Donald Trump, top, speaks at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on March 6, 2014. Photo by Gage Skidmore courtesy of Flickr Commons. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, bottom, gestures as he speaks in Rome on May 10, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Parallel lives? Trump and Berlusconi

(RNS) Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election has few parallels in the history of contemporary politics in the Western world.

But the closest one is familiar to me: Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who was elected prime minister of Italy -- my homeland -- for the first time on March 27, 1994 and who served four stints as prime minister until 2011.

Berlusconi in effect remained the pivot of Italian politics for almost 20 years, until he was forced out and lost influence because of lurid revelations of relationships with a number of women (one of them an underage girl) and charges of prostitution and showgirls performing striptease acts dressed as sexy nuns and nurses -- what Italians referred to as "bunga bunga" parties.

One can only guess what fate awaits Trump’s sudden and potentially unstable political career. But it is fascinating -- and instructive -- to list the similarities with Berlusconi, not least their interplay with the prevailing religious culture.

First off, both men made early fortunes in real estate development, sometimes using questionable business practices.

In addition, both came to politics late in their lives, both after surviving the near collapse of their businesses. The arrival in the public arena for both men was also marked by a revolution in the language they used, in their handling of the media, and by their contempt for “political correctness.”

They also both emphasized the “genius” of the businessman over and against the alleged dysfunction of career politicians and politics in general.

And Berlusconi and Trump appealed to similar constituencies forgotten by the left and by a progressive culture perceived as allied with the establishment: blue-collar workers; an undereducated workforce at the mercy of the forces of globalization and the rise of the service economy; and “nostalgics” for a long-lost Christian nation where Christianity was a code for public (not personal) morality at the service of civil religion.

Moreover, both Berlusconi and Trump have a fascination with Vladimir Putin’s nationalism and strong leadership.

Berlusconi had a real political insight about the need to keep Russia in dialogue with the Western world through an alliance between Russia and NATO. And Berlusconi and Putin developed a friendship -- or whatever “friendship” might mean in that context: according to emails published by WikiLeaks, in 2010 Putin presented Berlusconi with a large bed. It will be interesting to see how far Trump develops his relationship with Putin.

Yet for all the similarities, there are also some interesting differences.

Berlusconi, for example, did not try to take over an existing political party, as Trump did with the GOP. Rather, after seeing the resistance of Italy’s center-right parties to unite under his aegis in an anti-leftist front, Berlusconi in three months built his own party and won the elections.

Berlusconi ran against the liberal establishment media, but he could also count on his own media empire (especially national television channels and newspapers) for good press.

Trump, on the other hand, fought with Fox News as much as he benefited from its coverage.

The most important difference is that Berlusconi understood, back in 1993-1994, that the end of the Cold War had left the left-wing parties and intellectuals in Italy without a message, without a culture, and with a lot to answer for.

In that void, the anti-communist and free-market economy appeal that was a key part of Berlusconi’s message in his first few years was sufficient for a lot of Italian Catholics to buy the entire package.

Berlusconi certainly exploited the fears of many Italians over immigration and the cultural and religious diversification of Italy and Europe. But he was always careful not to exploit racist sentiment as overtly as Trump. Berlusconi’s use of Islamophobia, for example, was subtler and it was mostly outsourced to his allies (like the Northern League).

As for Christianity, in Catholic (if nominally) Italy, Berlusconi could not count on the key evangelical Protestant bloc that supported Trump.

But Berlusconi did enjoy the support, as Trump did with the religious right, of the old guard institutional Catholic Church -- sympathetic bishops and many leaders in the Roman Curia.

The most substantive difference with Trump from a political-religious point of view was the absence of abortion politics from Berlusconi’s message.

The post-war political unity that Catholics had long found in the Catholic-dominated Christian Democrat party was gone when Berlusconi arrived on the scene. But for many Italian Catholics and clergy the most important factor behind their support for Berlusconi was anti-Communism, not the divide between the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps that we find in the U.S.

It is true that Berlusconi promised Italian Catholics and the Italian Catholic Church that he would stand against the liberal-secular culture and its “biopolitics,” especially on same-sex unions, euthanasia, and medically assisted procreation.

But Berlusconi knew that abortion laws in Italy (stricter than in the U.S. and approved by a national referendum, not the courts) still have the support of the vast majority of Italians.

Berlusconi took pride in the fact that he went to a Salesian school and saw himself as culturally Catholic, and in the Italian context that was enough. Whatever his personal moral shortcomings, Berlusconi had a circle of people taking care of Catholic issues (especially maintaining the Catholic Church’s privileges in Italy) and relations with the Vatican.

That made Berlusconi more acceptable to the church than, for example, the center-leftist Romano Prodi (the only one who defeated Berlusconi twice in elections) who called himself a “grown-up Catholic” -- that is, not one who would take orders from bishops. That sort of independence angered many in the hierarchy.

Then again, Berlusconi did not have to deal with a pope like Francis, who was elected in 2013, two years after Berlusconi exited the stage.

But Trump, who famously picked a fight with the pontiff during this year's campaign, doesn’t seem bothered by what anyone thinks and will likely only visit Francis in the Vatican once, at most, in what is traditionally little more than a photo op.

The hierarchy in the U.S. is the Catholic leadership that Trump will have to deal with, and while Francis is starting to appoint bishops and cardinals who would challenge Trump more directly, that shift could take years to take effect.

In the meantime, Trump knows that he won the Catholic vote by a strong 52-45 percent margin over Hillary Clinton, even if that was buoyed by white Catholics who are more conservative than the Latinos who went heavily for the Democrat.

And he will deliver on some of the key items that the American bishops want -- ending the dreaded contraception mandate and appointing judges who will, to one degree or another, limit abortion rights.

That’s enough for Trump. The reality is that he may be gone from the White House before there are enough new American bishops who reflect the broader agenda and attitude of the pope in Rome, and long before their leadership could begin to influence the flock.

As long as Trump isn’t as contentious with the U.S. bishops as he was with the Roman pontiff, he will likely be as successful as Berlusconi was with the church.

And white evangelicals gave Trump record support, over 80 percent, so he seems set with that bloc.

The problem is that Berlusconi’s cozy relationship with the Catholic Church in Italy wound up being a disaster for the institution’s credibility. Italians saw it as a cynical alliance, and when Berlusconi fell, so too did the hierarchy’s reputation.

That’s a parallel American Christians may also want to keep in mind.

(Massimo Faggioli is a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University and a contributing editor to Commonweal magazine)


  1. This was a letter I had published 8 months ago. Call me a prophet if you will.

    It was interesting to read today’s article about the “GOP Faithful Coming to Grips with Trump”. If he is the nominee, they WILL vote for him, despite his bombast, lack of experience, loose relationship with fact, and denigrations of anyone not Trump. They will vote for him despite their own “shock, confusion, and anxiety over his candidacy”. They’re desperate to believe this four-times-bankrupt billionaire will represent the little guy and not the 1%. It’s very similar to the evangelicals willingly believing that “Two Corinthians”, three-times-married, self-proclaimed adulterous Trump is a Christian who will embody their and defend their moral and religious concerns.

    In other words, they will choose party over country, because power trumps politics trumps principle, EVERY SINGLE TIME.

    Our bestest, blessedest country is rapidly approaching the political dysfunctionality of Italy, which has elected as prime minister, and not just once, one Silvio “Bunga-Bunga” Berlusconi, a morally deficient and politically corrupt billionaire, convicted felon, and clown.

    If Berlusconi is the streak of marinara on Italy’s white Armani tuxedo, Trump is the splash of barbecue sauce on America’s Uncle Sam red-white-and-blue holiday suit.

    We know why it’s there, but really: do you still have to wear it in public?

    This is me, today.

    They have one more thing in common. Neither would have sex with ANgela Merkel. Berlusconi called her– well, RNS wouldn’t let me print that. And 2Rump sees a woman who is past her prime– or at least, past his.

  2. Parallels do not amount to equivalency. However, there is another parallel I would offer; Chester A. Arthur. While not considered among the members of the 1st tier of Presidents, nor even the 2nd, Chester made a political adjustment that Trump may well emulate. Arthur was a notorious spoilsman among New York politicians, a member of Tammany Hall, but as the public was to discover, there was a difference between Chet Arthur, spoilsman, and Chester A. Arthur, President of the United States. As one longtime acquaintance mournfully observed, “He’s not good old Chet Arthur anymore, he’s the President.”

  3. Meanwhile, at another website, I predicted in 2015 that Hillary Clinton would win this year’s election. But I was wrong, 100 percent. (I’d apologize for being wrong, but I’m still too happy about being wrong.)

    Anyway, there’s been plenty of good ole “Bunga-Bunga” at the White House. President JFK even got a free pass from the national media for it — although the Mafia was apparently NOT feeling quite so gracious about it. Go figure !!

    Of course, America’s “Bunga-In-Chief” turned out to be good ole Bill Clinton from the “Bill & Hillary Show”, and Hillary was fully 50 percent of that notorious circus act. Their system was a classic model of misogynistic tag-team efficiency.

    First, Slick Willie would do all his serial Bunga (and/or a serial cigar) on his female victims. Then Hillary would do all her serial “Bullying” on those same female victims to either silence them or discredit them. Anything to keep that political power.
    Indeed, the most recent known attempted victim, a former news reporter, came forward with her story only mere hours before the final Hillary-Trump debate.

    So there’s the real deal. America, you dodged a big Bunga bullet, this past Tuesday !!

  4. They say misery loves company, Ben, so howdy.

    About a month ago my music-writing led me down a dead-end path, so to minimize depression, I focused on watching & reading political news instead. As you can imagine, my music has been flowing faster than ever this past week. So I probably won’t be commenting much for a while.

    The last glimmer of hope I can see is a petition asking members of the Electoral College to save America from itself when they vote in the only election that actually factually matters, on December 19. The petition has 3.8 million votes so far. If you want to add your John Hancock, here’s the link:

  5. I haven’t felt much like commenting, either. I know how you feel.

    I explained to several of my friends, very intelligent people, about the EC gambit. They didn’t know about that possibility. A bit depressing in itself.

    It could happen, I guess. I did sign the petition as soon as I heard about it. Unfortunately, the result would be four more years of even worse gridlock.

    Personally, I’m of the opinion that Trump will be impeached within two years, for all of his personal, political, and financial shenanigans. (Or possibly, expire from a previously undiagnosed and convenient illness, but there I’m going a bit conspiracy Hollywood). Then the republican leadership will give him a nice bouquet of flowers, and thank him for being such a useful tool.

  6. I’ve heard from Italians about the Berlusconi parallel and it does seem apt to a certain extent.

    Ben and G, keep your chins up. My completely unfounded mantra is, it may not be as bad as we think.

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