Coppola: The American Berlusconi

Success in business doesn't necessarily mean success in politics.

by Cristoforo Coppola | 10/6/16 12:30am

“I don’t need to go into office for the power. I have houses all over the world, stupendous boats... beautiful airplanes, a beautiful wife, a beautiful family... I am making a sacrifice.” One would probably think that these words belong to this year’s Republican candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump. Yet these words were said long before Trump, in 1994 when another businessman sought to govern his country. His name was Silvio Berlusconi.

The similarities between the two men are striking. They are both successful real estate businessmen who made their names in the television industry. While Berlusconi owns one of the biggest television broadcast companies in Italy, Trump rose to fame by hosting the famous television show,The Apprentice.

They both have large families with numerous children and grandchildren through multiple marriages and successive divorces. They both have damaged their campaigns through their treatment of women; Berlusconi is infamous for his erotic “Bunga Bunga” parties, and Trump has made several derogatory comments about women, such as “it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” To an extent, even their appearances are similar: Both resemble one of Madame Tussauds’ wax statues.

In 1994, when Berlusconi first ran for Prime Minister of Italy, some people were skeptical. Yet, one of the biggest talking points of his campaign is one that is also dear to Trump today. Berlusconi proclaimed himself “the best Italian businessman post-World War II” and persuaded the Italian people that he could apply his business skills to turn the theoretical and bureaucratic world of politics into a practical, problem-solving job.

For most Italians, this sounded like the solution to the country’s problems. Finally, there was someone outside the political establishment ready to bypass the special interests and party politics within it. Similar to the United States today, there was at the time an unprecedented distaste for establishment politicians, who were viewed as corrupt. Italy was going through a major political corruption scandal later coined Tangentopoli, which is translated literally as “Bribesville."

Berlusconi won that election, and the years that followed proved to the Italians that a businessman is no less corruptible than any other man. On the contrary, he may be more likely to have implicit conflicts of interest. How can a businessman regulate the economy without considering the effects on his own business interests?

Berlusconi’s stated reforms, ranging from reducing taxes to cutting public spending, were always front and center on his election flyers but had little priority in the law proposals he presented to Parliament. On the other hand, laws that favored Berlusconi’s businesses were probably his biggest accomplishment while in office. Even the act of running for office could have benefited him personally. What better publicity scheme is there than to run for the country’s highest office?

As an Italian who loves his country and who has lived through the failures of the Berlusconi years, I urge Americans not to fall into the same trap. The claim that in order to solve the problems of the American political system, the American people must elect an “outsider,” a businessman who has for his entire life worked solely for his own interest, is unfounded. The system has to be changed from within. People have to start caring more about all levels of government, not just the presidency. We cannot complain about the failures of democracy if we use our power as voters to hand our country to a politician who can clearly do it so much harm.

I write this well-aware that Berlusconi and Trump are not the same person. Nonetheless, their platforms have some clear similarities, especially the emphasis on promising that a successful businessman will solve all the country’s problems. Berlusconi famously declared that he was “cursed to win because he “always wins.” Trump promises that America will “start winning again” and emphasizes that only he “knows how to win.” When you look closely, the similarities are remarkable. Berlusconi and Trump are truly two peas in a pod.