Dressed up as a tropical dictator in a sketch by the great Italian political cartoonist Altan, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wears a double-breasted camouflage jacket, a goony grin on his face and a large banana slung over his hip like a machete. “I was democratically elected,” Berlusconi is sighing. “But I deserved much, much better.”

The perception that Italy’s premier TV tycoon has brought the country to the brink of banana democracy–as the Italian daily La Repubblica calls it–is one that torments many in Italy these days. When a prime minister is on trial for criminal charges as serious as corrupting judges; when, with utter disregard for any conflict of interest standards, he maintains control of all but one of the country’s national TV channels and a sizable piece of its publishing industry while holding office; when virtually the only laws he passes are ad personam measures that promote his own business and legal interests; when he noisily attacks the judiciary and journalists who dare to criticize him; when he makes grievous faux pas in foreign policy–when Berlusconi does all these things and more, one naturally begins to worry about the state of Italian democracy. As Primo Levi warned, “Every age has its Fascism,” not necessarily accompanied by “terror and police intimidation.” Democracy, Levi pointed out, can be undermined by “withholding or manipulating information, polluting the judicial system and paralyzing the school system, by encouraging in many subtle ways nostalgia for a world in which order reigns supreme.”

Fortunately, basic freedom of speech is still intact in Italy, where scores of writers have focused their sights on Berlusconi and his excesses. A search of an Italian Internet bookseller turned up seventy-six titles that included the name Berlusconi (and by no means do all books on the subject have his name in the title), all but a handful of them critical of the Prime Minister. The list of authors includes an impressive number of Italy’s leading intellectuals, right down to Nobelist Dario Fo, who with Franca Rame has written and performed a withering, surrealist theater piece about the prime minister, L’Anomalo bicefalo (“the two-headed anomaly”). It is just one of four extravagant works of fiction devoted to the Berlusconi phenomenon, alongside more straitlaced analyses by jurists, economists and political scientists.

It’s been ten years since Berlusconi threw his hat into the political arena, or “stepped onto the field,” as he is fond of saying in one of his cherished sports metaphors. His first government, which came to power in 1994, lasted just seven months; in 2001 he was re-elected. A decade ago, when Berlusconi was founding the Forza Italia party, veteran Italian journalist Enzo Biagi asked him why he was running for office. To protect himself, Berlusconi said, because “they want me to go bankrupt and end up in jail.” He had plenty of reason to be concerned: His company Fininvest was in grave debt, the courts in Milan and Palermo had opened investigations of him and his associates on grounds of corruption and Mafia association, and his political protectors had been swept away in the huge Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”) corruption scandals.

Ten years later Berlusconi’s finances are thriving (this year Forbes reported him the thirtieth-richest man in the world, worth $10 billion). The criminal charges against him still drag through the courts, stymied by a law he passed to give himself immunity from prosecution (subsequently struck down by the Constitutional Court) and the delaying tactics of the ninety-eight lawyers he has deployed to defend himself against the various accusations.

Conflict of interest is too decorous a term to describe the problem that arises when the near-monopoly owner of Italy’s commercial TV industry becomes prime minister without giving up ownership or control of his private empire. Naked self-interest is more like it. In the years since he entered politics, the Berlusconi share of TV advertising revenues has risen dramatically, sending billions into the coffers of his advertising company Publitalia. A recent law he passed allows him to continue broadcasting on his three national commercial channels–the Constitutional Court ruled that the limit for any one owner should be two only–and will thus preserve hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenues this year.

As a candidate Berlusconi used his advertising sales reps in Publitalia as his campaign foot soldiers (an astonishing fifty of them were elected members of Parliament in 1994). Not only did he have unlimited access to favorable TV coverage but, more subtly, he was able to project as political promise the same aura of game-show good humor and consumer opulence that his TV channels project. As prime minister, Berlusconi has exercised tight control over RAI-TV, the public broadcaster, while continuing to dictate the political slant of his commercial channels–so that six of seven national channels are Berlusconi-controlled. (Those seventy-odd books criticizing him reach a tiny audience, compared with that of all the TV watchers.)

One of Berlusconi’s first acts in office was to publicly denounce a comedian he deemed unfriendly and two RAI journalists–among them the avuncular Enzo Biagi–and suggest they should be unceremoniously fired, which they were. The Prime Minister’s cavalier and arrogant misuse of office arises all the time in ways that would be comical if they were not tragic, as when he hogs hours of exclusive coverage on RAI’s leading public-affairs show, or when he recently called in to a Sunday RAI-TV sports program and monopolized the line for twenty minutes expounding on the tactics of his soccer team, AC Milan.

Shame that Italy has sunk so low is a leitmotif of the current crop of books on Berlusconi (not unlike the wave of new books on George W. Bush). The economist Paolo Sylos Labini says he wrote Berlusconi e gli anticorpi (“Berlusconi and the Antibodies”) so that he could look at himself in his shaving mirror in the morning, and “to show that Berlusconi is not Italy.” Sylos Labini stops short of saying that Italy lacks the democratic “antibodies”–freedom of the press, the rule of law–that protect against authoritarian misrule, but he shows they are under attack. Like other critics he’s quick to point out that Berlusconi’s illiberal rule has little in common with Fascism. Still, tormented comparisons to Mussolini are forever creeping into the pages of these books.

Piccolo Cesare (“Little Caesar”), the distinguished muckraker Giorgio Bocca titles his howl of outrage about Berlusconi. If the Prime Minister’s swaggering ways sometimes remind him of Il Duce, says Bocca, “this is not Fascism–although history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.” At times, writes Bocca, “it seems as if someone had opened the gates of our cities to aliens, aliens who don’t hide their greed and their vulgarity.” It’s a sentiment shared by legal scholar Franco Cordero, who writes in Le strane regole del Signor B (“The Strange Rules of Mr. B”) of a “barbarian invasion” and likens the Prime Minister’s famously charismatic style to that of an old-time shoe-polish salesman giving a wild pitch for his wares in the market.

Il venditore (“The Salesman”) is in fact the title of a 1995 biography of Berlusconi by Giuseppe Fiori, the author of the well-known biography of Antonio Gramsci, the renowned Italian Communist who died in one of Mussolini’s jails. Although somewhat out of date, Il venditore remains the best background source on Berlusconi’s early years (from a relatively modest family, he was a star student earning the highest marks in high school and university); on his beginnings in the construction industry (the sources of his funding have never been clarified, raising suspicions that the loans he drew on came from laundered Mafia money); and on his dramatic ascent into commercial television (the late Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi helped him to monopolize the market by smoothing the way on the legislative front).

All these writers have to hustle to find terminology to define a politician who is capable of (1) brazenly using his own and state TV channels for political purposes; (2) passing a series of disastrous laws that make it hard to convict him, including, in the age of Enron and Parmalat, one decriminalizing balance-sheet fraud; and (3) calmly disappearing from work for more than a month, as he did this winter, only to let it be known he had vanished to have a face lift. “Soap-opera democracy” comes to mind, but “totalitarian democracy” is the term Columbia University political scientist Giovanni Sartori settles on in his Mala tempora (“Evil Times”), a collection of his articles from the daily paper Corriere della Sera on the Berlusconi phenomenon.

If totalitarian democracy sounds polemical, consider what the Prime Minister has to say. Last year Berlusconi, who had up until then refused to appear in the courtroom, agreed to make a carefully prepared “spontaneous declaration” before the court in Milan that is trying him for corrupting several Roman judges. “All citizens are equal before the law,” said Berlusconi in his declaration, but he argued that the court should not be allowed to deliberate his case because “some citizens are more equal than others.” The nod to Animal Farm seems to have been entirely unintentional. Berlusconi’s statement is reprinted in Peter Gomez and Marco Travaglio’s useful Lo chiamavano impunità (“They Called It Impunity”), a report on one of several corruption cases in which the Prime Minister is charged and which recently led to the conviction of his longtime attorney Cesare Previti, a Forza Italia senator.

By far the most ambitious of books about Berlusconismo is Paul Ginsborg’s Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony, published in Italy last year and now available in an updated English version. Ginsborg, an English-born professor of history who teaches at the University of Florence and who has written two masterful books on postwar Italian history–A History of Contemporary Italy and Italy and Its Discontents–is also known in Italy as one of the leaders of a protest movement that aims to prod the left to combat Berlusconi. His sober, thoughtful book will be of value not only to anyone interested in Italy but to anyone interested in how populist politics, money and control of the mass media’s reservoir of fantasy can combine to override the democratic process.

Does Berlusconi, asks Ginsborg, represent “a new model of political control in modern democracy,” or can he be dismissed, as The Economist did, as a “Burlesquoni,” a jester improvising policy to suit his personal needs? Ginsborg argues forcefully that Berlusconi has a serious political project and that, like Rupert Murdoch, Jean-Marie Messier and Michael Bloomberg, he should be seen in the context of a “global TV oligarchy” and of other big stakeholders in the media and telecommunications business who have ventured into the political sphere or pull the strings backstage.

What makes Berlusconi novel, argues Ginsborg, is his ability to tap into a TV fantasy world of contented, enterprising families and abundant consumer goods, and use it to build political support for himself. To those escapist and materialist fantasies, Berlusconi adds the shine of his conspicuously displayed billions–princely villas in Lombardy, Sardinia and elsewhere, a giant yacht, a jet-set lifestyle. Among Italy’s hardworking, acquisitive, tax-evading, profoundly conservative middle class Berlusconi’s self-made fortune is a prize to be admired and emulated. His charm is lodged in an obsessive personality cult, the likes of which Italy has not seen since Mussolini. Not surprisingly, he has no rivals within his own party.

Although Berlusconi often dishes out the populist rhetoric, he has a neoliberal heart, Ginsborg insists, pointing to government plans to privatize and regionalize the national health system, promote private schools, obstruct the unions and condone rampant illegal building projects that despoil Italy’s environment. No less neoliberal is Berlusconi’s obsessive talk about libertà, by which he invariably means freedom from state interference.

That Berlusconi is a neoliberal is not, however, as obvious as it might seem, since the Prime Minister’s legislative record has been very inconclusive. In Berlusconi e gli anticorpi Sylos Labini argues that Berlusconi is not a right-wing politician at all, just a power-hungry crony capitalist pursuing his own business interests. But when it comes to foreign policy, as Lapo Pistilli and Guelfo Fiore show in their useful survey, Semestre Nero (“Dark Semester”), Berlusconi is indisputably a man of the right. Against the wishes of some three-quarters of the Italian people, Berlusconi sided with Bush by sending troops to Iraq. And he has profoundly shifted Italy’s stance on the Middle East by throwing his support to Ariel Sharon.

Perhaps what is most alarming about Berlusconi is his contempt for the rules of the game. Where another politician under prosecution would at least pay lip-service respect to the judiciary, Berlusconi rails furiously against it: The magistrates are “left-wing Jacobins” pushing Italy “toward a police state,” “dictators” who are “mentally deranged” and “worse than Fascism,” a “cancer to eradicate.” When that inflammatory, demagogic language is combined with laws that make the courts’ work against him more difficult–such as one vastly complicating the task of transferring evidence from one country to another–and with plans to make the judiciary less independent, there is cause to be worried.

Yet when Berlusconi first appeared on the scene and won the election in 1994, the left was flummoxed. According to Ginsborg, it “never really understood what had hit it.” Berlusconi fell ignominiously from power only a few months later, but when he returned to power in the 2001 election, the left was “in a coma” for months, Ginsborg says. And the center-left governments did nothing to stop the Berlusconi steamroller between 1995 and 2001. No law on conflicts of interest was passed, nor did the center-left make sure to pass a media law that would rethink the monopoly conditions that Berlusconi enjoys. Had it wanted to, the left could even have barred Berlusconi from office under a 1957 law, according to Labini. Instead, the center-left, under the leadership of Massimo D’Alema, spent years trying to negotiate constitutional reforms with Berlusconi’s agreement, only to see him turn the tables on them at the last minute. Not only was no agreement reached but Berlusconi was legitimized and had a chance to regroup his forces, transforming his Forza Italia into a mass-based party and reassembling his right-wing coalition.

Today, after three years in power, it looks as if Berlusconi’s support might be eroding. The economy is in ruins, his performance in government has been dismal and he is now scrambling to find a way to deliver the lower taxes that were among his campaign promises. The great communicator–with his simple, repetitive, upbeat messages–now sounds more like a broken record. In an attempt to boost his showing at the June 12-13 elections for the European Parliament, Berlusconi has placed himself at the top of the Forza Italia list (although he has no plans whatsoever to serve in Strasbourg). The country has been plastered with millions of dollars’ worth of campaign posters showing his new, lifted face.

The European elections do not affect Berlusconi’s mandate to govern Italy, but if Forza Italia takes a beating in the polls, it could set off a bitter struggle among his right-wing coalition partners, the racist and xenophobic Northern League and the one-time neo-Fascist party, the National Alliance. Even if Berlusconi were to fall, he would leave behind a bitter legacy–a fiercely divided country, riven by a level of social conflict that hasn’t been seen in Italy for many years. By bringing the Northern League into the government and giving it many more ministerial slots than its votes would merit, Berlusconi has allowed the most vicious of Italian parties to spread its hate message and work mayhem with the state. (The recent heart attack and stroke of Umberto Bossi has now left the Northern League without a visible leader, and the Prime Minister will certainly try to poach their votes.)

But even if he is defeated, Berlusconi should not be underestimated. The Prime Minister has fought back with tenacity and ability once before. And it will take “years and untold labors,” as Giorgio Bocca puts it, to repair the damage Berlusconi has done.