Thursday, February 25, 2016

Silvio Trump


     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. 

     Not so bad, really. The highway of history, which used to run right through our land, was rerouted, long ago and now we sit in the sun in cafes and read the paper about stuff happening somewhere else. Little coffees in little cups with hard biscotti.  Idle conversations about nothing. Wild local politics fighting over the scraps of empire.
     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.


  1. When it comes the topic of Donald Trump, the well of good feelings I have for most people has been poisoned beyond any hope of remediation. I have a high school friend who created websites, and then sold them along with the domain name. The Donald wanted a domain name of his, and rather then making a fair deal, declares him a cyber squatter and sues demanding he turns over the domain name without paying for it. Since Trump rarely, if ever, signs a personal loan guaranty for his projects, the interest rate can be high. To get a better rate on the Trump Tower he came up with the Friends and Family deal, where people take the risk of committing to buying a condominium before the project starts. As the building neared completion, and it looks like they actually would be able to make a profit, Trump rewrites their contracts, so he can get more profits. Some art of the deal. Some people seem to thing it's an advantage to have a person with few scruples on their side, in my experience you will get burned along with everyone else. If Trump becomes President, his supporters will live to regret voting for him, and don't bother looking for an escape clause in his contract with America, because you won't find one.

  2. I still maintain that Trump will be hoist on one of his many petards. His bluster will only go so far. I liken him to the smash-and-grab thieves who eschew sophisticated robbery techniques for the most primitive approach. Surprisingly, they can get away with it for quite a long time... but not forever.


  3. I've been thinking Trump is like Citizen Kane, but now that the Berlusconi comparison is brought up, I can see the similarities there as well. If Trump has his own "bunga-bunga" parties, I'm sure he will say they were better and classier. And you're welcome for putting that image in your head.

    1. You beat me to it by 14 minutes!
      Bunga-bunga parties in the White House, what fun!
      My guess is that Trump would stay in Palm Beach at his ridiculous "palace" that he bought from the Post family. Because as president, the FAA would ban aircraft from flying over it, something that Trump hasn't been able to get so far for that overpriced pile.

  4. The only remotely humorous thing about l[affaire Trump is the panic it has thrown the conservative commentariat: Will and Rubin in the Washington Post; Charen in the Sun-Times.

    Tom Evans

  5. I neglected to mention Kass in the Tribune.


  6. Trump is like Rauner on steroids. The folks who envy his business acumen (I.E. piles of money) and power (I.E. Willingness to stomp on anyone he considers lower than him) may possibly get what they wish for. Good luck with that!

  7. What bother me is that unlike Italians we are not all that good at taking things as they come and enjoying life as much as we can. It could get real, real nasty here.

  8. Uh, from the vantage point of 2021, it's pretty evident that this post, and the last sentence in particular, have aged well.

  9. Um, 2024 chiming in here, and this column has aged like fine wine in the last nine years.

    And now? Orange Julius is once again plagiarizing from the Berlusconi playbook, as he races downhill toward a third straight GOP nomination, like a runaway lumber truck without any brakes:

    “I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I sacrifice myself for everyone...”

    If, God forbid, he is "reinstalled" next year, we may not end up sitting in the sun in cafes and leisurely reading the paper. Everything is on our devices now. Papers are going away. More importantly, we may simply become more like Israel...where it's just too dangerous for many idle outdoor conversations about nothing.

    Americans...more bitter, divided, and angry than ever...may eat each other alive and finally tear their country apart, as they "fight over the scraps of empire." And maybe scraps of food from dumpsters, as well, as we descend into anarchy and chaos.

    Could Americans end up living like that? Easily. And I'm becoming more and more afraid that we're going to get the chance to find out.


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