Opinion | What Berlusconi Could Teach Trump About Losing
MILAN — Consider two men with the same background: real estate, entertainment, television, conservative politics. Same passions: adulation, flashy mansions, golden furniture, younger women, a perpetual tan, their own hair. Same strengths: cheeky charm, boldness, resilience, the intuition to offer themselves as a provocative alternative to an establishment that treated them as upstarts. Same weakness: acute narcissism. Both seem ready to do everything to stay in the limelight.
Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi have been placed side by side often, but the comparisons stop there. And not because the 45th president of the United States is 10 years younger and 10 inches taller. During Mr. Berlusconi’s service as Italy’s prime minister — three times between 1994 and 2011, for a total of more than nine years — no leader had lasted longer in the Italian republic’s history. Mr. Berlusconi preached moderation, loved coalitions, believed in international cooperation and hated having enemies. President Trump, by contrast, during his four years in power, has belittled coalitions, derided international cooperation and loved having enemies. If they were not available, he created them.
There is one more difference between the two men. And at this moment it matters more. When defeated, Silvio Berlusconi bowed out gracefully. In 1995, his first government collapsed and he was replaced by a technocrat, just a few months after a stunning victory in an election that he had entered with a new party, Forza Italia. In 1996, he lost in snap elections to a center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi. In 2006, after five years as prime minister, he lost again, by a whisker, against the same opponents. And finally in 2011, he was ousted from office by a combination of runaway public finances, sexual scandals, judicial troubles and European outrage.
Mr. Berlusconi is many things, not all of them good, but he is no sore loser. Maybe his many years as chairman of AC Milan — a successful soccer team that won the European Champions League three times between 1989 and 1994 — taught him that in politics, like in sports, you win some, perhaps many, but not all. Or maybe it was his burning desire to be loved by all that prevented Mr. Berlusconi from accepting the idea that voters had turned against him. They might change their mind, he would think. And as a matter of fact, they did. Three times. After three setbacks.
The aging cavaliere, or knight, as he’s known in Italy, never accused the opponents of cheating in the polls; well, once in 2006, when he lost by 25,000 votes with a total of more than 38 million cast. But even then he did not insist. And he had the means to do it, including the ownership of half of Italian television through his company Mediaset. (Conflicts of interest did not bother him.) He was never ashamed to use his networks to attack opponents and sing his own praise, but he did not use them to entrench in office. The idea of whimpering repulsed him; it went against the flattering self-portrait so carefully painted over the years. Being evicted is not Silvio Berlusconi’s idea of a stylish stage exit. A showman knows when the spotlights are about to be turned off.
But how do we, the voters, stop his getting back onstage? Is there a way to cut back on a populist’s political capital, his power of persuasion, his ability to rally? Here, Mr. Berlusconi taught us a few dos and don’ts.
The first: Don’t overreact. Stop comparing everything to the defeated tycoon and referring to his time in office. Avoid making him an obsession. These political characters thrive in the limelight. They love to be the center of attention — wives, lovers, wealth, private jets, Putin’s friendship, mansions in Florida or Sardinia, anything goes. But furious, ruthless opponents work even better. Mr. Berlusconi kept coming back because the Italian liberals and progressive forces were entranced by him — for years, they talked and wrote nonstop about Mr. Berlusconi. Their obsession was his political oxygen.
The second piece of advice: Don’t give voters the impression of persecuting their defeated leader. Ousted manic populists — like oppressive former lovers — adore playing the victim. It’s the perfect second act. For almost 20 years, Mr. Berlusconi used his legal headaches to rally followers — from tax evasion to sexual misbehavior, including a long trial revolving around a very young girl from Morocco whom he introduced as “the niece of President Mubarak.”
The third piece of advice: Don’t let these characters off the hook too lightly. They will sell immunity — in any shape or form — to their electorate as proof of innocence. The cavaliere never mentions being let off the hook because of a statute of limitations. He says he was acquitted.
The fourth tip from Italy is: Give room to people who could replace a fallen leader. The right, more than the left, loves charismatic leaders, who need time to build their careers and profiles. Mr. Berlusconi’s comeback skills are obvious, as we’ve seen. But he made sure that no one stepped into his shoes. He chose, and discarded, at least a dozen successors. Among them Gianfranco Fini, a former foreign minister, and Giulio Tremonti, his longtime finance minister. When they lost his favor, they disappeared from public view. At 84, after a risky brush with Covid-19, the cavaliere is still the leader of his party, Forza Italia, now down to single digits in the polls — an avuncular figure, trying to build bridges with the center-left government in time of pandemic need.
The fifth, and final, Italian lesson: Accept the fact that the candidate still has a following, and that in a democracy, the size of that following is up to voters to decide. Mr. Berlusconi began to lose his shine years after he lost office, when younger demagogues — like Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, or Giorgia Meloni of Brothers of Italy — came on the scene.
Donald Trump just pieced togther the second-largest popular vote for the presidency in American history, after Joe Biden. It’s a fact, not an opinion. If almost 71 million people voted for him, respect that. Treating them as dimwitted citizens is what Donald Trump hopes will happen so he can build on their rage and return to power, for another disastrous stint in office.
Beppe Severgnini, an editorial writer and editor at Corriere della Sera, writes regularly about Italian and European politics, society and culture.
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