‘Why does he have to shout?” asked a bemused Queen Elizabeth, referring to then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s yelp “Mister Obama!” above the heads of 20 world leaders who gathered around their British hostess.
Berlusconi had to shout because he was Berlusconi: the flamboyant, hedonistic loudmouth who led Italy longer than anyone else since Benito Mussolini, and while at it personified Western politics’ degeneration after the Cold War’s happy end.
There was a lot of fanfare at the Milan Cathedral last Wednesday as one of the epoch’s most colorful leaders was laid to rest. In a scene from the Theater of the Absurd, the Gold Madonna that adorns the medieval structure’s façade got a chance to admire one of the most prolific and unabashed womanizers a Catholic nation ever produced.
“Someone has written that this is just a diversion for an emperor,” wrote his second wife, Veronica Lario, as she demanded her divorce. “I agree,” she said, before adding that his serial betrayals are “shamelessly trashy, all in the name of power.”
That was last decade. Last year, at age 85, Rome’s operatic emperor married Marta Fascina, 53 years his junior, though it should be noted in his favor that she was neither a minor nor a prostitute, as some of the women he consorted reportedly were.
All this decadence was the lesser flaw of a leadership marked by frivolity, cynicism and greed.
THE CYNICISM showed early when Berlusconi evaded military service at a time when ordinary citizens served one year. He had excuses for that, but a true patriot, especially one who will repeatedly attack “the Left,” would have heeded his country’s demand and given his people one year of his life.
Having thus displayed his hypocrisy, Berlusconi went to the University of Milan, earned a law degree and proceeded to make his first million. Born to a junior bank official and a housewife, he could rightly claim that his fortune – unlike those of other rich leaders, most notably Donald Trump – was self-made.
That first fortune resulted from a housing project that populated 14,000 residents in affluent Milan, a deal that catapulted Berlusconi to the status of financial wiz, and also planted the seeds of a TV empire, because the neighborhood he built had its own channel. That much is clear. What’s not clear is how he financed that venture.
A Sicilian friend from his university days, Marcello Dell’Utri, was convicted in 2014 of ties to the Mafia and sentenced to seven years in prison. Considering the harshness of that verdict, and bearing in mind that Dell’Utri was a co-founder of Berlusconi’s political engine, the Forza Italia party, it takes no Sherlock Holmes to suspect that Berlusconi’s corporate takeoff involved foul play.
Shifting focus: Berlusconi goes to television
Whatever the origins of his wealth, Berlusconi’s commercial focus shifted to television, and that’s where his career met the epoch in which we live.
HAVING LAUNCHED Italy’s first privately owned national TV channel, Canale 5, Berlusconi soon bought two other channels and thus became a major player in Italian TV. It happened in the 1980s, when Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher’s political capitalism was registering the great successes that contrasted the rival system’s mounting failures.
By the end of the decade, when capitalism floored communism on every possible count – economically, politically and morally – Berlusconi was seen by many as part of what the West’s victory was all about, a paragon of enterprise, mobility, brashness and success.
In fact, his was a total perversion of the Western model of power, because he deformed democracy’s relationship with journalism, and at the same time drugged the masses with the reality TV shows that dominated his stations’ programming.
It was, paradoxically, a different way of doing what the communists did back when they controlled the media, and prevented the press from properly unearthing and reporting what their governments were up to. Berlusconi was thus the Trojan horse that led into the victorious West’s public sphere, a new version of the syndrome that underpinned the East’s moral collapse.
In fact, Berlusconi’s baggage would not only contaminate last century’s Western victory, it would foreshadow this century’s War on Truth.
BY SHEER coincidence, Berlusconi’s harnessing of political power with media ownership happened minutes before the dawn of the cybernetic era.
In 1994, when he first became prime minister, the Internet was one year old, social media was a decade away, and the smartphone was 15 years away.
Even so, his deployment of the media as a tool of misgovernment proved to be ahead of its time, a path-breaking effort to control and twist truth in the service of populist power. What Berlusconi launched with a previous era’s bulky TV cameras on cumbersome tripods would later be Tweeted and YouTubed through the fake-news factories that served major leaders like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
That is why Berlusconi will be remembered as the dean of the many populists who followed in his footsteps, from Hungary and the Philippines to Venezuela and Brazil.
As happened with other populists, Berlusconi’s plans worked wonders until crisis arrived and demanded all the gravitas he never possessed. Like Trump in the face of the pandemic he had no idea how to fight, Berlusconi failed to handle the European debt crisis, other than to hurl profanities at his inversion, Angela Merkel, the unassuming German leader who seized control of the situation to his jealousy and wrath.
The people of Italy understood what they saw, and soon sidelined Berlusconi, finally realizing that national leadership was not his thing, that he did not come to fix the present, shape the future, or restore any past. Silvio Berlusconi came to have fun, and that goal, no one will deny, he clearly achieved.
The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.