Silvio Berlusconi Was the Iconic Political Figure of Our Times

Silvio Berlusconi, who died today at age 86, centered Italian politics on his TV empire and brought the far right to power. A predecessor to Donald Trump, he remains the ultimate icon of the sidelining of democracy by media power.

Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian prime minister, reacts after casting his vote in the referendum on constitutional reform at a polling station in Rome, Italy, on December 4, 2016. (Alessia Pierdomenico / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The end of an era.” La Repubblica headed its coverage of Silvio Berlusconi’s death by emphasizing his long spell at the center of public life. This framing of his “historic” stature was perhaps kinder than a warts-and-all treatment of his record of criminal ties, abuse of office, and use of parliament to defend his TV empire. Yet to say that his death marks the end of an era is to misunderstand the changes he embodied. From Italy’s current far-right government to the rise of Trumpism in the United States, we are still living in Berlusconi’s world.

The media tycoon’s first electoral run in 1994 heralded many changes that soon spread across Western democracy. Centering his campaign on resisting a supposedly overmighty left, he ran as leader not of a mass party but of a start-up vehicle called Forza Italia. Its candidate lists were populated by his business allies; its campaign took place via his own private TV stations; and its call for a “liberalized,” free-market Italy was married with the use of state power to serve his own business interests. It was, in short, a creeping privatization of Italian democracy.

This was possible due to the rottenness of the old order, expressed in a corruption scandal known as “Bribesville,” which sank the old mass parties between 1992 and 1994. In an atmosphere of failing popular faith in institutions, Forza Italia and its allies claimed to represent a new “liberalizing” movement; they denigrated elitist “politicians.” The neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano recreated itself as the party of “la gente” — ordinary folks — not “tangente” — the bribe.

Berlusconi, a longtime member of the P2 masonic lodge — who had, through his associate Marcello Dell’Utri, a record of mafia ties — was an ironic candidate to represent this change of the times. His rule would in fact harden the bind between state power and murky business interests. Yet the new right that he led managed to cohere a sizable minority of Italians behind its project, routinely winning power as the Left’s own base fragmented. While Berlusconi’s legal problems eventually did hamper his political career, he leaves behind a permanently withered public realm and a radicalized right.

End of History

The end of the Cold War was decisive in bringing down the old Italian political order and unleashing the forces that first brought Berlusconi to power. Amid the triumphalism of the “end of history” and its petty ideological squabbles, liberal media spoke excitedly of a historic opportunity: the moment to create a “modern,” “normal,” “European” Italy, which could rise from the ashes of the old mass parties. Repentant Communists turned to social democrats or liberals, and the long-mighty Christian Democratic and Socialist parties disappeared under the weight of corruption charges. The mafia-orchestrated massacres that marked the beginning of the 1990s added urgency to the call for Italian public life to be cleaned up — and the rule of law finally imposed by an efficient and rational administration.

Berlusconi’s first foray into the electoral arena was a response to this same moment of refoundation — but, while likewise harnessing a “post-ideological” spirit, pointed in an almost opposite direction. The implosion of the mass parties and their social roots brought not a moralized public realm finally freed of patronage networks, but rather its capture by those, like Berlusconi, who already held power by non-electoral means. While in the postwar decades the parliament and even the public broadcaster had been dominated by the parties who led the Resistance against fascism, this had already begun to change. Berlusconi’s business empire had first been built in real estate, its expansion in yuppified 1980s Milan helping him incarnate the spirit of dynamic entrepreneurial hedonism. Thanks to his ties with Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party, in these same years he was able to convert his local TV networks into national, private stations.

The collapse of the old parties also fed a kind of celebritization of public life, married to the search for US-style “presidential” leaders. Far beyond Berlusconi himself, a host of businessmen, judges, and technocrats vied for control of the electoral arena as supposed “savior” figures who could retrieve Italy from the ills of politicians and politics. This personalization of public life surely reached its height during Berlusconi’s nine years as prime minister, scattered between 1994 and 2011. His continual sexist and racist comments, his trivialization of historical fascism, and his denunciations of the supposedly “Communist” magistrates’ attacks on him enraged his opponents and stirred his own base.

During this period, the center left routinely fell into the trap of making the tycoon’s personal wrongdoing the focus of its own political action — with endless attempts to reach out to the supposed “moderate” parts of Berlusconi’s base who would eventually grow tired of his antics. What was rather less in question — and much more damaging to the Left’s own historic electorate — was the unquestioned priority of business and economic “liberalization” as the model for Italy’s future.

In a limited sense, Berlusconi’s personal corruption was indeed a political Achilles’s heel. In 2013, he was barred from public office thanks to a tax fraud conviction, which killed off his position as leader of the right-wing alliance and soon opened the way to Matteo Salvini’s Lega. Yet by the time that this happened, the center left had already joined in government with him, as the imposition of postcrisis austerity measures called for “grand coalitions” supposedly surpassing political divides.

Right-Wing Turn

Forza Italia is no longer the dominant force on the Italian right: it is today a relatively junior partner in the coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascists. Veteran Berlusconi allies such as longtime Sicilian party boss Gianfranco Miccichè have already said that Forza Italia is unlikely to survive without its historic founder-owner. Yet, while the party itself may be on its last legs, the Berlusconian transformation of Italian public life is still very much with us.

Indeed, a focus on Berlusconi’s self-interested agenda and eccentric public persona can also obscure his more specific effect on the party system. He shed light on this in a 2019 speech in which — already past his political prime — he boasted of his historical role in building the right-wing coalition. “It was us who legitimized and constitutionalized the Lega and the fascists,” he insisted, making a government with these forces in 1994 where previous parties had refused them as potential allies. He said this in a speech distancing himself from “sovereigntist” Italian nationalism: he suggested that he had moderated these forces by integrating them into high office. Yet the real record is much more mixed.

Through many changes and sporadic breakups, this basic alliance — Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, with the northern-regionalist Lega and the heirs to fascism, today organized in Fratelli d’Italia — has lasted almost three decades. Yet while in recent years the tycoon presented himself as a “pro-European” guard against “populist” tendencies, overall the clear dynamic has been for this coalition’s nationalist identity politics to radicalize, under the leadership of Salvini and now Meloni.

Part of this opening was a matter of historical revisionism, seeking to trivialize the record of fascism. Surely, the billionaire’s claims that Benito Mussolini “never killed anyone” were offensive to anti-fascists and those who remembered the regime. But they were not just about the past, but about casting Italy and Italians as victims of left-wing political correctness and a cultural hegemony not won at the ballot box. Berlusconi also sought to change what he called Italy’s “Soviet-inspired” constitution written by the Resistance parties in 1946–47 and replace it with a leader-centric one. Meloni today promises to carry through the same agenda: not just historical revisionism, but a final killing-off of the postwar political order and its mass parties, through a rewriting of the constitution itself.

On Friday, TV host Lucia Annunziata claimed that Meloni’s plans to rewrite the document and stack public broadcaster RAI with political allies were a bit to create a “top-heavy order with its own Istituto Luce.” She here hyperbolically compared Meloni’s view of the media with the fascist regime; elsewhere, the new government has drawn many comparisons with Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán. Yet it is also a pure product of a more recent Italian story, from plunging democratic participation to the rise of resentful nationalism, and an “anti-communism” that has long survived the real existence of Communists.

Berlusconi surely did not hollow out Italian democracy or give a leg up to the far right all by himself. But he surely is the iconic representative, the smiling face, the ridiculous yet dark figure who veered between racist jokes and legislation that suppressed migrants, “indulgent” references to Mussolini and the deadly police repression at the Genoa G8 summit in 2001. Like George W. Bush, whose Iraq War he supported with Italian troops, Berlusconi would later in life be positively compared to the harsher, more radical right that followed, his love of poodles given remarkable space on the public broadcaster.

Yet far from a happier time that contrasts with today’s ills, Berlusconi’s spell in power produced the monsters that followed. The trivialization of his record today, as a supporter of Europe or NATO or even opponent of “populism,” is a marker of how far the political mainstream has swung to the right, and what low standards are set for “liberal democracy.” Berlusconi the man has gone, but we are still living in his world.