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How Silvio Berlusconi Wrecked Italy—and, Sort of, America

The late Italian mogul and prime minister knew how to position himself as the working class’s authentic defender while doing little for them. Sound familiar?

Berlusconi attends the inauguration of a new regional headquarters of Forza Italia in Milan
Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images
Berlusconi attends the inauguration of a new regional headquarters of Forza Italia in Milan on November 19, 2022.

Millions of Italians were watching TV on the evening of January 26, 1994, when regular programming on the nation’s three largest private networks was suddenly interrupted to present the owner of those networks, Silvio Berlusconi, sitting at the desk of his sumptuous eighteenth-century villa to announce that he was “entering the pitch,” using a soccer metaphor to describe his decision to run for the office of prime minister. Berlusconi, who died Monday at age 86, did so; he turned his media and financial empire into a political war machine and changed Italian politics forever.

Eight years after Donald Trump rode the golden escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president in June 2015, it should be clear that Berlusconi—for better or worse—was a pioneer of a new kind of politics. He was the prototype of the billionaire populist, a plutocrat with the common touch and a strange working-class appeal. He was a brilliant salesman who, above all, sold himself, a winning formula in a post-ideological era in which class-based politics and traditional parties had broken down. He flaunted his wealth and bragged about his sexual conquests, continually breaking the usual norms of public life—and many of its laws—in ways that horrified his critics but made him appear all the more “authentic” to his fans.

A few years before Fox News began operating in 1996, Berlusconi created a new kind of hyperpartisan news coverage on his networks that promoted his candidacy, savagely attacked his opponents, and constructed an alternate information universe that allowed him to survive scandal after scandal in ways that seemed to defy the normal rules of politics. At the same time, he kept almost none of the extravagant promises he made to voters, leading Italy through a period of prolonged economic stagnation. He was much better at campaigning than governing, but he kept the country mesmerized by turning Italy’s politics into the planet’s longest-running reality TV show.

It is worth looking back to see how he did it.

Berlusconi (like Trump) made his initial fortune in real estate with a combination of entrepreneurial daring and political connections. His biggest coup came in the early 1970s, when Berlusconi was in his mid-thirties, in the form of a massive suburban American-style gated community outside Milan, named Milano 2 (it was begun in 1971, completed in 1979, but it was already inhabited by 1974). He was able to buy the land cheaply because it was located right near a busy airport. Berlusconi succeeded in convincing politicians in Rome to change the air routes of the airport so that they no longer passed over his property. Suddenly, his investment increased exponentially in value, making him one of Milan’s wealthiest men.

In 1974, Berlusconi began experimenting with private television, first offering cable TV service to the residents of Milano 2 and then through a local station, Telemilano. Significantly, one of his innovations was offering a televised striptease show, markedly at odds with Italy’s buttoned-down public TV network, then dominated by the conservative Christian Democratic Party. At the time, Italy’s high court had established that private television could operate only on a local basis. Berlusconi defied the ban, bought up local stations, and decided to get around the rules by broadcasting the same show a few seconds apart so that he could argue that they were actually local programs, while selling advertising by offering a national market.

This gave him a huge leg up on his competition, which was much more worried about breaking the law. He bought up entire libraries of American TV shows, offering cheesy entertainment that he suspected Italians really wanted to watch but that more high-minded Italian stations, determined to educate the public, wouldn’t deign to offer. Berlusconi understood that television was a vehicle for selling advertising, and so he convinced a group of advertisers to back him in bringing Dallas to Italy.

Postwar Italy was dominated by what some referred to as “the two churches,” the Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party, both of which shared a rather austere moral outlook. Before the late 1970s, Italian state TV would not accept advertising for dog food because they felt it was unseemly when people were starving in Biafra. By the end of the 1970s, Italy was exhausted by ideological conflict that had resulted in the paroxysms of terrorist violence the country was living through at the time.

Berlusconi offered a welcome respite from all that: Baywatch, Wheel of Fortune, Dallas, and Dynasty. To create advertiser-supported private TV, Berlusconi needed to change the culture and create a desire for a world awash in consumer goods, a world in which it was OK to be rich, to have fun, to enjoy sex, and to forget the world’s problems. A fantasy world of sumptuous villas, luxury cars, lavish furnishings, expensive gadgets, and beautiful women. “We can do a lot to change the narrow mentality of people, its vision of scarcity,” Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi made his big push into TV with mostly borrowed money, outspending and then buying out his competitors. He did so with the largesse of public banks controlled by the Socialist Party, then headed by political strongman Bettino Craxi, who was best man at Berlusconi’s second wedding. There is a good deal of suggestive—but inconclusive—evidence that the Sicilian Mafia was one of the main investors in his private TV network, which, at the beginning, looked like a high-risk gamble.

After he acquired the other big national channels in 1982 and 1984, he had a virtual monopoly in private television. His empire and the state TV, Rai, controlled about 90 percent of the television audience between them. In October 1984, judges in three major cities ordered Berlusconi to stop broadcasting nationally and to show only local programming, as the Italian Supreme had decreed. Craxi flew back from a state visit in the U.K. and passed a special decree putting Berlusconi’s networks back on the air.

Italy fiddled with the idea of passing antitrust legislation during the next several years, but as the legislation evolved, it went from limiting a single person from owning one channel, to two channels, and finally to three channels—allowing Berlusconi to keep his empire intact. It later turned out that the people involved in drafting the legislation had received large sums from the Berlusconi company coffers. Investigators eventually found that some 21 billion lire (about $15 million) went into an account controlled by Craxi himself.

Berlusconi was acutely aware of how dependent he was on Italy’s patronage system, which began to come apart in 1992 under a barrage of corruption investigations—known as Operation Clean Hands—leaving him suddenly vulnerable. His political protectors left the scene, were indicted, or, in Craxi’s case, fled the country. With the center-left poised to take power, its leaders made no secret of their intention to cut Berlusconi down to size and take away his TV monopoly.

Meanwhile, the corruption investigation was getting closer day by day to the many skeletons in Berlusconi’s corporate closet. While other corporate executives were going to jail or committing suicide, Berlusconi, with his typical audacity, decided to go on the attack and take over the political system himself. He accomplished this—one of the more remarkable political feats of our time—by combining all the resources of his vast financial and media empire toward one purpose: becoming prime minister. His mutual fund salesmen became campaign workers, customers became voters, admen worked up campaign videos, executives who passed screen tests became candidates, and the media empire began to speak with one voice. “We must sing in chorus on the themes that interest us,” he told the heads of his magazine, television, and newspaper groups. “You must understand, you top editors, that we must respond to those firing against us with a concentrated attack of all our means against them. If those who attack us unjustly … were assaulted simultaneously by all the various media of our group, the aggression would end there.”

Berlusconi had become a national celebrity in part because of his successful ownership of the soccer club A.C. Milan. The adoration of the fans, who would call him “Signor Presidente” while ignoring the politicians he brought to the stadium, lodged the idea that he might run for office. He constantly market-tested his popularity, and his polls told him he had better name recognition and favorability ratings than any politician on the scene in 1993, as he contemplated entering politics. In the world of state TV and the “two churches,” Italian television rarely televised soccer, often limiting it to showing the second half of one match per week. The “churches” were convinced that if matches were on TV, no one would come to the stadium—the culture of scarcity. Berlusconi understood that by televising soccer constantly, and having multiple talk shows dedicated to soccer, he would increase demand. In fact, soccer replaced politics as the main topic of conversation in Italian life. When he entered politics, Berlusconi named his party “Forza, Italia!” (Go, Italy!), the chant fans shout when they root for the national team. Berlusconi understood that in a post-ideological moment, sports was one of the few things that held the country together.

Berlusconi had turned A.C. Milan from a loser into a champion with razzle-dazzle and a massive spending spree on the world’s best players. Now Berlusconi proposed doing the same for Italy itself. When respected economist Luigi Spaventa pointed out during a televised debate the inconsistencies of his economic program, Berlusconi responded: “How many Intercontinental Cups have you won? Before trying to compete with me, try, at least, winning a couple of national championships!” It was a classic populist move: turning the tables on the expert with concrete practical accomplishment, however irrelevant to the question at hand. Thus, while Spaventa and others on the left went to pains to explain how Berlusconi’s economic program would damage ordinary working people, Berlusconi, the billionaire, managed to shrewdly switch class roles, making opponents like Spaventa appear like an effete university professor and himself appear like a “doer” and a “winner,” a person whom the average working man and soccer fan could relate to and admire.

Berlusconi, although he was a pioneer, was hardly original in the sense that he often shamelessly copied American models. Milano 2 was a copy of an American suburban subdivision; his TV recycled much of the worst of American TV. In politics, he combined the Ronald Reagan “Morning in America” optimism and the self-made billionaire-in-politics campaign of Ross Perot. Perot bought unprecedentedly large blocks of unfiltered air time, coming out of nowhere to win 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election—an extraordinary feat in a system that penalizes third-party candidates. Berlusconi shrewdly understood that a campaign of that kind in Italy’s proportional electoral system could be the linchpin of a winning coalition. Berlusconi ran as an outsider, a victim of the old political parties, ready to free up Italy’s entrepreneurial energies. If his models were not original, what was perhaps most unique about Berlusconi was that he changed the culture of Italy and in effect created his own electorate. He was the evangelist of a culture of material success that was perfectly suited to seize the post-ideological moment.

Italian voters often repeated that “Berlusconi is too rich to be bought.” What they failed to understand was that Berlusconi’s infinite conflicts of interest and dominant position in so many industries made it impossible for him to carry out any of the reforms he claimed to want. He promised to be the Italian Margaret Thatcher, who was going to streamline the Italian economy and remove unwanted government red tape and interference, but opening up the economy would have meant making his own businesses vulnerable to more competition. And removing the hands of the government from thousands of choke points in the country’s economy would have meant removing his ability to reward his friends and punish his enemies. He was the last person to want to open up Italy’s economy.

The result has been that the “Berlusconi era” has been one of unmitigated economic decline.

When he came to power in 1994, Italy’s gross domestic product was comparable to that of the U.K. Within 20 years, it was about one-third smaller. Italy had the slowest growth of any European country and was frequently ranked down near Zimbabwe among the worst economies in the world. Berlusconi appeared bored by the routine work of governance. He became animated only when media and criminal justice legislation were at stake, because he cared principally about preserving his business interests and staying out of prison. He elected to Parliament his personal criminal defense attorneys, who literally divided their time between defending Berlusconi in court in Milan and crafting laws in Rome tailor-made to help their client and keep many of his associates out of prison. Meanwhile, evidence piled up that he and his company had bribed judges and even bribed a senator to change parties and bring down an opposition government.

The Italian public gradually tired of Berlusconi, wising up to the fact that he was in it for himself. He had trouble running on his record and winning reelection, but he was at his best in opposition, regaining his old magic as the aggrieved outsider, running against the establishment as soon as memory of his time office had faded a bit. During his last term in office (2008–2011), he seemed to become increasingly unmoored from reality, bringing into Parliament a series of showgirls with whom he was alleged to have had sexual relations. Stories of his orgiastic “bunga-bunga” parties began to surface.

Finally, in 2010, police arrested an underage Moroccan girl, who claimed that she was paid to participate in Berlusconi’s sex parties. Berlusconi phoned Milan police demanding that they release the girl, claiming she was the niece of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. (Berlusconi was put on trial for paying for sex with a minor—convicted but then acquitted on appeal when judges decided he could not have known she was a minor.) But it was finally the market—the bond market—that, ironically, did Berlusconi in. Interest rates on Italian Treasury bonds kept spiraling up—a sign of complete lack of confidence in Berlusconi’s ability to lead the country—to the point that the country risked default, until he resigned.

And yet the passage of a little time will do wonders. After several years of Trump in politics, Berlusconi looks almost like a dignified statesman: Churchill and DeGaulle rolled into one. He never tried to overturn Italy’s democratic system; he accepted the election results when he lost and never incited violence when he left office. He had no Steve Bannon or Steven Miller hoping to dismantle the administrative state or promote a white nationalist agenda. And yet he created a playbook that Trump and others have learned a lot from.