Day 6

The legacy of former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi and forecasting America's future under Trump

As the US reacts to Super Tuesday, Brent talks to American journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau about the parallels between the two politicians — and what Berlusconi's rise to power can tell us about Trump's bid for the presidency.


As the U.S. reacted to Donald Trump's triumph on Super Tuesday, Italians were drawing comparisons between the American real estate tycoon and their own notorious Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi. Some journalists went so far as to call Trump "America's Berlusconi."

Brent talks to Rome-based American journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau about the parallels between the two men and what Berlusconi's rise to power can tell us about Trump's bid for the presidency.

Take the Trump or Berlusconi quiz to match the man to the quote.

Both are loud, vain, cheeky businessmen, amateur politicians and professional womanizers- Beppe Severgnini 

Trump quoting Italian dictator Mussolini on Twitter earlier this week: 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

On what people in Italy are saying about Donald Trump and the Republican nomination race

Brent Bambury: This was obviously an important week for Donald Trump; he did move closer to his goal. What are people in Italy saying this week about Trump?

Barbie Latza Nadeau: Well, I think people in Italy are especially watching this election. It's kind of 'be careful what you wish for,' because they survived 17 years of the Italian version of Donald Trump, and that is Silvio Berlusconi — who is every bit the billionaire, every bit the joker, and in many ways every bit the concern and worry as a national leader.

On Silvio Berlusconi before he was elected Prime Minister of Italy

BB: You have been in Italy since 1995, and that's the year after Berlusconi was elected Prime Minister. Can you give us a sense of who the man was before he took office?

BLN: He was a very successful businessman who made his fortune in real estate. He did it by borrowing a sum of money, spinning it into gold, and becoming one of the wealthiest people in the world. He's much wealthier, in fact, than Donald Trump. But he started out as a vacuum cleaner salesman. And he was a singer on cruise ships. So he took a big leap from those humble beginnings to the leading one of the most important countries in the world.

On Berlusconi's electoral appeal

BB: Did Italians identify with Berlusconi's 'self-made man' narrative?

BLN: Absolutely. I think that spoke to a lot Italians, especially right after he was elected. This was the early 1990s when he was campaigning. It was after a period of difficulty in Italy called the "years of lead" that were symbolized by an incredible amount of internal terrorism. People were blowing up churches; there was a lot of left wing violence in the country. Berlusconi swept in and said, 'Listen, I can fix this. Look at me; I'm a successful businessman. I can run this country like I run my businesses. I can take you all out of debt and make you feel secure. If I'm in charge, I'll take care of the bad guys.' Which, of course, is the same exact thing we're hearing from Donald Trump in the United States.

On Trump and Berlusconi's ability to resonate with potential voters

BB: Trump has tapped into some powerful anxieties that Americans have — about the economy, about the country's place in the world. Do you think that Berlusconi was able to mine the very same vein in the Italian electorate? 

BLN: Absolutely. I think everybody really felt, 'Wow, this is a man that's not part of the political situation.' That was very broken at the time in Italy, and they just felt a lot of optimism towards the idea of electing Silvio Berlusconi — which, of course, they did three separate times.

On Berlusconi's media advantage

BB: How skeptical was the media while all of this was unfolding? Were the media or the public questioning Berlusconi's ability to run the country?

BLN: Well, interestingly enough — and this is something Donald Trump doesn't have — Silvio Berlusconi owned 95 per cent of the media at the time of his election, so he was able to really use that to his advantage. That's something that Trump doesn't have to his advantage. But for Berlusconi, it was full-time Berlusconi, 24/7. Every channel, all the time.

On Berlusconi's legacy as Prime Minister 

BB: Berlusconi was elected three times. How effective was he as head of state?

BLN: He wasn't very effective as head of state. But he always had a divided parliament. I can imagine Donald Trump — if he makes it that far — would have the same sort of thing. He would have Congress as a conscientious objector. Silvio Berlusconi was never able to fulfill the campaign promises that he made, because parliament just simply wouldn't let him. They wouldn't go to those extremes. He did a lot to help make the people happy, though. He abolished the property tax on a second house, for example. So people felt like, 'Oh wow, this is a great guy. I'm not paying as much in taxes; I'm getting by with things.' He really sort of winked and nudged when it came to the black economy and people weren't paying taxes. All of those things, of course, really hurt Italy in the long run — especially when Europe fell into this big economic crisis. But Berlusconi paved the way for that. Italy was in bad shape by the time the rest of Europe caught up with the economic problems here.

On Italians' embarrassment over Berlusconi's outrageous behaviour

BB: We remember some of Berlusconi's outrageous behavior when he was on the world stage. Were Italians embarrassed by Berlusconi's performance when he became leader? 

BLN: Absolutely embarrassed. After President Barack Obama was elected, Berlusconi referred to him as tan. He said, 'Oh, I wish I had a tan like that.' He was just so politically incorrect. When he was speaking to foreign investors, trying to build the economy, he said 'One of the reasons you come to Italy is because we have beautiful secretaries.' We're talking about the late 90s; and he was saying things that are just completely unacceptable anywhere else in the world. And Italians were always embarrassed. But there's something about getting used to that embarrassment that I think the Italians did so well. They'd think, 'Oh well, that's just Berlusconi.' But certainly among the journalists here, at every meeting of world leaders, we were waiting for the Berlusconi quote of the day — the joke of the day. He was a joke; he was an embarrassment to the Italians.

On how Berlusconi was able to win three elections

BB: How did Berlusconi maintain his popularity to the point that he was able to win so many elections?

BLN: Well, he won so many elections because his opponents failed to compete with him on the stage. So everybody looked like a bumbling boring idiot. When they wanted to talk about the economy, Berlusconi was talking about the weather. When they wanted to talk about foreign policy, Berlusconi was promising investments in Libya — which he ended up doing, and all these things badly backfired for the Italians. But he always had 'the bread and circuses,' like the ancient Roman emperors who would just entertain people when things got really bad. I think Berlusconi really played into that.

On the echoes of Berlusconi found in Trump's rhetoric

BB: When you hear Trump talk about his foreign policy — particularly as it relates to trade in China and Mexico — do you hear echoes of Berlusconi?

BLN: I hear the same sort of gaps in detail. Just as Trump is doing right now, Berlusconi would also say, 'Just look at my track record; look at my businesses, look at my success. If you don't trust me enough to run the country like that, then don't vote for me.' He'd say things like that. If you looked at his balance sheet, you'd see this man whose worth was in the billions and billions. And a lot of people thought, 'Okay, fine, we'll have to trust him. He did well for himself, so let's see how he does for the country.' I see that with Trump as well. There aren't a lot of details in the promises. Once you get to the fine print, there are quite a few gaps to fill. And Berlusconi was exactly that way.

On what Americans should consider when voting for Trump

BB: There is going to be an election in November, and Trump may very well be a candidate. What is your message for Americans who are thinking about voting for Trump?

BLN: Well, be careful what you wish for. The way the president of the United States plays on the global stage is very much as important as how he plays at home. I think a lot of people think 'Okay, fine, Trump might be okay in terms of domestic politics.' But the world is a big place — and a dangerous place right now. You really have to ask yourself if Donald Trump is the one you want with his finger on the red button.