The Current

From Trump to Ford to Berlusconi: How well do populist leaders govern?

Populist leaders like Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte may shed some light on what to expect in a Trump presidency. As the U.S. president-elect works on transition into office, The Current looks at the record of populist leaders.
The rise and fall of populist leaders can give us some insight into what a Trump presidency might look like. (Getty Images/Reuters)

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U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has joined the ranks of political leaders riding a populist wave to power.

As the world looks ahead to a Trump presidency, some political experts are pointing to lessons learned from other populist leaders like former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein.

The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti spoke with a panel of political watchers for their take on how populist candidates tend to actually govern once they're in power.

Silvio Berlusconi 
Italy's former premier Silvio Berlusconi sold himself as person with no experience in politics and identified as a businessman. Just like Trump. (Luca Bruno/Associated Press)

University of Birmingham professor Daniele Albertazzi says a critical similarity in Trump and Berlusconi's rise to become populist leaders is their ability to use inexperience as a political advantage. 

"Berlusconi created his party out of nothing in 1994,"  says Albertazzi.

"His selling point was precisely I have no experience [in] politics. I'm a businessman, I built an empire," he says.

"So I can bring this experience to politics and I will do that for the country, what I did for myself."

According to Albertazzi, It's a key message that resonated in Trump's campaign as well.

New York Times columnist Amanda Taub sees other similarities between the populist politicians — their use of outsider rhetoric.

"They promised to be the champion of the people and say that the people are kind of the sole legitimate holders of power, " says Taub.
Journalist Don Gilmor says former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein is an enduring example of a populist leader because he represented triumph of image over reality. (Canadian Press)

"And they promise to tear down the corrupt establishment." 

Ralph Klein

Author and journalist Don Gillmor points to the populism of longtime Canadian politician and former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, for clues of a Trump presidency.

"I think probably the best example we have is Ralph Klein because he was the most enduring example," says Gillmor.

"He represented the triumph of image over reality."

Gillmor says that the allure of an outsider candidate doesn't always reflect their time in power.

While Klein was part of the Conservative establishment, he was seen as anti-establishment by many.

Gillmor says he isn't sure that's a good thing.

"I think the downside is that it's often a kind of big lie, that it's a sort of front for business as usual and you really just have this very kind of potent symbol sitting at the front of what is very similar machinery."

Rob Ford and Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan is sworn in as 40th president of the United States beside his wife Nancy Reagan during his inaugural ceremony, Jan. 21, 1985. (AFP/Getty Images)

Some say Trump's style has strong parallels to Rob Ford's form of populism, as well.

"You often have populist politicians going back to a nostalgic past," says Gillmor.

Gillmor points to U.S. President Reagan who he says, " invoked this image of America that was somewhere between Norman Rockwell and a Jimmy Stewart movie."

Gillmor says that this type of hearkening back to olden days was part of Ford's appeal to voters and is also used by Trump.

"I think the thinking increasingly unsubtle subtext is that, you know, we're going back to a landscape that is ruled by the white male basically," says Gillmor.

"With Trump you're seeing the same sort of thing."

Listen to the full segment.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson, Julian Uzielli and Shannon Higgins.