Foreign Affairs

The Immortal Life of Silvio Berlusconi

Italians can be crazy. I would know because I’m one of them. We eat massive meals on the regular, learn to cook by age 6, talk with our hands, have two volumes (loud and louder), constantly remind people we’re Italian, and consider eating at Olive Garden akin to masochism. We expect no less absurdity from the mother nation we have descended from. Much like in our families, uneasy coalitions make for dramatic internal politics that leave everyone sitting on a round-the-clock powder keg.

The current government is headed by Independent and shadily Vatican-affiliated Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte who presides over a cabinet of colorful characters. There’s 32-year-old Luigi di Maio who lived with his parents six years ago and is now the head of the Five Star Movement, the largest party in parliament. They’re a nationalist, anti-establishment party with few discernable values other than obscure anti-corruption, anti-immigrant, and oddly pro-environmentalist policy planks. They were founded by a stand-up comedian less than ten years ago, because why not? Then there’s Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega Nord Party, a far-right organization from Lombardy. Salvini has expressed support for Mussolini, seeks to deport the gypsies, and has advocated for a “mass cleansing, street by street, piazza by piazza, neighborhood by neighborhood” of non-Italians. He and di Maio serve as Deputy Prime Ministers.

But this article isn’t about these insane individuals — at least not directly. An explosive situation in need of defusing has presented itself. In a government filled with radicals that will imminently tear each other apart for any shred of power possible, Italy needs another face to turn to. But who, you ask? Well, there is another player in the background. He’s from another party. He’s a shark in the water, who will probably cross all of them when it’s most convenient. He’s a phoenix who has risen from the ashes time and time again, the ultimate political survivor. But he’s not very discreet. He’s probably the crassest, most corrupt, and criminal leader in the history of Post-World War II Western Europe. And he’s back.

Of course, I’m talking about the man, the myth, the legend: Silvio Berlusconi.

Silvio Berlusconi, who comedian John Oliver eloquently described as someone who looks like a cross between Andy Garcia and brisket, is the disgraced billionaire media tycoon, former owner of soccer club AC Milan and four-time government leading prime minister currently leading the center-right Forza Italia Party. With the resurrection of his previously considered dead political career when he took charge of the party prior to last year’s elections (despite being barred from holding public office until this year), Berlusconi has positioned himself back into power. He formed a coalition with Salvini and the Lega, a formidable alliance placing himself centerstage in the inevitable showdown. As he enters his 83rd year of life fresh off his ban, Berlusconi has announced that he will again seek public office. But to understand Berlusconi, we need to start at the beginning.  

Berlusconi was born on September 29, 1936, to a middle-class Milanese family. He studied law, played the double bass and kind of hilariously sang on cruises in the 1960s. During this period, he started a construction firm in Milan and then entered the media industry in 1973. In 1978, he founded Fininvest, a media group that by 1983 had become a national network of local TV stations broadcasting with similar television programs and opinions. In effect, he ran the first and only Italian commercial television empire. In this five year period, he earned around 113 billion Italian lire (roughly $65.8 million) from unknown funding sources due to his vast network of holding companies despite several investigations.

His immense wealth allowed him to purchase AC Milan in 1986, which he owned until selling it in 2017. He established Mediaset, Italy’s largest media conglomerate in 1987, of which he continues to be the majority shareholder. His wealth also allowed him to purchase power, as he immediately became prime minister as a freshman member of the Forza Italia Party in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house in Italian Parliament) in 1994. He would serve until electoral defeat in 1995, win again in 2001, serve until electoral defeat in 2006, then win again in 2008, and serve until his forced resignation in 2011. He presided over four governments. His entire time in power was plagued by constant scandal, and as Anakin Skywalker once said, “this is where the fun begins.”

We’ll start with the “minor” scandals. In 2013, he was convicted of tax evasion, the only time he’s really been punished for anything. Though originally sentenced to prison time, he instead did community service, was expelled from the Senate, and was slapped with the six-year bar from holding public office mentioned earlier. He had been charged with false accounting four times and almost landed in prison for 1-4 years but either won on appeal or, for two charges, changed the law himself to be found not guilty. He also failed to follow up on his promise of giving up his shares in Mediaset while president.

He has been found guilty of 10 other crimes, including several more cases of false accounting and millions of lira paid in bribes to various judges and politicians. However, he avoided punishment again either through legislation his government passed or rules on statute of limitations. Berlusconi bribes in exchange for favors in the UK landed British lawyer (and husband of a Blair cabinet member) David Mills in prison for four years. He has also been accused of extensive ties to Mafia, particularly to those responsible for the 1992-1993 wave of massacres, whose victims included two judges. He has also been accused of extorting advertising funds from RAI, Italy’s national broadcasting network. Berlusconi is currently on trial for taking even more bribes and defamation of character.

Then there is the ceaseless barrage of sex scandals. After his second wife filed for divorce in 2009, citing Berlusconi’s solicitation of minors for sex, he was caught having paid for the sexual services of a 17-year-old. His response was needless to say, awful, saying, “It’s better to be fond of beautiful girls than to be gay.” He has been accused of sexual misconduct several other times and even engaged in prostitution. According to President George W. Bush’s daughter, Barbara Bush, Berlusconi made creepy, sexual comments to her at dinner with her mother. Berlusconi has been known to throw massive orgies called “Bunga Bunga” parties which occurred in, among several properties owned for such purposes, the official residence of the Italian prime minister. Some of these orgies reportedly featured a woman dressed as Barack Obama. You just can’t make these things up.

There’s also his wide range of bizarre comments and actions. He repeatedly made racially insensitive comments about President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. He made an unprintable remark about the appearance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and denied it in one of the cringiest interviews known to humankind. Berlusconi is also great friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even gifting him an incredibly creepy bedspread with a picture of the two of them together for Putin’s birthday, for some reason. Putin’s relationship with Berlusconi has come under scrutiny, as it is said to have bought the Russian leader considerable influence in Italy. He was also a close friend to the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, much to the ire of the rest of the world. Berlusconi also utilized his media machine to build a quasi-cult of personality with a chilling grip on media institutions and a North Korean-esque 2008 campaign video of people singing “thank God Silvio exists.”

There are other things too, but they would turn this article into an encyclopedia. For fun sometime, I encourage you to check out the Wikipedia pages “Trials and allegations involving Silvio Berlusconi” and “Controversies surrounding Silvio Berlusconi.” So, with a rap sheet a mile long, how in the hell is this person still around? Berlusconi is still relatively popular with 25 percent confidence among the people. While in America this wouldn’t be good news, having 25 percent popularity is a milestone in a European political setting.

Despite everything, Berlusconi managed to leverage this popularity into electoral gains for the Forza Italia Party. In order to strengthen his position over the Five Star Movement leading parliament, Berlusconi shamelessly entered a mutually beneficial partnership with the far-right Salvini and his Lega Party by forming a coalition. Together, this rightist coalition currently holds a majority in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Since most of the time Italian parties don’t have full majorities and are not able to unilaterally elect a prime minister from their ranks, such coalitions are necessary. If Forza Italia and the Lega can gain even more seats, Berlusconi will be able to strike. With sufficient seats, members of other parties on his side, and enough pandering to the far-right (for whom he now openly campaigns for), Berlusconi can get Salvini to be prime minister and himself to a prominent position.

A Salvini premiership is a scary thought, but one that seems more than likely to happen after the next elections, as Salvini has an unheard of 60 percent popularity according to some recent polls. In this event, Berlusconi would ride Salvini’s coattails and either dominate his decision making or push him out to become prime minister himself. Whatever happens, Berlusconi will probably once again emerge victorious because of his vast network of connections, greater experience than Salvini, and most importantly, his invincibility.

What is political invincibility? Historically, seemingly invincible politicians just exist but only for a time. There are three case studies to consider to help us better understand what makes people like Berlusconi invincible. First, we can look to Richard Nixon. After losing both the presidential election of 1960 and the California gubernatorial election of 1962, Nixon completed his political reincarnation by winning the presidency in 1968 despite previous allegations of scandal. Secondly, look to Napoleon. Despite being exiled to St. Elba after losing to the Sixth Coalition, he quickly returned to power in France. Even more impressive is Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna who fell out of and returned to power in Mexico 11 times.

Nixon, Napoleon, and Santa Anna all had aspects in common. They were authoritarian strongmen who used dirty tactics and took advantage of the instability of the times. Nixon’s  Southern Strategy and coded message of “Law and Order” took advantage of the widespread fears of violence, rapid social change, and overthrow of the old order of power. This, paired with dirty tactics (such as prolonging the Vietnam War with agents from his campaign) and his familiar face of normalcy undoubtedly contributed to his victory. Napoleon seized on the power vacuum left in his wake and his familiarity with the people to reenter power and once again threaten the whole of Europe. Similarly, the Mexican people rallied behind military dictator Santa Anna time and time again simply because they knew him well enough as a strong figure in scary times and Santa Anna was shifty enough to adjust.

Silvio Berlusconi has many of these aspects. He too is a strongman with a strict cult of personality around him. People are attracted to such strength, especially in a time when fear stemming from migrants from Africa attempting to enter Italy en masse is brewing, the economy is about to crash and his supporters either deny wrongdoing altogether or simply ignore it. The cognitive dissonance of his supporters from reality goes so far as to people literally holding a “We are all Whores” rally in support of him after his investigation for underage prostitution.

Not to turn this into a Huffington Post article circa February 2017, but Donald Trump is also “invincible” in his own right, almost parallel to Berlusconi. He too has been dogged by lies, gaffes, numerous allegations of sexual misconduct, tax inconsistencies, extramarital affairs, possible ties to the Russian government and seemingly constant scandals coming out of his administration. Yet, there is a significant number of Americans who practically worship him. They either choose to ignore everything he says and does or call pieces of news against him “fake news.” He, like Richard Nixon, calls the media the “enemy of the people,” helping him to invalidate anything negative said about himself. Right behind him are most of the Republican Party, who probably don’t necessarily like him (38 percent of self-identified wealthy Republicans do not support him) but will vote for him for political reasons. But even then, I can’t really blame them. The times are scary and it is easy to blame establishment politicians on both sides, so why not support someone who will shake up the system, like Berlusconi or Trump?

Trump, Berlusconi, Nixon, Napoleon and Santa Anna all have or had political careers that simply could not be destroyed by external forces or their own reckless actions. But what Berlusconi, and by extension, Trump need to remember is that all of their predecessors had their downfalls due to their perceived invincibility. Santa Anna was removed once and for all in 1853 after selling significant land to the United States without fear of consequence; Napoleon had his Waterloo; and Nixon, his Watergate. While it is unclear what will happen next in Italy, we must keep our eyes on the seemingly immortal Silvio Berlusconi and “invincible” politicians like him everywhere. While they may live to see another day, history shows that their corruption or overconfidence will bring them down in one way or another.   

But this is not necessarily true. Many strongmen of history managed to survive political decapitation, and it was oftentimes some of the worst ones too — looking at you, Stalin, Mao and Castro. This can be attributed to political craftiness or sometimes sheer luck. God may throw a Russian winter your enemy’s way. The CIA may fail to poison your cigar. Not to put Berlusconi on the same relative moral level as any of those people, but like them, he may transcend all conventional political logic. Just this month, Berlusconi appeared again in the news after allegations that a witness in a case about his “Bunga Bunga” parties died from poisoning. And yet, Berlusconi looks likely to get off once again with little international outrage.

As for Berlusconi’s political future, there are three options. First, he could help Salvini become prime minister and either control him or be kicked out by Salvini when he outlives his usefulness. Secondly, he might complete his political comeback with a premiership that could sink with an inevitable scandal. He also probably wouldn’t come back from that because he’s probably reaching his expiration date due to old age. Least likely, he could become premier again, then repair his image at least somewhat by not having a scandal. Regardless of outcome, everything will go down very dramatically in true Italian fashion.

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