In a historic departure from the prime minister’s official residence, Palazzo Chigi, on the fateful day of November 16, 2011, Silvio Berlusconi appeared a man diminished, consumed by humiliation. Italy’s financial woes loomed large, with international investors betting against the nation’s treasury bonds. Meanwhile, he faced the relentless pursuit of prosecutors due to the infamous “bunga bunga” scandal, entangled in the unsettling involvement of an underage sex worker. To compound matters, his European allies, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, publicly expressed their displeasure. Little did anyone anticipate the profound impact Berlusconi’s populist blueprint would have on future politics.
At the age of 86, Silvio Berlusconi passed away after battling a lung infection during his hospitalization in Milan. Nevertheless, his legacy remains a palpable force in contemporary society. The years following Berlusconi’s departure from office served to vindicate his unique political style, combining charismatic personality-driven politics, masterful utilization of visual media, and unapologetic demagoguery. He deftly tapped into voters’ disillusionment and cynicism toward the established order. Few politicians could rival his prescience in shaping the political landscape to come.
Numerous right-wing populist leaders who dominated the political arena in the 2010s have drawn comparisons to Berlusconi , with former US President Donald Trump at the forefront. Much like Trump, and even preceding him, Berlusconi fervently rejected the label of a career politician, instead emphasizing his status as a triumphant “self-made entrepreneur” who entered politics to salvage his nation from leftist ideologies. Berlusconi, akin to Trump, owed much of his success to his remarkable mastery of television, facilitated by his ownership of a significant portion of Italy’s private TV channels. Finally, resembling Trump in numerous ways, Berlusconi blazed onto the political scene, brazenly disregarding the norms of institutional courtesy and decorum. He audaciously presented himself as a victim of judges and electoral authorities, employing vulgar and sensationalist tactics to seize public attention, with his penchant for sexual jests being particularly notorious.
Berlusconi embodied what Antonio Gramsci aptly described as the Italian people’s “taste for the operatic,” staging rallies and TV appearances reminiscent of a variety show. However, in terms of political substance, Berlusconi remained a neoliberal at heart. His revolution revolved around tax cuts, streamlining bureaucracy, and labor deregulation. In essence, he represented the crucial link between neoliberalism and populism in Italy.
Within Italy, Berlusconi played a pivotal role in enabling the far-right to establish a presence within mainstream politics. He forged alliances with the separatist party Northern League and the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party, which serves as the predecessor to the current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s party. (Meloni herself initially garnered attention as the Minister of Youth during Berlusconi’s last government.)
Ironically, with the perspective of time, the rightward shift of Italian politics has rendered Berlusconi relatively moderate. Nevertheless, his relentless attacks on workers, alleged connections to organized crime, manipulation of the legal system, disastrous economic policies that hastened the country’s industrial decline, and celebration of extreme individualism all contributed to Italy’s current reactionary trajectory.
A key element of Berlusconi’s success, emulated by right-wing populists worldwide, lay in his ability to transform accusations against him into fuel for his survival. Berlusconi’s career became synonymous with numerous prosecutions related to mafia involvement , corruption, and tax evasion. In response, he adopted a two-pronged approach. On one hand, he vehemently proclaimed his innocence, portraying himself as a victim of communist judges—a figure persecuted like no other in history. On the other hand, to satisfy his more disingenuous supporters, particularly from a business class often involved in questionable or illicit practices, he subtly acknowledged the lack of pristine behavior, asserting that his actions were not entirely dissimilar from others.
The parallels with Donald Trump’s ongoing legal battles in the United States are evident and do not bode well for those who anticipate a swift resolution through indictment alone.
Berlusconi’s ascent in Italy was facilitated by the disillusionment that had permeated Italian liberal democracy ever since the Tangentopoli corruption scandal of the early 1990s. In other countries, right-wing figures have similarly capitalized on the prevailing sentiments of disenchantment toward politics that seemingly fails to advance the interests of anyone beyond the elite.
As long as politics remains mired in what is often, albeit at times justifiably, portrayed as a vast “swamp” of corruption and hypocrisy (to borrow Trumpist rhetoric), the cynical politics pioneered by Berlusconi and perfected by right-wing populists will continue to triumph. The only means to break free from this toxic enchantment is to reintroduce morality and a tangible mission into politics, one that genuinely delivers concrete improvements for the citizenry. Regrettably, this is precisely what Berlusconi failed to achieve.