I only spent one day in Naples. We arrived to Italy by ship, my father and I, in summer, 1999, sought dinner in town, explored a bit, and the next morning left for Rome.
But it was beautiful, in a quiet, laid-back, decayed sort of way. Men stood at coffee bars with their suit coats draped over their shoulders, like capes. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry. The buildings were all 100 years old, largely empty and gone to seed.
Whenever I contemplate the looming decline of the United States—insisting that our country is "great" or will again be "great" does not and will not be enough to magically make it so—I take comfort in thinking of Italy.
Americans could live like that; and maybe we're going to get the chance to find out.
After Nevada, with Trump's massive 46 percent win, nearly twice the vote gotten by his nearest opponent, the pipsqueak Marco Rubio, I said to my wife, "He'll be our Silvio Berlusconi."
Yes, I know. Don't feel bad. We're Americans, world politics eludes us. Silvio Berlusconi was an Italian billionaire who served as prime minister for nine years, despite being, to quote The Economist, "unfit to be in politics—let alone run Italy."
I'm not the first to make the connection. Rooting around online, comparing the two, I noticed that last September—a century ago, it seems, in this primary season, the Washington Post published an article equating the two. And why not? The comparisons are clear.
"Berlusconi started out as a wealthy demagogue on the brink of bankruptcy, whose celebrity was — like Trump’s — rooted in both real estate and popular entertainment culture," wrote foreign policy analyst Rula Jebreal. "Berlusconi presented himself as Italy’s strongman, speaking like a barman, selling demonstrably false promises of wealth and grandeur for all. He made the electorate laugh while stoking fears of communists and liberals stripping privileges and increasing taxes. Presaging Trump, the Italian media mogul cast himself as the only viable savior of a struggling nation: the political outsider promising to sweep in and clean up from the vanquished left and restore the country to its lost international stature. “I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I sacrifice myself for everyone,” Berlusconi said. Now we find Trump promising “to make America great again,” pledging to become the “greatest jobs president […] ever created.”
Spoiler alert. Berlusconi didn't do any of that. He mired himself in a number of corruption and sex scandals and got himself sentenced to prison while the country went to hell. The economy didn't soar; it cratered. In Naples, they had trouble collecting the garbage.
"Trump managed to tap into real anger and disillusionment with an American political class owned by billionaires like him. He's taken populism to new depths, tacitly embracing a call to 'get rid of' all American Muslims," Jebreal writes. "Berlusconi appealed to their most base instincts and sanctified their prejudices, rendering them unwilling to overlook the obvious hypocrisy and fallacy of his promises."
That does sound familiar.
"As prime minister, he repeatedly put his own interests before the country’s," The Economist opined in 2013. "He exacerbated popular cynicism about public life."
Familiar indeed. I would have thought it was impossible for Americans to be more bitter, divided and hopeless. But I'd bet Donald Trump is up for the task. It is uncertain whether he'll actually grab the Republican nomination and then beat Hillary Clinton. But if he does win, it is an utter certainty that, like Berlusconi, he'll leave our nation in far worse shape than he found it, sadder if no wiser.