with the imperial view from the editorial board of the magazine that went to war with “the man who screwed an entire country.”

The lessons learned from Berlusconi present a rather grim view of America’s future under Trump. But we also shouldn’t forget that one of the key appeals for both Silvio and the Donald lies in their consummate skills as entertainers. The old joke about Mussolini’s fascist leadership of Italy was that “at least he made the trains run on time.” For Berlusconi, the best that can be said, maybe, is that at least he could sing in tune:

What might the tenor of the Trump administration, with its even crasser model of carnival-barker showmanship, sound like?

#TheResistance under Berlusconi

The feeling, over a 20-year Berlusconi era, is that the left in Italy was fiddling while Rome was burning. Nobody had (or has) an answer to the charming strong guy. “The left really doesn’t know what to say,” the political science professor Daniele Albertazzi says. (And international media pressure from the likes of The Economist didn’t amount to much, either.) For example, Romano Prodi (Goldman Sachs advisor, two-time PM, and founder of Italy’s Democratic Party) and Matteo Renzi (union basher who took up the Democratic Party mantle as PM from 2014 to 2016) offered few answers. The center did not hold. Albertazzi is a professor at the University of Birmingham in UK who studies European populist movements. Hear a short interview below:

lead illustration by Susan Coyne, post by Frank Horton and Zach Goldhammer

Guest List
Sylvia Poggioli
Senior European correspondent for NPR's international desk
Sabina Guzzanti
Italian satirist and director of the 2005 documentary Viva Zapatero!
BIll Emmott
Founder of The Wake Up Foundation and former editor-in-chief of The Economist

Related Content

  • ThirdWayForward

    Very illuminating program, one of the most valuable discussions of what we can expect under Trump. The parallels between Trump and Berlusconi are many and deep, and their tactics are very similar. The Italians lost 2 decades of economic development under Berlusconi — how much we lose under Trump remains to be seen. How democracy recovers from the continuous assault on truth and reason by these narcissist-plutocrats remains to be seen. It will be a long haul.

  • Mondo Bitcoin

    It’s too early to talk. Italian people will soon miss Berlusconi’s era. He did his best, but it was very unliked by institutional powers and communist parties. He tried to change the country, but he failed. Italian people are too ignorant to accept change and sees as a bad thing the privatization of economy.
    For those who says Berlusconi freezed italian economy for 20years, I remind them that from 2011, the date that he’s not more in power, italy has gone really really bad. And it’s just going worse. Italy will certainly quit euro-zone in 2019, as a failing state. There will be serious consequences on people and families. Berlusconi was the only president to be respected from foreign countries, and the only president able to go against totalitarians germans rules. Soon italians will miss that.
    I wish american people will not be so stupid to judge a governor by his lifestyle, but trust his wiseness and strong will.

    • ‎NX-74205

      I haven’t listened to this broadcast yet and know very little about Berlusconi. I’m just curious about your perspective – are you American or Italian?

      • Mondo Bitcoin

        Grazie per averci inoltrato la comunicazione. Riceverete una risposta entro 48 ore.

        • ‎NX-74205

          When you say “fail”, my view is of a “failed state”:

          a country which no longer has a functioning government (like areas of the Middle East or Africa).

          I hope this is not what you mean when you say Italy and Europe is going to fail.

          • Mondo Bitcoin

            Grazie per averci inoltrato la comunicazione. Riceverete una risposta entro 48 ore.

  • Wow – you have to round off a lot of history and info to make Italian democracy like US democracy.
    Some valuable insights from a show which was a step back in understanding. History
    is not driven by individuals – history is a wave that momentarily raises individuals
    to the crest because they reflect the underlying forces of the wave.
    In past shows RoS has examined those forces.

    Sylvia Poggioli: Reinforced existing defects e.g. lack of meritocracy
    Alexander Stille: Liked the framing of “Crisis in social contract….”
    Sabina Guzzanti: Wrong about humor and satire. (c.f Malcolm Gladwell’s Episode 10:The Satire Paradox
    Bill Emmott: interesting that he saw journalism as a proactive force (i.e. trying effect regime change) rather than as for fact reportage. This is precisely what people don’t like about the media and that confrontational approach is partly why they won’t listen. But then, what is a fact? The most amusing catch phrase to wash ashore is ‘post-fact world,’ as if there was at one time a fact-based world.

    What to do?
    There is strange film called Das Netz (2003) – so strange, I couldn’t explain what it is about. In the film, they mention the Macy Conferences ( First Neuropharmacological
    Conference, 26–28 May 1954). The film claims that up for consideration was
    dropping LSD into the world’s water supplies to get people to stop choosing
    authoritarian regimes, i.e. to stop the ‘pinching of rear-ends.’ If you think people are rational, it seems like a really crazy idea – doesn’t it?

    • OB-GYN Kenobi

      You started sanely enough but you went off into trump world with your LSD drivel.

  • Potter

    I can’t stop thinking we caught a bad cold,or worse, have come down with a disease, an acute form of something going around or that has been lingering and we ignored it. It’s a very useful comparison, Trump and Berlusconi, a type: high functioning narcissistic a “common touch” (strong persuasiveness), not accountable ( though that is the fault of others colluding,riding his wave) fact averse (lying). But in the end, we are vulnerable. I guess people everywhere are vulnerable to this invasion.
    In the end It is citizens lack of discernment, knowledge, over all other emotions.
    We can’t afford to waste a decade or more as Italy has. It’s too consequential, not only for the US, but for the reverberations around the world.
    There are a lot of differences between Berluscon-itis and Trump-itis; we are not Italy. Our geography, history, political system (the Constitution) our other institutions, norms; we are a more multi-racial/multi cultural electorate. We should have a very large active opposition and relentless action.It should not take years for more people, those who supported him marginally/provisionally (not his “core”) to see that he is a fraud and to feel the effects of this Trump.

    Sabina Guzzanti, was Berlusconi’s enemy no. 1 because she opened people up in a way opinion and straight reporting does not. Her message got through. So more comedy, not to overburden poor Alex Baldwin.
    Re: “Rigged” I first heard the term being used by Elizabeth Warren. After that Bernie Sanders used it. Trump stole it.

    Bill Emmott was terrific. Sylvia Poggioli, bless her, has been reporting from Rome for years. Excellent show. Thank you ROS.