Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, is professor of history at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
He had a special relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He mainstreamed the far right. He accused journalists and prosecutors who exposed his corruption of organizing “witch hunts” against him. He blamed migrants for crime and placed them in detention centers. And he so dominated his country’s media that a woman interviewed by psychologists studying dementia could no longer recognize her family’s faces but knew his – along with those of Jesus Christ and the Pope.
When he was voted out of office, in part because his promises to work miracles to revive a sluggish economy raised expectations he could not meet, half the country sighed with relief. The other half doubled down on their loyalty to him. Two years later, he was re-elected.
The political career of Silvio Berlusconi (Prime Minister of Italy in 1994, from 2001 to 2006 and from 2008 to 2011) holds many lessons for Americans’ reckoning with the strange end to the Donald Trump presidency. Rather than concede that he was defeated by Joe Biden in the November 3 election, Trump has tried to cast doubt on the election’s validity. Like Berlusconi, he plays the victim, while hinting that he may run again in 2024. In the months and years ahead, we can expect Trump to present himself as a shadow leader who is fighting to win back what is rightfully his.
The billionaire Berlusconi laid down a template Trump would follow for the exercise of an autocratic style of governance within a nominal democracy. Loyalty to the head of state, rather than expertise, was the primary qualification for serving in his government, and the time and resources of his party, Forza Italia, were directed to fending off attacks against him and smearing his enemies. He lasted in office through numerous corruption trials, until the Eurozone crisis and a variety of scandals led to his resignation in 2011. Still, even today, the 84-year-old politician remains active as the head of Forza Italia.
While Berlusconi’s ownership of private television networks gave him more influence over broadcast audiences than Trump commands and he carried far less personal debt, the Italian leader shared a similar interest in remaining in power to avoid potential prosecution. He never stopped campaigning, even when he was out of office, and his base of followers (which included many women, despite his overt misogyny) never deserted him, no matter how many corruption charges he faced. Indeed, each accusation only proved to his base that the conspiracies to destroy him were true.
Like Berlusconi, Trump never aimed to be the leader of the entire nation, but only of those Americans who vote for him and support him no matter what he says or does. His aims as President have conformed to an authoritarian rather than a democratic playbook. Far from being lazy, he’s worked hard at the things he cares about. Chief among these is using public office to make money for his family’s private business, the Trump Organization, thus his laser-like focus on spending, as of the end of 2019, nearly one-third of his time at a Trump-branded property. He’s also invested many hours maintaining his personality cult through holding rallies and an incessant stream of tweets, and he’s stoked racism and divisive feelings that keep the nation polarized.
Trump’s unlikely to give up of all of these hard-won gains. And a 2024 campaign for president means he doesn’t have to. It could prevent anyone else from the GOP from becoming a rival for control and popular affection – strongman leaders like Berlusconi and Trump cannot stand to be challenged – and keep the flow of followers’ money coming in, some of it likely paying his large legal fees.
It also means he could feed his delusion that he is still the leader – this is the implication of saying the election results should not be accepted. Moreover, while the opposition sees him as a loser, he likely sees himself on an upward arc: He got more votes in 2020 than in 2016, despite his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. A similar optimism and drive to retain control spurred Berlusconi’s numerous “comebacks” over two decades of Italian politics.
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Berlusconi also provides us with a cautionary tale about the importance of pushing back against corruption. The center-left government that came in after his defeat in 2006 did not meet citizen expectations for anti-corruption reform. Not only did this make it seem ineffective, but it sparked populist anger at establishment politicians. In 2007, the comedian Beppe Grillo, later founder of the Five-Star Party that now co-governs in Italy, organized a “Go F*** Yourself” Day directed at the government, with protests in Bologna and 225 other Italian cities.
Others felt that Berlusconi had desensitized Italians to the corrosive effects of criminal behavior. As the filmmaker Nanni Moretti said, Italians’ “addiction” to Berlusconi had brought about a collapse “public ethics…we consider normal, things that are not.”
Americans have been similarly addicted to Trump, allowing his every statement and action to dominate their media feeds. While the President will likely remain the star of his self-created spectacle as a 2024 candidate, the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration has an opportunity to stand up forcefully for the principles of transparency and accountability in government that Trump and his allies so arrogantly trampled. This will send a message not only to Trump but to other authoritarian-minded American politicians waiting in the wings to build on his legacy.