Silvio Berlusconi once called himself the “Jesus Christ of politics.” It seemed he never cared much about weighing his words as a public figure. But actually, he wielded them with a careful intent to disrupt and provoke. He molded a cult of self that led him to a position of power that reverberated beyond the main arenas — politics, football, television — in which he took up all the space.
He often touted the words of Erasmus of Rotterdam, particularly the thesis of his book In Praise of Folly, which Berlusconi cited in his first public speech as a politician in 1994: “The most important decisions, the most correct decisions, true wisdom, do not come from reasoning, from the mind, but from a long-sighted, visionary madness!” Berlusconi said, calling himself a fool meeting with other fools.
The former prime minister of Italy died on June 12 at San Raffaele hospital in Milan after a battle with leukemia. As soon as his death was announced, his waxy, gleaming face and blinding white smile were splashed across news outlets around the world — just as he would have liked.
From businessman to Bunga Bunga: a brief history of Berlusconi
Before he became prime minister, Berlusconi first entered Italians’ homes through their TVs in the 1970s. After a stint in the construction business, Berlusconi began to build his media kingdom in 1973. He owned the Fininvest group and the Mediaset company. He founded the first commercial television channel in the country, becoming a powerful — albeit indirect — puppeteer of the media that would serve him later.
It wasn’t until 1994 that he emerged in the political landscape, and when he did, his takeover was swift. He founded the center-right party Forza Italia, which positioned itself as an alternative — or rather replacement — to the established political parties of the time, mired in the Mani Pulite political corruption investigations (which also involved Berlusconi’s Fininvest). It was an opening he seized effortlessly, employing his characteristic brazen language to relentlessly vilify the opposition and win over Italians.
Thus began Berlusconi’s political career, which saw him in the highest position of power in four governments (1994-1995, 2001-2005, 2005-2006, and 2008-2011) — the most of any post-war prime minister. And with it came an era of Berlusconi scandals, including the Bunga Bunga sex parties, which were enveloped in accusations of prostitution with underage girls; investigations of tax fraud and mafia connections; trials involving conflicts of interest as a businessman and holder of political office, and all manner of faux pas (although he likely didn’t see it that way).
Berlusconi’s grip on media outlets
From the start of his career, Berlusconi walked the lines of morality and legality, and he was constantly embroiled in controversy. This was easy fodder for journalists. Despite having control over several major media outlets, Berlusconi always claimed he was uninvolved when he became the latest front-page news.
“Silvio Berlusconi's standard response, whenever he is challenged about his media power, is to exclaim indignantly that the Italian press is as free as any in the world. That, of course, misses the point that he either controls or influences six of the seven main terrestrial channels,” reported John Hooper in The Guardian in 2010.
While duly maintaining his distance from his own media’s coverage of him, for those outlets that did give him bad press, Berlusconi used another weapon: litigation. He would sue publications for defamation and libel.
The Economist was one fervent critic of Berlusconi:
“In any self-respecting democracy it would be unthinkable that the man assumed to be on the verge of being elected prime minister would recently have come under investigation for, among other things, money-laundering, complicity in murder, connections with the Mafia, tax evasion and the bribing of politicians, judges and the tax police,” the British publication wrote in 2001 in an article titled “Fit to Run Italy?”
Although every blow to his reputation might have taken a few admirers, the demagogue never seemed fazed. He proved what was possible when you simply don’t care what people say about you, ushering in an age of populists with relativist views of truth and claims of being “different” or “new.” Indeed, before populism took hold in Europe and the US, there was Silvio Berlusconi.
Parallels to Trumpism
In 2011 — when the idea of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States still seemed like a long-shot hypothetical — New York Times Opinion columnist Timothy Egan drew parallels to Trump’s Italian trailblazer, pointing to the dismissive attitudes held by many in Egan’s American and Italian circles, who saw both Berlusconi and Trump as “jokes” or “vulgarians.” Egan was one of the early American commentators to suggest that, despite his crass bull-in-a-china-shop public behavior — indeed, perhaps because of it — Trump merited being taken seriously as a political actor.
“If Berlusconi still commands a large following despite being on trial for his latest sex scandal, what does it say about an enabling public?” Egan asked.
For later commentators like Tobias Jones, writing in Foreign Policy in the midst of Trump’s presidency, hindsight made it clear how Berlusconi had such a stranglehold on Italians for so long.
“An often overlooked aspect of Berlusconi’s career was his astonishing ability to cast himself as a victim and as a martyr,” Jones wrote in 2019.
To a population — Italians — that felt shortchanged, even swindled, by draconian tax regulations, bureaucratic stagnation and encroaching foreign influences, Berlusconi painted a self-portrait that cast him as just another suffering citizen battling the indecencies of life, despite being super powerful and super rich. Sound familiar?
It’s hard to imagine what Berlusconi might be most remembered for: his entrepreneurial spirit as a media tycoon, his success as owner of A.C. Milan (26 trophies in 31 years), his three terms as prime minister and fall in disgrace, or perhaps the debauchery, scandals and trials.
What’s certain is the influence he has had on the country and the penetrating mark his unique brand of politics will leave on Western countries for decades to come.