Remembering Silvio Berlusconi, Former Prime Minister of Italy
Silvio Berlusconi was born a middle-class boy, the son of a bank clerk. He was successful in the construction business, anticipating the now commonplace demands of middle-class families: greenery, silence, tranquility, being “in the city” and, at the same time, outside of it. He then invented commercial television in Italy, in a time of government monopoly. It was David versus Goliath. He then bought a soccer team (AC Milan) and got it to win the unthinkable, helped to set up a start-up bank and, eventually, founded a political party. Everybody thought the political party was an oddity, a little toy aimed at leveraging political protection for his media empire. He won his first election, and repeated this feat twice, becoming Italy’s longest-serving prime minister.
Yet the dominant theme in international obituaries is a caricature. Berlusconi is remembered as “a delicious fount of scandal, gaffes, ribald insults and sexual escapades” (New York Times). Some see in him the forerunner of contemporary populism, an inspiration if not a mentor to Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. In Italy, Berlusconi was given a state funeral, and the country observed a national day of mourning. This was, of course, controversial. But political adversaries recognize, if not the valor, at least the importance of the enemy whom they lost. Internationally, Berlusconi was hardly understood when he was in his prime, and even less now.
When Berlusconi entered politics, in 1994, an entire political class had just been swept away by the so-called “Clean Hands” investigation. Prosecutors in Milan unveiled a web of corruption that enveloped most of the Italian political parties. The Communists were the only ones who did not fall prey to various allegations, some would say because they spent the forty years before in the opposition, others because they were financed by the mothership in Moscow. Hence, Berlusconi entered politics positioning himself to grab the low-hanging fruit of the legacy of the moderate parties that could no longer command the voters’ support. He was by then a successful entrepreneur, mainly known because of his soccer triumphs. He won the election in 1994 and became prime minister. His first government was short-lived, but he was to win and come back into power again in 2001 and 2008. He was ousted in 2011, after the eruption of some major scandals and a near fiscal collapse of the country, triggered by the world financial crisis and his rapidly vanishing credibility.
The Italian judiciary (that he charged, with some grounds, of being ideologically to the left of Pol Pot) tried to nail him a number of times. They succeeded in sentencing him for tax evasion. He was kicked out of the Senate, served a term of community service, then ran once again and was elected to the European Parliament and ran again in the September 2022 elections, regaining a seat in the Senate. His media group—managed by his children and a few long-time business partners—is still thriving, though confronted with the challenges that the internet presents to traditional TV.
In politics, Berlusconi preached a “liberal” (free market) revolution that he never accomplished. He was a terrific salesman, who could empathize with anybody. His most loyal supporters were not the well-off, to whom he belonged, but rather small businesspeople and those who once upon a time were called “the working class.” They empathized with him deeply, to the bewilderment of the political left. Such was Berlusconi’s charm that he made people who struggled financially sympathize with a billionaire.
One may say that, in this, Berlusconi was indeed Trump before Trump. But their rhetoric was profoundly different. When Berlusconi entered politics, Italy was a full-fledged “entrepreneurial state.” Government-owned businesses produced eyeglasses, panettone cakes, pomodoro sauce, pasta, and automobiles. After the 1950s—a decade of benign neglect, tremendous economic growth, and fast industrialization—the country started to heed the siren call of socialism. The banking and credit sector was in the hands of the state, which means in the hands of the political parties, and the private sector was largely in a stupor.
Berlusconi, the politician, spotted a demand for change and talked like Ronald Reagan in a country where the tax burden had never before been an issue in any election campaign—both because it was, with the benefit of hindsight, quite low and because it was deemed somewhat distasteful by political leaders to raise this issue. A matter that was of concern to the nouveaux riches. In the 1980s, protest against state inefficiency was channeled through the Northern League, then a proto-secessionist movement. Berlusconi presented voters with a similar message, but he dressed well, wore a tie, and had the most implausible yet impeccable credentials.
In a country where the political class was made up of relatively gray professionals, Berlusconi was an outsider, not only a businessman but a self-made man. His implicit promise to Italians was: I’m rich, I’ll make you rich too. Lowering taxes and unleashing the Italian economy was going to do the trick.
This Berlusconi never accomplished, probably because he found the art of governing a rather burdensome task. His skin was thick. He survived twenty years of attacks. But he wasn’t the sort of character who is willing to bet his own reputation on something as abstract as an idea, in spite of repeating that idea for thirty years of politicking. His “liberal revolution,” long announced, never came.
Yet his foreign policy (these days invariably attacked by those who remember him as a friend of Vladimir Putin, as he certainly was) was better than most. In 2002, he brought George W. Bush and Putin to the same table, hoping to celebrate the true and unequivocal end of the Cold War. Some say he later flirted with dictators such as Gaddafi in Libya. In truth, he understood that not all countries in the world are destined to be liberal democracies and tried to make the best of this unfortunate fact, by having peaceful and unruffled relationships. He was a great salesman for the Italian economy and, because of that, instinctively a man of peace.
Unlike contemporary populists, his alleged students, Silvio Berlusconi never appealed to fear. He was always showcasing opportunity and hope, understanding better than most that the “desire to better one’s condition” drives human action. You’ll see the difference between him and, say, Trump or Johnson, if you search for a video dating back to 1997. A ship full of Albanian immigrants sank on the way to the South of Italy, and Berlusconi, then the leader of the opposition, meets the survivors in Bari. He cries with them and pledges support to the government to secure help for those who flee to Italy in search of a better future. He was a showman, but his sympathy was not an act.
He deserves a place in history because of his political career, but even more so because of his career as an entrepreneur. The liberal revolution he promised as a prime minister he actually accomplished earlier, as a businessman. Many think he succeeded because of political connections. Connections always help, but many had them. Fewer have ideas, such as the one that made Berlusconi Berlusconi. The Italian TV market was opening, but private broadcasters could not operate nationally but only locally (cable was never a thing in Italy). Big business names were giving TV a go, but failing miserably. He bought little local broadcasters and then recorded on VCRs programming for them all. Then he started selling advertising to businesses, showing them how he had as many viewers as government TV but would charge them less.
The success was spectacular, also because Berlusconi thought a broadcaster should please consumers, not friends, and for the first time, Italians could watch what they really cared about. This included a certain number of gross shows, to be sure. But freedom and ambitions of moral perfection do not easily go together, as Silvio Berlusconi knew well.