The rise of billionaire Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential race has been met with a mixture of horror and fascination. As his campaign, once regarded with derision, continues to rack up successes — most recently, in the Florida, Illinois and North Carolina primaries — pundits are scrambling for some historical or foreign analogue that can shed light on the phenomenon. While no comparison is perfect, the most apt comparison is with Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media mogul who has served three terms as his country’s prime minister. It is not a reassuring model.
Of course, Berlusconi and Trump share some superficial similarities, including multiple marriages and a generally vulgar style. But the most impor- tant — and the most worrying — qualities they share is an ability to substitute salesmanship for substance, a willingness to tell bald-faced lies in pursuit of publicity and advantage, and an eagerness to intimidate critics into silence.
Berlusconi’s policy platforms, even his fundamental ideology, have always lacked consistency. During his successful campaigns, he said whatever it took to win votes; during his three terms in office, he used the same tactic to form coalitions. His only agenda was to protect or advance his own business interests.
So far, Trump has followed much the same strategy, saying anything to grab another vote. The question is what this would mean if he were to make it to the White House. The system of checks and balances established by the U.S. Constitution has an unmatched capacity to prevent any single branch of government from going haywire. But the manipulation of public opinion is a powerful weapon in any democracy, and it is a weapon that Trump, like Berlusconi, knows how to wield better than most.
Berlusconi’s greatest successes — especially during his 2001-2006 and 2008-2011 terms (he also served in 1994-1995) — lay in the manipulation of media and public opinion. Though Italy is well known for low trust in government, with citizens largely resigned to the idea that virtually every public figure is self-serving, Berlusconi managed to numb the popular consciousness even further. He somehow lulled Italians into believing that all was well in their economy and society, even in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, when plainly it was not. Under his leadership, Italy lost many years when its government should have been pursuing critical reforms.
How did Berlusconi achieve this? For the most part, he used the joke, the lie and the smile. When that didn’t work, he resorted to bullying, including through libel suits.
In fact, few media tycoons — Berlusconi owns Italy’s main commercial television channels and several daily newspapers (either directly or through his family) — have ever been as freewheeling in their use of libel litigation to silence journalists and other critics. The famous Italian anti-mafia writer Roberto Saviano referred to Berlusconi’s “mud machine,” with which he would smear anyone who dared stand in his way. (Full disclosure: As editor of The Economist, I was the target of two libel suits by Berlusconi.)
All of these tactics are in Trump’s inventory. Trump is aggressive with his opponents, especially in the media. Throughout his business career, he has frequently invoked libel laws. If he wins the presidency, he has said, he will seek to control media criticism. And yet his essential message is optimistic, delivered with a joke and a big smile. As Berlusconi has shown, when the population is feeling grumpy or disillusioned, as much of America is today, this approach can be highly effective — and for a very long time.
Some pundits who have invoked the Berlusconi comparison have highlighted one distinction between the bombastic billionaires: Berlusconi, they say, at least has some charm and much more business acumen. This assessment is not only far too generous toward Berlusconi; it also risks making it seem that Trump is less dangerous than his Italian counterpart.
The reality is that, while Berlusconi certainly has his charm, Trump’s swelling base of support seems to see a certain charm in him, too, even if it is a less seductive version. Moreover, while Berlusconi undoubtedly possesses business acumen, he has, like Trump, cut plenty of corners along the way. The ties of Berlusconi’s close aides and friends to Italy’s various Mafia clans are well documented.
But none of this is particularly important, in terms of its implications for the United States today. What is important is that both Trump and Berlusconi are ruthless and willing to resort to any means to achieve their (self-serving) ends.
Given this, underestimating Trump would be a huge mistake; he will always prove stronger, more slippery and more enduring than expected. The only way to avoid Berlusconi-level disaster — or worse — is to continue criticizing him, exposing his lies, and holding him to account for his words and actions, regardless of the insults or threats he throws at those who do.
Too many Italians shrugged their shoulders at Berlusconi’s lies and failings, figuring that he would soon go away, having done little harm. But he did not go away, and he did plenty of harm. The U.S. cannot afford to make the same mistake. The price of liberty, Americans are fond of saying, is eternal vigilance. In confronting Trump, there can be no discount.
Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is executive producer of the documentary “The Great European Disaster Movie.” © Project Syndicate, 2016 www.project-syndicate.org