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Conclusion

The Berlusconi story and Donald Trump

James L. Newell

Berlusconi is a media magnate who originally made his fortune as a builder by taking advantage of the demand for construction generated by the post-war boom. Although, as a front-line politician he was in an extraordinarily powerful position to influence the quality of Italian democracy, Berlusconi did not alter any of the fundamentals of the country’s democratic status, and political change in Italy over the past twenty-five years or so might well not have looked very much different had he not existed. So the Berlusconi story is most likely the story of an ‘extraordinary popular delusion’ in that he went into politics claiming that he could bring about political renewal – with some more or less significant number of voters having apparently believed him. The inevitable consequence of popular delusions is eventual disappointment, and Berlusconi’s career since he was ousted from office reflects this. Given the similarities between the Berlusconi phenomenon and the rise to power of Donald Trump, the Italian’s career may offer some clues as to the likely trajectory of the American’s.

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Series:

Eleni Myrivili

What is the national border? Can we speak of the border ontologically? What remains of the border if we take away all the border ‘props’: the checkpoints, the guard-posts, the walls, the barbed wires, or the demarcation pyramids … what if we even take away the ‘territory’, the ground as such, and we look at a border that is drawn on water? How can one speak about the liquid border, and how can we represent it? How does this entity manifest itself? The chapter uses the notion of performance to speak of the radical contingency of the border. The concept of the ghost also problematizes time, identity, and presence. Finally, through the concept of the secret it examines the workings of power.

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James L. Newell

Having considered, in the previous chapter, Berlusconi’s career against the background of the party politics of the 1990s, our attention in this chapter turns to assessing his actual impact on party politics. There is a conventional wisdom according to which he is thought to have been responsible for having created an organisation of a novel kind capable of acting as a coalition maker among the parties of the centre right, so that he is credited with having been the architect of the new bipolar party system that replaced the tripolar system of the past. We assess these assumptions by considering – first – the organisational characteristics and dynamics of the party Berlusconi founded in 1994 by asking – second – what Berlusconi’s party did for the quality of parties and party competition in Italy, by assessing – third – the view that Berlusconi’s role was the decisive one with respect to uniting the parties of the centre right in coalition in the first place, and by considering – fourth – the impact thereafter of Berlusconi’s leadership on the configuration of the coalition he led, i.e. how successful he was as a coalition maker.

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James L. Newell

In office as prime minister from 2001, Berlusconi was also head of a media empire, Mediaset, which was one of the largest both domestically and globally. So Berlusconi clearly had a conflict of interests as the term is commonly understood. Moreover, having assumed office, he proceeded to pass laws designed to benefit him personally. Yet as an example of collusion between business and politics, Berlusconi’s case was by no means unique in the history, remote or recent, of democratic countries – thus prompting the questions: Why did his situation – his conflict of interests and his penchant for ad personam legislation – arouse the ire that it did? And if Berlusconi was able to acquire, retain and apparently abuse office because Italy really was other than a ‘normal country’, what was it about its abnormality that made this state of affairs possible? What made these questions, and the answers to them, issues, we argue, is that underlying them is a fundamental normative conflict arising from the fact that the boundary separating matters public and private is socially constructed, so that its maintenance is subject to a continuous process of management and negotiation.

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James L. Newell

Suggestions that Berlusconi’s political debut was driven by little beyond a desire to protect his personal commercial interests point in the direction of a lack of a broader political project and thus of much by way of a clear vision. On the other hand, the opposite conclusion is suggested by the frequent and routine references to Berlusconismo in writings about the entrepreneur; for the suffix ‘-ismo’, like ‘-ism’ in English, is most frequently used to imply a precise set of ideas. In this chapter, therefore, we address two questions: first, what have been the main ideas driving the action of the entrepreneur in his role as a politician since the early 1990s? Second, is there any sense in which his ideas might add up to an ‘ism’ and if so, what is it? Arguing that an ‘ism’ is, essentially, an ideology, we assess the extent to which Berlusconi’s ideas meet the criteria for being regarded as such, concluding that, as an ideology, Berlusconismo represents a variant of nihilism.

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James L. Newell

It is often suggested that by having, as prime minister, engaged in conduct, in pursuit of his private advantage, so obviously corrosive of principles of democracy and the rule of law, Berlusconi must have undermined the robustness of these principles in the functioning of the Italian state more generally. It is suggested that he undermined the quality of Italian democracy in other ways too, for example, through the content of his media outlets or by virtue of some of the legislation he passed when in office. We assess Berlusconi’s legacy for the quality of Italian democracy by exploring the impact of his media holdings; the impact he had by virtue of being a political leader with iconic status and who was therefore a role model; and the impact he had as the leader of what has hitherto been the principal party of the centre right. In order to address these issues, we begin by establishing a benchmark of what a ‘high-quality’ democracy might look like so that we can then see how Italian democracy compares with that and to what extent Berlusconi’s actions might have been responsible for any difference.

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James L. Newell

Thanks to the mediatisation and personalisation of politics, leaders are thought of as having become more important for the electoral fortunes of their parties in recent decades than they were in an earlier era. Meanwhile, voters have become more volatile. More are undecided; more leave their voting decisions until the last minute. Consequently vote switching is more common, and an increasing amount, with regard to election outcomes, is thought to hinge on which party leaders run the best campaigns. We are concerned in this chapter to consider how much of the electoral success of the centre-right coalitions that Berlusconi has led can be attributed to the personalised style of campaign leadership he has offered them. We begin by considering the electoral data that describe the centre right’s success in order to quantify it more or less precisely. We then consider the case for the view that the coalition owes its relative success in recent years to its leader and the style of his campaigns – before considering the arguments and evidence which, by emphasising the role of long-term factors, would considerably downplay the significance of Berlusconi’s role.

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James L. Newell

Against the background of the earlier phases of Berlusconi’s career, first as entrepreneur and then as politician, and having considered the nature of his political message and his impact on party politics, this chapter provides an account of the third phase of his career from his electoral victory in 2001 to his departure from office in 2011. We describe how, during the 2001–06 legislature, Berlusconi used his position as prime minister to try to resolve the legal difficulties he faced as a private citizen, considering the reasons for the successes and failures he encountered in such efforts. We discuss the efforts he made to undermine the centre-left government that replaced his in 2006; his election victory in 2008; his subsequent government; and the reasons for his fall from office in 2011.

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James L. Newell

In the previous chapter and in chapter 4 we considered Berlusconi the campaigner and Berlusconi the party leader. In this chapter our attention turns to Berlusconi the prime minister, and to evaluating his impact as head of the governments that held office from 2001 to 2006 and 2008 to 2011. Specifically, we ask how successful he was in exploiting the position of chief executive to bring about significant change and how his performance in this respect can be accounted for. In making his political debut in 1994, he had promised a ‘new Italian miracle’; so we start by considering the means – without which he could have achieved nothing – he had available to accomplish it. We then consider the policy objectives he set out and the steps he took to execute them in order to realise his aim. In light of his failure to do so – as measured in terms of social and economic outcomes – we reflect on why this was the case, concluding that the answer lies in the force of circumstances which he had the power to influence but not to control.

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James L. Newell

The period of Berlusconi’s rise to prominence as an entrepreneur and as a politician coincided with a shift of values in the direction of heightened levels of individualism and acquisitiveness, along with significant changes in the way Italians perceived themselves as citizens, and the consolidation of celebrity culture. These developments found expression through Berlusconi’s pronouncements and through his media. But though he can therefore be described as a protagonist of cultural change, his actions were neither necessary nor sufficient for change. And though cultural change helps us to understand Berlusconi’s emergence and success as a politician, the fact that culture is intrinsic to what we understand by action implies that it cannot fully explain the behaviour of the large number of citizens willing to vote for him. Cultural change undoubtedly facilitated his popular success, but that success could not be taken as evidence that he was a genuine cultural innovator.