While there’s no real precedent in American politics for the election of Donald Trump, there are two modern analogues, both Italian.
The first is Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire businessman enmeshed in tax problems, sex scandals and allegations of corruption, whose economic policies helped steer Italy into crisis in 2011. The second is Benito Mussolini. Each offers a possible outline for the presidency of a man whose policy vision remains blurry, at best—at least beyond the broad strokes of racism, xenophobia and economic protectionism that fueled his campaign.
Like Trump, Berlusconi got his start in construction, building thousands of residential apartments in Milan in the 1960s. In the ’70s, he began building a media empire when he launched a cable television company to service all those apartments. Berlusconi later began buying and consolidating television channels into a company called Mediaset, the largest commercial broadcaster in Italy. He also owns the A.C. Milan soccer team, which he bought in 1986.
Also like Trump, Berlusconi didn’t have political experience before forming his own party and winning a seat in parliament, and the prime minister post, in 1994. Berlusconi was seen at the time as an outsider who would streamline and clean up Italy’s government after years of corruption. “Many hoped his business acumen could help revitalize Italy’s economy,” according to a BBC retrospective. He ran on a promise to create a million new jobs.
Berlusconi served three different stints as prime minister. His first, as part of a government coalition with a rightwing populist party from northern Italy and a neo-fascist party from the south, collapsed after just nine months. He was back in the position from 2001-06 and 2008-11, when he resigned after losing his parliamentary majority amid the looming European debt crisis. As for reforming the system, “his years in office were characterized by modest economic growth, interspersed with periods of stagnation and recession,” wrote The Economist, with which he often feuded. “By the end of his final term in 2011, Italians were poorer in real terms than they had been when he regained power 10 years earlier.”
Berlusconi excelled at controversy, though. He continued to run Mediaset while in power, prompting conflict of interest accusations: his governments introduced more than 30 laws intended to help his businesses or shield him from indictment. Trying to game the system didn’t save him in the end. He was investigated, and ultimately convicted, of evading 62 million euros in taxes. He was found guilty of paying an underage prostitute for sex and of using his office to attempt to cover it up. He also insulted Islam, made sexist comments about women and was accused of making anti-Semitic jokes.
Sound familiar? Trump plans to keep his business in the family by having his three grown children—who are part of his transition team—run it. He has refused to release his tax returns, though the New York Times determined that he probably hasn’t paid personal income tax in 20 years. Last week he avoided a trial for fraud by paying $25 million to settle claims that his Trump University real estate seminars bilked students. He’s insulted Islam, made sexist comments about women and is accused by 24 women of inappropriate sexual behavior.
A pair of Italian journalists, Marco Travaglio and Enzo Biagi, wrote in their 2005 book Inciucio that Berlusconi got into politics with the express intention of benefitting himself and his businesses. Mussolini was more of an ideologue. A journalist and prominent member of the Italian Socialist Party until he was booted out during World War I for his support of Italian intervention, Mussolini turned instead to a nationalist identity emphasizing language, culture, tradition and race—characteristics best supported and advanced by right-thinking people like himself, according to Young Mussolini and the Intellectual Origins of Fascism, by Anthony James Gregor.
Mussolini was appointed prime minister in 1922 by Italy’s king after a mass demonstration of fascists in Rome. Il Duce at first governed a coalition of rightist parties as he passed legislation benefiting the wealthy. He soon changed electoral laws to favor parties that supported him and used the media and government propaganda to create a cult of personality portraying himself as Italy’s savior. He systematically shut down opposition groups and dismantled constitutional restraints on his power until, by 1925, he had established himself as the leader of a police state. Mussolini remained dictator of Italy until the king had him arrested in July 1943. German troops soon sprung him from prison and set him up as a puppet leader in the northern half of Italy until April 1945, when communist partisans caught him as he tried to flee to Switzerland, and executed him. His corpse was hung upside down from the roof of a gas station in Milan, where civilians threw stones at it.
There’s no sign so far that Trump seeks to create a police state, or is an actual fascist, and U.S. Constitutional protections remain stronger than Italy’s political institutions were in the 1920s. Trump does, however, have a few things in common with Mussolini, including authoritarian rhetoric. The president-elect has repeatedly said that he’s the only one who can fix the country’s problems, he’s made incredibly effective use of television and social media to spread that message, and his criticism of coverage unfavorable to him seems designed to delegitimize scrutiny or dissent—for example, his childish, bullying response to a statement of concern read to Vice President-elect Mike Pence by the cast of Hamilton. He’s also embraced a nationalist message and dog-whistle language about religious and ethnic minorities that have emboldened those who do buy into fascist ideology. For example, Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon as a senior advisor has drawn praise from the American Nazi Party, among other hate groups.
So is Trump a Mussolini, or more of a Berlusconi? The enthusiastic support of racists aside, a Trump presidency seems more likely to resemble the Berlusconi model, with scandal, gaffes and conflicts of interest. That will still be of scant comfort for most of America, especially the people Trump’s policies are likely to target. Then there are the Trump voters counting on him to save, or resurrect, their jobs and bolster their socioeconomic status. If he fails to deliver, their fury will be real, and understandable: no one likes feeling deceived or exploited. Just ask the Italians who stoned the corpse of Mussolini.