August 3, 2017

This is Your Brain on Trump

If you can believe your eyes, and ears, your screens, your Twitter feed, this is your mind, your country, our very public American life, “on Trump.”  There is no following this story, this confounding condition, this ...

If you can believe your eyes, and ears, your screens, your Twitter feed, this is your mind, your country, our very public American life, “on Trump.”  There is no following this story, this confounding condition, this inescapable event called Trump.  

In a sort of 6-months checkup, we’re just taking impressions from near and far: what does it mean for a country, a culture, for our sleep cycles, our sanity, to be “on Trump,” for so long now? And what is it doing to us, alone or together?

Emmett Rensin is a young counter-commentator, still in his 20s.  His vision of the new culture war jumped off the page of the Los Angeles Review of Books.  It’s a fight in our collective soul between the raging Id – the fantasy desires  — of the new power center; and the Blathering Super Ego – the No-impulse in the technocratic center. He tells us that the Establishment-aligned Super Ego is:

A collective of human beings who have absorbed and internalized very deeply this whole notion of like what politics is; what are adult politics; what are the standards of behavior; what can win, what can’t win; how to behave. And they’re watching that just get blown up.

This week, the subject is the unavoidable You Know Who, and what a two-year fixation on a single tragi-comic anti-hero is doing to the mind and spirit of the Great Republic. Laurie Penny is a young English writer who emerged — as Christopher Hitchens did many years ago — as a columnist with the New Statesman in London.  She calls herself a feminist and “social justice bard.” In our conversation, she shares how the culture wars of today are being fought on the battlefield of our collective imagination. She believes that storytelling — liberated from old models based around heroic white masculinity — will prove decisive. 

Angela Nagle was born American in Houston of Irish parents, then grew up in Dublin, where she writes for The Irish Times and a host of hot online sites.  She is known as an astute tracker of the big trends and hidden nooks in the Alt-Right online culture. Her new book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right chronicles her intrepid journey through these dark, shadowy digital worlds.

We asked David Bosworth, our seer in Seattle, for the long view of the Trump moment in the history of our culture, our tech, our economy. He’s a critic who writes novels, too, and a celebrated teacher at the University of Washington.  He tells us that we’re looking at the birth of something as big and complex as the birth of modernity in the time of Shakespeare and Cervantes.  The future is unforeseeable, he says, but it was made in our time in America.

And some advice: People write their headaches to Liza Featherstone at The Nation Magazine under the heading: “Asking for a Friend.”  If you want your Trump-addled brain to come back to life, Liza has a life tip for you.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

June 15, 2017

Something’s Happening Here

In the first summer of Trump, 2017, there’s something happening and it feels bigger than the Comey hearings, even Russia-gate. Who knew that a British election with an inconclusive photo finish could re-channel the anger ...

In the first summer of Trump, 2017, there’s something happening and it feels bigger than the Comey hearings, even Russia-gate. Who knew that a British election with an inconclusive photo finish could re-channel the anger that drives the global mood?  The unheralded Jeremy Corbyn at the left end of the Labor Party is the mouse that roared, and turned the ‘age of anger’ in a different direction.

Corbyn takes a moment to stop and smell the roses in the UK, 2017

Corbyn didn’t play the bellowing populist, but he spoke the part.  How about a government “for the many, not the few,” Corbyn asked.  And millions of new UK voters said, “Yes!” In the face of terrorist outrages in Manchester, then London, just before the voting, Corbyn said: “we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working.”  It is now Corbyn’s moment to be the standard of unconventional talk that resonates far and wide.  

Naomi Klein protesting police arrests at the G20 summit in Toronto, 2010

Our show begins with Naomi Klein.  Among book-writers on the left, from Michelle Alexander to Bill McKibben to Michael Moore, the line on Naomi Klein is that nobody faster is better, and nobody better is faster. No Is Not Enough is her quick handbook for the Trump era.  Her line since No Logo has been that corporate and consumer culture are both hazardous for people and the planet. And Donald Trump? He’s to be seen not as cause of the problem but as evidence of it:  

“I am not interested in looking at Trump as just like an aberrant personality and psychoanalyzing of him. He is a symptom. I see him as dystopian fiction come to life, you know, and you read dystopian fiction–whether it’s 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale or whether you go see a film like The Hunger Games or Elysium–and inevitably we see a story of a bubble of ultra-rich big winners and hordes of locked out losers. What this entire genre is doing and has always done is take the trends and the culture and follows them to their logical conclusion. They hold up a mirror and say: Do you like what you see? I mean, this is not supposed to be a system that’s telling us to go to this dangerous future. It’s telling us to get off that road. That’s the idea. It’s supposed to be holding up a mirror and telling society to swerve. So, you know, I want to look at the roads that lead to Trump much more than I want to look at Trump himself.”

David Graeber at Occupy Wall Street, 2011

David Graeber, a Yale-trained cultural anthropologist, emerged as something of a cult writer behind the Occupy movement of six years ago — meaning, in his case, a tracker of the invisible stitching around matters of debt and wealth from ancient times.  

He has prophesied at different times a standard 15-hour work week and the dissolution of the US empire.  In the matter of Tory rule in England,  David Graeber has been writing since before the Brexit vote about an “efflorescence of resistance” breaking through — he says — ‘a culture of despair.’

 

                                                                     Pankaj Mishra at PalFest, 2008

Finally, the Indian-born writer Pankaj Mishra, now London based and widely published in the most respected British and American press, is acutely aware that he embodies a contradiction.  His argument in his contentious new book, Age of Anger, is that the European Enlightenment from the 18th Century, modernity itself and globalization have been critical to his success and, at the same time, responsible for the shilling of so many false promises — prosperity, equality, and security — to the great masses of have-nots. (For more Mishra, listen to our 2012 interview with Pankaj on foreign policy)

Podcast • June 1, 2017

American Socrates: The Life and Mind of Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky for 50 years has been America’s Socrates, our public pest with questions that sting … not the city-square of Athens but a vast global village in pain and now, it seems, in danger. ...

Noam Chomsky for 50 years has been America’s Socrates, our public pest with questions that sting … not the city-square of Athens but a vast global village in pain and now, it seems, in danger.

The world in trouble today still beats a path to Noam Chomsky’s door, if only because he’s been forthright for so long about a whirlwind coming.  Not that the world quite knows what do with Noam Chomsky’s warnings of disaster in the making. Remember the famous faltering of the patrician TV host William F. Buckley Jr., meeting Chomsky’s icy anger about the war in Vietnam, in 1969.

It’s a strange thing about Noam Chomsky: the New York Times calls him ‘arguably’ the most important public thinker alive, though the paper seldom quotes him, or argues with him, and giant pop media stars on network television almost never do. And yet the man is universally famous and revered in his 89th year: he’s the scientist who taught us to think of human language as something embedded in our biology, not a social acquisition; he’s the humanist who railed against the Vietnam war and other projections of American power, on moral grounds first, ahead of practical considerations.  He remains a rock-star on college campuses, here and abroad; yet he’s still an alien in the places where policy gets made.  On his home ground at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is a notably accessible old professor who answers his email and receives visitors like us with a twinkle.  

Last week, we visited Chomsky with an open ended mission in mind: We were looking for a non-standard account of our recent history from a man known for telling the truth. We’d written him that we wanted to hear not what he thinks, but how. He’d  written back that hard work and an open mind have a lot to do with it, also, in his words, a “Socratic-style willingness to ask whether conventional doctrines are justified.”

In the opening moments of our conversation, recorded and captured in the video below, Chomsky lays out a succinct demonstration of his method that might be applied to our present-day political crisis:

 “I think the fate of the species depends on it because, remember, it’s not just inequality, stagnation. It’s terminal disaster. We have constructed a perfect storm. That should be the screaming headlines every day. Since the Second World War, we have created two means of destruction. Since the neoliberal era, we have dismantled the way of handling them. That’s our pincers. That’s what we face, and if that problem isn’t solved we’re done with.”

Over the years Noam Chomsky has defended his heavyweight debating title against all comers: YouTube has him in the ring with Michel Foucault on the nature of human nature; with Alan Dershowitz on Israel; with John Silber on Central America. But looking beyond his intellectual pugilism, Chomsky’s life might be defined as much by his allies as his enemies.

One of Chomsky’s longest running partnerships is with his assistant, Bev Stohl, who serves as the gatekeeper in and out of Chomsky world at MIT. She’s a sprightly writer and wit who’s learned over most of two decades that a lot of laughter helps in living with genius. We caught up with Bev and her office pup Roxy this week.

Another critical alliance comes from Robert Barksy, the author of two admiring, critical books—Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent and  The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory TowerAs an admirer and biographer of Chomsky, Barsky helps us fill in the story of how NC became the most widely cited author and innovator in the literature of contemporary science as well as a by-word for rational humanism.

Our hour only is only the beginning of the Noam story though. For more, read our friend George Scialabba‘s many excellent essays on Chomsky—a man he ranks among his triumvirate intellectual heroes (along with Christopher Lasch and Richard Rorty). Here’s a good place to start for beginners.

Also, be sure to check out the Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance‘s musical tribute “Noam Chomsky Is A Soft Revolution” which puts the linguist in a class of musical as well as political and literary dissidents—Dr. John, James Brown, and Willie Nelson as well as Jean-Paul Sartre, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Che Guevara.

Finally, watch these two bite-sized bits of Noam discussing two giant-sized philosophers, Bertrand Russell and Adam Smith.

Also, read a full transcript of the show on Medium.

Extra Credit Assignment from Prof. Barsky

“For brief introductions to the incredibly complex world that Chomsky describes, it might be worth watching a few videos. There is an incredibly important one that was done years ago on the BBC that offers a one hour summary of the basic philosophical tenants that underwrites his thought, and the interviewer is a very brilliant English philosopher. I have had occasion to talk about this interview with Noam and he agreed, and bemoaned that such programs are no longer easily found.
 The other incredibly important source to understand the generation preceding Noam, is the remarkable film by Joseph Dorman called Arguing the World. References made in this film to a tiny Jewish Zionist organization that existed from 1928 to 1943, started at Harvard, that set forth some crucial ideas that were to both reflect and guide the work of Chomsky’s teacher, Zellig Harris (I talk about this at length in my book about Harris). The group is called Avukah , and I have been working on a film and book about it for many years. Joseph’s film is a model for what I’m trying to do, and many of the people mentioned herein have direct or indirect influence on Noam’s thinking.”

Podcast • March 2, 2017

‘Deportation Nation’

The ICE age: ICE for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Federal agents that will swoop down if they think your citizenship is irregular. Suspense, surprise, and a certain arbitrary striking power are essentials in the ...

The ICE age: ICE for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Federal agents that will swoop down if they think your citizenship is irregular. Suspense, surprise, and a certain arbitrary striking power are essentials in the ICE process. It’s the hallmark of the early Trump Era in police work, though it’s not exactly new. 

President Obama deported more migrants than all the presidents before him: locking many thousands of people up for nothing worse than lacking ‘papers.’ But in the Trump era, there’s now a special emphasis on the fear of “crimmigration”: the supposed overlap between illegal acts and an illegal status in the U.S.

Why put that criminal brand on mostly hard-working, tax-paying family people who get in much less trouble, in fact, than U.S..-born citizens? And why now, when the tide of migration is mostly going out?

We’re joined this week by Daniel Kanstroom, author of Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American Historytracks the story of how a supposed nation of immigrants decides who stays and who’s gotta go. He says we’ve reached a crisis point under Trump, but the crisis has been building for thirty years.

Mary Waters, sociologist at Harvard, is increasingly concerned by the parallels between mass deportation and mass incarceration. She termed the phenomenon “crimmigration.” In order to resist this system, she writes, “we need a model of a social movement that is not based in civil rights, because we have defined millions of people living in this country as being outside of civil society.

Roberto Gonzales spent 12 years following the lives of undocumented teenagers in Los Angeles. His heart-breaking account in Lives in Limbo paints a tragic portrait of squandered potential and unrealized dreams. For undocumented teenagers, adulthood marks a transition to illegality — a period of ever-narrowing opportunities. One teenager named Esperanza lamented to  Roberto: “I would have been the walking truth instead of a walking shadow.”

We also spent sometime digging into the stories of undocumented immigrants here in Boston. You can here some their voices in our Soundcloud playlist list below

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You can also read the transcript of our conversation with “Amber”—a longtime WBUR caller and undocumented immigrant—here on our Medium page.

[lead illustration by Susan Coyne]

Podcast • February 28, 2017

George Saunders in the Afterlife

The story master George Saunders is widely revered as the nicest guy in the writing game, but it’s sweeter and deeper than that. I met him in the Boston Public Library the other day to gab about ...

The story master George Saunders is widely revered as the nicest guy in the writing game, but it’s sweeter and deeper than that. I met him in the Boston Public Library the other day to gab about his spooky transcendental first novel — about Abraham Lincoln in limbo with the son that died in the White House; immediately I was reminded of what Maxim Gorki noticed about Anton Chekhov, a Saunders idol: “In Anton Chekhov’s presence,” Gorki said, “every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self…”

And so it went for us with George Saunders. He’s famous for writing: “Stay open, forever, so open it hurts,” and he talks that way about everything – about his and his wife’s version of Tibetan Buddhism, for example; about his very complicated feelings inside Trump campaign rallies; about the notion he teaches that “if death is in the room,” as it is in throughout his new novel, the writing and the reading get pretty interesting. The book in question is titled Lincoln in the Bardo – using the Tibetan word for a mysterious space underground for lost souls after death, but not quite dead. He gave me a feeling it’s a zone we all might well get to know better.

This Week's Show •

Going Nativist

The battle over the travel ban echoes our history from the founding, slicing deep into the heart of American sympathies: Are refugees and migrants coming ashore to be seen as humble ‘guests of the nation?’ or ...

The battle over the travel ban echoes our history from the founding, slicing deep into the heart of American sympathies: Are refugees and migrants coming ashore to be seen as humble ‘guests of the nation?’ or as American as anyone, just for getting through the gate? George Washington said he was building an “asylum for the oppressed” of all nations.  And so the Statue of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles, with her world-wide welcome. 

Italian Immigrants at Ellis Island

Kansan-Kenyan Barack Obama embodied the whole dream: an America for searchers, strivers, migrants like his father: the polyglot nation-of-all-nations, not the world’s master but the world’s story. And now the counter-story from the man who doubted that Obama was born American, much less that he belonged in the White House. 

The ‘who we are’ question, between Immigration Nation and Fortress America, is one that all our show guests have explored deeply and widely, traversing all sorts of social, political and historical terrains. Neil Swidey, a staff writer for the Globe, brings back to life the story of the anti-Immigration movement in Boston at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a story of Brahmins and ‘barbarians’; a story of privilege, of savage inhumanity, and of unenlightened righteousness.

Francis Fukuyama reframes the argument in ideological terms, arguing that to be an American is to espouse a particular political creed. In his own words:

You have political values that define what it means to be American. It’s not tied to religion, to ethnicity, to race. So that anyone who espouses those values can be an American.

Aziz Rana partly agrees with Fukuyama, that a kind of American creed rests at the foundation of American identity. Or at least it did, at one particular period of time. From the mid-20th century on through to the end of the Cold War, a form of American identity was manufactured as a weapon to be used in ideological warfare with the Soviet Union. Prior to WWII, American identity was inextricably bound up with race.

Nadeem Mazen, brings in local politico perspective to our immigration debate here in Greater Boston. In 2013, Mazen became the first Muslim city councilor in Cambridge, Massachussetts, and was recently re-elected after running a Bernie-esque hyperprogressive grassroots campaign. His position on the city council and his work with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) inspired the Bannon-led newsroom at Breitbart to label him “Hamas on the Charles.” Now, Mazen is striking back at the islamophobes in the White House and making a general call for Muslim-Americans to run for public office.

Sheida Dayani, a Persian-born poet and translator, tells us about her initial reaction to “the human ban” and how paradoxically she feels most American when teaching Persian texts to her students at Harvard.

Listen below to her poem entitled The Ordinary Man of this Neighborhood.

Podcast • February 2, 2017

The Great Trump Debate: Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader

On Super Bowl weekend, we’ve lined up a couple of hall of fame political players who run outside Establishment lines to help us watch the game that’s unfolding so far in the Trump White House.  Pat ...

On Super Bowl weekend, we’ve lined up a couple of hall of fame political players who run outside Establishment lines to help us watch the game that’s unfolding so far in the Trump White House.  Pat Buchanan was the pit-bull strategist in Richard Nixon’s White House; he’s a Latin-Mass Catholic, a cultural conservative and America First nationalist who’s turned sharply anti-Empire, calmly post-Cold War with Russia and flat-out anti-war in the Middle East.  Ralph Nader was Mr. Citizen as auto-safety crusader, then first among the relentless Raiders against corporate power, and a prickly third-party candidate in three presidential campaigns.

It was this left-right pair that practically called the game for Trump way back in August 2015. Both said that a man backed by his own billionaire funds and showbiz glam could run the ball all the way to the White House.

Buchanan and Nader on NBC’s Meet the Press, October 1, 2000.

After the election, though, both men are turning their eyes to the man who may be quarterbacking the presidency: Steve Bannon.

Buchanan—a “paleoconservative” who coined the term “America First,” essentially drafting the Bannon playbook—now hopes that Trump doesn’t drop the ball after his executive order blitz. “Republicans have waited a long time for this,” Buchanan says. “[Trump] ought to keep moving on ahead, take the hits he’s gonna take.” If he keeps it up, Bannon might bring the political right “very close to a political revolution.”

Nader, as a green-tinted independent on the left, understands the enthusiasm that his longtime sparring partner has for Trumpism. Yet he also sees the contradictions and challenges Trump presents, not only for Buchanan’s vision of America, but also for Nader’s own: Both men share a strong, anti-corporate stance and are worried about the  Goldman Sachs and Wall Street executives Trumped has packed his cabinet with. What Buchanan and Nader fear most is that a thin-skinned president, egged on by his hawkish advisors, could spark a war with Iran if provoked.

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

Strategically, Nader thinks the Republican team does have the chemistry they need to pull of their so-called political revolution: “You’re gonna get very very serious early-year conflicts here that are going to be very, very destabilizing,” he says. “Republicans on the hill they don’t know what the hell is coming.”

And everyone on the sidelines worries – if the Trump’s team fumbles, who will be there to pick up the ball?

Podcast • January 26, 2017

Just Say No!

Millions of people marched over the weekend, showing the outlines of a global, feminist, anti-racist, anti-Trump resistance… maybe. The question on our minds this week is whether the protesters can sustain and direct their dissent to create real ...

Millions of people marched over the weekend, showing the outlines of a global, feminist, anti-racist, anti-Trump resistance… maybe. The question on our minds this week is whether the protesters can sustain and direct their dissent to create real political and economic change.

Nobody can predict exactly how Trump’s agenda will play out, and the first days haven’t been good — the non-stop volley of tweets, executive orders, appointments, and headlines. Attention has been paid, Mr President. Now what? Without the institutional structures of old — party, unions, media, and churches — what’s the path of most resistance?

Our guest L.A. Kauffman helped organize the New York anti-war protests in 2003 and 2004, and has written a new book for Verso called Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. She traces U.S. movements after the 1960s, from Earth First to ACT UP to the Seattle WTO protests to Occupy and beyond. She is euphoric about the possibilities of “upbeat unruliness” to transform our current, dismal political reality.


Protesters in in D.C., where an estimated 500,000 people marched, and New York, where 400,000 people came out. Hundreds of thousands more marched around the world, including at least 750,000 in Los Angeles. Photos by Zach Goldhammer and Conor Gillies.

Still, we wonder how a huge array of ordinary folks, of every political stripe — from Hillary Clinton fans to the antifa Black Bloc (a.k.a. the folks burning limos and punching Nazis) — with nothing more in common than their dislike of Trump, can mobilize within the current structure of electoral politics (and a Democratic party already failing to “present a united front to defend human rights and civil liberties in the Trump era”). Some wonder if it’s even worthwhile working within institutions that have brought us continued war, poverty, and inequality.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Princeton professor, socialist organizer, and author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, offers a broad-tent vision of grassroots resistance mixed with a healthy dose of cynicism about traditional political leadership. In a widely-shared statement this week, Taylor encouraged Americans to build social movements outside of existing party politics. She disregards the Democrats as revisionists, who throughout the 20th century have worked to absorb, contain, and de-radicalize social movements (black liberation movements in particular). But Prof. Taylor critiques are aimed primarily at the ruling political class; she discourages organizers from harping on whether whether or not the street-level marchers were too white, too liberal, or too #StillWithHer: “The women’s marches were the beginning, not the end. …There are literally millions of people in this country who are now questioning everything. We need to open up our organizations, planning meetings, marches, and much more to them.”

Mark Greif, founding editor of the magazine n+1 and author of a new essay collection, Against Everything, takes the position of a born contrarian when it comes to the new administration: “No President” — not “not my president” — has been his motto since the election and civil disobedience remains his default stance. Greif, like us, is deeply influenced by the New England transcendentalists, and forces us to ask, WWTD (what would Thoreau do)? The answer may lie in Thoreau’s own question: “The laws are there. Do they really represent you? What would it take for them to represent you?” Cultivate inefficiency, and don’t be afraid to be a crank, Greif says. “Be yourself friction, inside the machine.” Hear a longer interview with Greif below:

We’re joined in the studio by minister-activist Mariama White-Hammond and The Tea Party chronicler Vanessa Williamson.

Watch producer Zach Goldhammer’s interviews from the Women’s March below:

illustration by Susan Coyne

January 19, 2017

The Obama Years

What the “Yes I Can” president wanted most of all was to bring together a robust democracy in spirit if not every line of substance. What he ran into was a rockslide of revolt and ...

What the “Yes I Can” president wanted most of all was to bring together a robust democracy in spirit if not every line of substance. What he ran into was a rockslide of revolt and a singular embodiment of it: a three-ring circus of a successor, Donald Trump, who seems to be the very opposite in tone and temperament of Barack Obama. 

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, many of us, like Marilynne Robinson, beloved novelist and personal friend of the president, will miss a lot from Mr. Obama. Robinson says the transnational aspects of Obama embody the very best in us, and, she tells us, “Our refusal to acknowledge him as he was really is a refusal to acknowledge ourselves as we are.” Robinson speaks of Obama as a “saintly man” with an impossible job:

This idea of the transformative leader, I think that that Obama is smarter than that. He knows that change is incremental and that it is collective. But what liberals tend to do–and I call myself a liberal under every possible circumstance, I’d put it on my headstone–but what they tend to do is create some ideal that nobody could live up to and then diminish what is good, what is accomplished by comparison with this almost childlike, supposed expectation. It’s no way to run anything.

Bromwich, Sterling professor of English at Yale, sees Obama differently. Bromwich was a supporter in 2008, but in 2009 became a skeptic who saw serious limits to the man’s gracious style:

…you can’t keep giving that reconciliatory post-war speech with a euphemistic and gentle rhetoric appropriate to a magnanimous victor in a war. Obama wanted to be the magnanimous victor and conciliator before he even fought a contest… and that’s a temperamental quirk so strange…. a fixed, false idea that he could be the unifier.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Nathan Robinson and Randall Kennedy join us to hash out the meaning of the Obama years in the context of the inauguration.

Illustration by Susan Coyne

Podcast • January 12, 2017

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 ...

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? 

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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!

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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