Tuesday, January 10, 2017


Stephen Griffin

Perhaps like others within digital earshot, I spent part of my holiday reading Alexander Stille’s valuable book on the career of Italian businessman/politician Silvio Berlusconi, The Sack of Rome.  If you can’t read the entire book, I recommend that you borrow a copy from your local library and read from page 255 to the end.  Here Stille analyzes why Italians were willing to vote a businessman into power who was not politically experienced and had no detailed views on policy.  Stille then develops some parallels between what went on in Italy in the 1990s and the circumstances (circa 2006) in the US, anticipating the Trump phenomenon in a number of respects.

Some similarities between Berlusconi and Trump are fairly evident.  There are the offensive remarks explained away as “jokes,” for example.  Both men operated what amounted to family businesses, while posing as experienced corporate CEOs.  We’ll see what happens with respect to Trump’s many potential conflicts of interest, but Berlusconi probably exceeded Trump on that score by many times, coming eventually to dominate the entire Italian economy, at least according to Stille.  Neither Berlusconi nor (probably) Trump liked to hold press conferences or understood the role of an independent press.  Stille makes the interesting comment that Berlusconi treated government like a show or performance and did not engage much on policy details.  Berlusconi was supported by some because he was perceived as pro-business but they “’didn’t realize he was only pro his own business.’”

From Stille’s book we can construct an explanation as to why Trump has not faced more blowback with respect to refusing to disclose his tax returns or other aspects of his business.  Berlusconi did much the same, but benefited from a generalized suspicion of government and the lack of a habit, on the part of some Italians, of paying their taxes regularly.  This should inspire us to ask what was the attitude of Republican voters toward the IRS pre-Trump?  I think we know the answer to that one – perhaps their attitude was never great to begin with, but to Republicans, the IRS was mired in a massive scandal which had to do with the heavy-handed use of government power against conservative groups.  Why hold Trump to account when the IRS had not been put to rights?

The key explanation Stille advances that is so clearly relevant to our situation in the US today was that Berlusconi took advantage not only of a lack of trust in government generally, but a situation in which parties of the left and right were perceived as having failed the Italian people, both-party failure as it were.  This meant that when Berlusconi was criticized, he could always respond by running against politicians (this should sound familiar) and politics as usual.  The ultimate consequence as Stille describes it was rule by plebiscite rather than the rule of law, something that should sound familiar to scholars who have analyzed Nixon’s presidency.

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