My American and British Friends Used To Laugh About Berlusconi’s Populism. They’re Not Laughing Anymore

An Italian-British journalist reflects on the legacy of the iconic political figure, whose enduring popularity should encourage us collectively to look in the mirror

My American and British Friends Used To Laugh About Berlusconi’s Populism. They’re Not Laughing Anymore
Silvio Berlusconi greets supporters in Rome in 2007. (Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

Mainly, I remember the ridicule.

As an Italian living in the United Kingdom and working within the Anglosphere, you couldn’t escape it. After all, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was a perfect fit for the Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the sleazy and corrupt Italian. Of course, in Berlusconi’s case, it happened to be true.

It started with quips about the endless corruption accusations and trials, the blatant conflict of interest between his political role and his media ownership, the scantily clad showgirls that punctuated most programs on his TV channels.

Then there was the personal dimension: his diminutive height, the over-familiarity, the tans — both his own and the one he infamously “complimented” then-President-elect Barack Obama for having — and the lechery with women. The loudness, to the point that even the late Queen Elizabeth II, trained from birth to conceal emotion, remarked on it at the 2009 G20 summit as world leaders gathered for the “family photo” and Berlusconi raucously called for the U.S. president’s attention.

The crescendo of mockery peaked with the Bunga Bunga sex scandal, which is so seared into the international perception of Italy that there is a restaurant in London named after it. I went once out of curiosity. The pizza was good but there was no sign of a sex party with underage escorts by the time I left. Someone obviously hadn’t read the brief — or, in this case, the court transcripts. Berlusconi won on appeal on the grounds that he couldn’t have known the escort’s exact age, but there was no denying the real nature of what he called “elegant dinners.” The scandal contributed to the fall of his government in 2011, and to endless punchlines.

But as the world was laughing, it was missing the point: missing the damage to democracy that years of flouting the law and controlling the media had inflicted on Italy. And now that former President Donald Trump and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson are also in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, my American and British friends aren’t laughing anymore.

I wish I were saying this with schadenfreude, but mainly there is just deep sadness, and more than a tinge of worry.

If the ridicule is gone, the questions remain: How did someone like Berlusconi manage to obtain power and retain it for so long? He faced more than 30 trials throughout his life (four still ongoing when he died), mainly for tax evasion, bribery and corruption. Most cases didn’t stick, and he was only convicted once — of tax fraud in 2013. Due to a pardon and his age, he ended up serving just one year of community service and was banned from holding political office, but only temporarily. In all other cases, he was either acquitted or the case collapsed, or, due to changes in the law, which he pushed himself, the time limit for prosecution expired.

And yet, throughout it all, he managed to lead the government four times and remained wildly popular with a section of the electorate for decades. The scandals and time did eventually take their toll. In the last election in September 2022, his party garnered a mere 8% of the vote — enough to stay relevant as part of a coalition but dwarfed by Giorgia Meloni’s 26%.

The lure of so-called populist leaders is complex. As with its first cousin, nationalism, populism adapts to the country and culture in which it operates. In Berlusconi’s case, his control of the Italian media landscape is the one single overriding factor that made his career possible.

To call Berlusconi a media tycoon doesn’t begin to capture his influence. If Trump’s catchphrase was “You’re fired,” Berlusconi’s might as well have been “You’re hired.” Except, rather than a reality TV show, it was for Italy’s main news programs. Berlusconi employed roughly half of the country’s broadcast journalists.

That kind of influence cannot be overestimated. In more than 20 years as a journalist, the only time I was ever told to “watch what you say” was in Italy, during one of Berlusconi’s stints in power. And it wasn’t even on one of his channels.

Of the seven terrestrial TV channels in Italy, Berlusconi owned three of the most successful commercial ones, part of his Mediaset empire, each with its own dedicated news programming. Because of the way the Italian state broadcaster RAI is run, whoever is in government also has a say on the appointment of the editors of the 3 RAI channels. So whenever Berlusconi was in office, he held sway over 90% of the TV output in a country where most people are informed through television rather than print media.

I remember the surreal scenes in 1994, during his first election campaign, when high-profile TV presenters — not just news anchors but also the faces of prime-time entertainment programs — would casually turn to the camera and extol the virtues of their boss and political candidate. A similar example in any other Western liberal democracy is unthinkable.

How such a blatant conflict of interest was allowed to happen in the first place is a valid question, and it underscores that, while Berlusconi was often painted as a buffoon, he was anything but. By buying small local TV stations in the 1970s and linking them all into a national service, he effectively created commercial television in Italy, at a time when RAI still dominated the broadcast frequencies. He formed his new media empire before suitable legislation was in place to regulate it and prevent the flagrant conflict of interest that ensued. After that, all he had to do was make sure that such legislation would never be passed.

Trying to exert control over the media is high on any populist leader’s to-do list, but the situation Berlusconi created in Italy is unique among democracies. And it contains a valuable lesson for the present day: What new media are we seeing emerge that we don’t yet have adequate legislation to regulate? Can we prevent or even predict future abuses? After all, Berlusconi created his media empire more than a decade before he decided to enter politics (and many think he entered politics specifically to shield his business interests). That led to an enormous concentration of media power in the hands of one man. Today, one man controls Twitter, the closest thing we have to a global town square. The same goes for Facebook, which counts its users in the billions. Both these men have often been called geniuses. I’m not passing judgment but, for the record, so had Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s media ownership didn’t just allow him to control his image — it also enabled him to control the agenda, which is particularly useful when you’re in power. His channels harped on immigration, the “war on terror” and minority rights — typically couched in terms of “immigrant invasion” and “Muslim threat.” This barrage became difficult for other media outlets to ignore and fertile ground for his right-wing political movement to dominate — on the airwaves and, eventually, at the polls.

But even this level of media influence might not have been enough in a fragmented political landscape like Italy’s, where coalition governments are the norm, had Berlusconi not also managed to create a solid right-wing coalition back in 1994 — one that endures to this day.

In the early 1990s, Italy was reeling from an enormous political scandal and investigation called Tangentopoli (from the Italian word “tangente,” meaning bribe). Politicians from all sides were found to have accepted kickbacks for government contracts. With the reputation of the main parties at the time — the Christian Democrats and the Italian Socialists — so damaged that the parties had to be dissolved, Berlusconi seized the chance to form a new kind of right-wing force. He allied his own newly founded Forza Italia (strategically named after the football chant for the national team) with the Northern League, then a separatist party, and the neo-fascist party Alleanza Nazionale (the forerunner to current Prime Minister Meloni’s Brothers of Italy).

The coalition that Berlusconi formed in the 1990s persists and has never been matched by the left. If allowing a party that traces its roots to Mussolini supporters following World War II to participate in mainstream politics was the price to pay for this stability, so be it. Considering Meloni’s recent success, in time this may well end up being Berlusconi’s most enduring legacy.

Whereas the likes of Trump and Johnson seem intent on eviscerating the political parties they purportedly represent, Berlusconi focused on the compactness of his coalition, which would always prove to be his electoral strength. Berlusconi was divisive because of his corruption trials and conflicts of interest, but he was anything but divisive when it came to his own side. He strategically valued loyalty and repaid it in kind.

Perhaps that is why he was always visibly irked by comparisons with Trump, who seems to relish conflicts with fellow Republicans almost more than with Democrats.

Speaking to Italy’s leading newspaper Corriere della Sera soon after Trump’s election in 2016, Berlusconi said:

Some analogies are evident, but my experience as a businessman is very different to Trump’s. I am not “the right.” I represent a center ground that is liberal, and which has attracted my country’s best political traditions: from Catholicism, reformist socialism and liberalism to a right that is democratic and responsible.

Politics aside, Berlusconi always tried to charm his way through situations. Trump’s vulgarity jarred. For all his bragging about sexual conquests and off-color jokes, I can’t remember Berlusconi ever saying anything quite as aggressively vulgar as “grab them by the pu**y.” Part of Berlusconi’s legacy will always be the objectification of the female form, the ubiquitous use of beautiful, scantily clad girls who decorated countless TV shows. He did champion several women, Meloni among them, but he created a culture where women were valued above all else for their looks. Yet the personal image he tried to project was always one of charm. True to form, when asked again about Trump a year after his election, Berlusconi said that what he liked best about the then-president of the U.S. was his beautiful wife, Melania.

And when Berlusconi was forced out of power in 2011, having lost the confidence of foreign markets and leaders, he did not try to stage anything like what we saw at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

But that is not to say that there aren’t disconcerting comparisons between the leaders.

Both seemed to find a friend in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was one of the first international leaders to pay tribute to Berlusconi after his death, calling him a true friend. The feeling was mutual. Berlusconi recently angered Meloni — a staunch supporter of Ukraine — by blaming Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the war in his country. In addition to their admiration for Putin, both Trump and Berlusconi appeared to share the belief that their personal relationship with the Russian leader would impact his decisions: the cult of personality over policy.

The two also shared a sense of victimhood. Berlusconi was already railing against “the communist magistrates” for orchestrating a legal “witch hunt” against him when Trump and Johnson were still married to their first wives. Berlusconi once declared himself “the most persecuted man in the world.” The resonances with Trump’s reaction to his recent indictments and his self-pitying claims about witch hunts are impossible to miss.

Yet the real common ground is that they tell people what they want to hear.

That is the beating heart of populism, which is, by its very nature, nation-specific. You need to speak to your audience’s particular weaknesses, fears and wounded pride. To generalize a bit about Italians, I’d say we are not puritanical and dislike rules. Did Berlusconi dodge his taxes? Well, most Italians think they’re too high anyway. Is he passing off orgies with very young women as “elegant dinners”? Secretly, many Italian men might well want to do the same. That was Berlusconi’s skill — speaking to one’s dark desires.

Italians have a phrase, “He spoke to the stomach of the people.” And that’s what Berlusconi did. He understood their gut reactions and hidden desires. He was one of them. No wonder millions have mourned him since his death.

What was it, after all, that made my American and British friends laugh with such gusto about Berlusconi? A sense of superiority? And what has happened to that sense of superiority over the past decade? Is it now a feeling of weakness? Wounded pride? Anxiety that America is losing its standing in the world? The Brexit catchphrase “Take back control” echoed the nervous slogan “Make America Great Again,” harking back to a time when the U.K. ruled a quarter of the world. Who needs to be in a union of 28 European countries when we used to be an empire?

Berlusconi was a mirror. To learn the lessons from his decades in politics and avoid repeating his consolidation of power, his influence over huge swaths of the population and his snake-oil salesmanship in countries like the U.S. or the U.K., just hold up a mirror to that nation’s soul, because those are the weaknesses that he and his ilk will always try to exploit.

So, when you look in that mirror, what do you see?

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