Trump, Berlusconi and That Feeling of Having Seen It All Before

What happens if one suddenly sees oneself as a character in a Marcel Proust novel?

November 16, 2016

Silvio Berlusconi in 1994.

The election of Donald Trump has reawakened buried memories from my childhood in a far away land. As a result, as if I were a character in a novel written by Marcel Proust, I now find myself reliving the past in the present.

When I look at today’s America, with many Americans perplexed about just what might lie ahead, I cannot avoid having the feeling of déjå vu. And indeed, I have seen it all before. Which is why I tremble and want to sketch out my distant memories for us all.

The man in my childhood memory bank ran an electoral campaign as no one had ever done it before. His claims were unrealistic, his style bombastic, his promises untenable.

He was an outsider ready to take on the corrupt political elites. Never mind that he had built extremely cosy relationships with politicians of all persuasions over the years.

He knew how to play the media. And while most of the media despised him, they could not get enough of him. He was a multi-billionaire but advertised himself as a man of the people. You could tell because he was great at telling stories and dirty jokes.

Dad’s own “self-made” man

And he was a self-made man: he started off only with a few million arranged by his dad.

And he was charming. His frequent remarks about women were always meant as gallantry, as his good looks would confirm.

He made his money in real estate but became famous through television. He was an entrepreneur and knew how to strike deals. Never mind a few bankruptcies here and there.

Some of his business deals where seen as dodgy and the authorities promptly investigated them. But, alas, it was all about politically motivated persecution! White, uneducated men knew all this and rushed to support him to propel him into office.

Promises, promises

Once in power, he proceeded to deliver little of what he had promised and much of what his opponents had feared. He had never held office before and therefore surrounded himself with advisors who could certify that he was right, no matter what.

The country’s economy consistently underperformed compared to the previous years and to its global competitors alike. Nobody knew why, as taxes on the wealthiest had promptly been cut.

It must have been because of all the immigrants. They invaded the country, stole people’s jobs and committed crimes left and right. Tougher legislation and alliances with right-wing groups were the natural answer.

Back to the good old days and greatness

Perhaps it was all a moral question. The country had to go back to the good old days to be made great again. Civil liberties were curtailed, minorities had to behave and women were encouraged back to the kitchen. Unless they were a ten, that is.

Meanwhile, the opposition was vicious and evil: not ready to support him in his reform efforts, they weren’t real patriots.

Not that the masses took much notice of this: As he tightened his grip on the media, little news came of it all. As Voltaire and Candide would have it, everybody lived in the best of all possible worlds.

Within this context, the country’s global standing took an unprecedented hit. He was crass, ignorant and arrogant. But his country did matter and global leaders had to smile at him. No matter how much they despised him.

Refusing to face real problems

The country faced a turbulent world and enormous challenges such as global warming, transnational terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

While the country’s foreign policy establishment had hoped for a redoubling of efforts to constructively engage with partners old and new, he proceeded to distance himself from his traditional European allies.

At the same time and perhaps because of his “personal diplomacy,” he miserably failed to forge new and meaningful alliances. His approach to international affairs was a transactional one: tit-for-tat and business transactions.

He never forgot to highlight his entrepreneurial past as proof of his ability to strike deals. However, what he always failed to understand was that robust alliances take decades to forge, require a comprehensive engagement of the country’s entire foreign policy apparatus and are not transactional in nature.

Robust alliances are ideologically-driven and value-based. The country’s foreign policy was in shambles and its diplomatic posture incoherent at best.

At least, he had no nuclear codes

He was the former Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi, of course, having taken office for the first time in 1994.

Looking back, I understand that he was not the cause of all the ills that affected the country where I was born. Much worse indeed, he was the result and physical representation of them.

Takeaways

He ran an electoral campaign like no other. His claims were unrealistic, his style bombastic, his promises untenable.

He was rich but advertised himself as a man of the people, great at telling stories and dirty jokes.

As he tightened his grip on the media, little news came of it all.

The country’s global standing took an unprecedented hit. He was crass, ignorant and arrogant.

Berlusconi was not the cause of the ills that affected the country but the result of them.