Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at the June 15 meeting between Obama and Silvio Berlusconi! Berlusconi, that brash billionaire businessman who runs the Italian government like his private fiefdom. Owner of multiple TV channels, magazines and newspapers. Appointer of attractive young women with slim credentials to ministerial positions. The one who granted himself full judicial immunity so that when his English lawyer David Mills, the wizard who created his offshore accounts, was recently convicted for taking a huge Berlusconi bribe to lie under oath about those accounts, Berlusconi himself remained unscathed. “The Emperor,” as his wife, Veronica Lario, termed him on May 3, when she announced she was filing for divorce. The guy who likes to entertain guests (such as former Czech premier Mirek Topolánek) at his private pleasure palace in Sardinia, with dozens of luscious young women, some of them underage, for sing-alongs and topless afternoons by the pool. The joker who commissioned the breathtakingly sycophantic party anthem “Meno male che Silvio c’e” (“Thank heavens for Silvio!”); who, between applications of pancake makeup, botox, facelifts and hair transplants, comes more and more to resemble North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, right down to the hairspray and restrictions on the press. The provider of panem et circenses, who appeared on TV three days before elections, looked into the camera and denied he had already sold the star player on his AC Milan soccer team (he had). The gentleman who did not protest when the right-wing tabloid Libero hit back at his wife with front-page photos of Veronica bare-breasted during a theater performance many years ago, then his family paper Il Giornale followed up with yet more photos of her reputed “lover.”

In short, the politician whose “People of Liberty” got more votes than any other Italian party (35 percent) in the June 6-7 elections for the European Parliament.

There was only one consolation for the majority who didn’t vote for him: Berlusconi had been counting on a much larger consensus. Until two days before the election, he was still convinced the People of Liberty would tally at least 45 percent, bringing his total to more than half of all Italians when the votes for his ally–the xenophobic, not-in-my-backyard Northern League–were added in. Convinced he was heading for a landslide, he had already announced he would make extensive unilateral amendments to the constitution, to hobble the judiciary and power up the executive. But when the time came to go to the polls, many of his supporters seemed to have voted directly for the Northern League, which got more than 10 percent, while others failed to vote at all. His numbers were smaller than he had hoped, and Berlusconi is now ever more hostage to the narrow-minded, hate-mongering Northern League.

It was not just in Italy that the xenophobes triumphed. In the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary and Finland, far-right nationalist parties gained between 10 and 18 percent, and even in Britain the far right won two seats. Across Europe social democratic parties did poorly and conservatives did well. This is not the place to speculate on why Europe has moved right and why European socialist and center-left parties have failed to persuade voters that they have a better recipe to deal with the bitter inequalities brought on by economic crisis. But certainly, historical precedents, like the rise of Nazism during the Great Depression, are not consoling.

In some ways Italy is a case apart, because of Berlusconi’s immense media power, the many criminal charges that have been brought against him and his blatant conflicts of interest. And yet Italians vote for Berlusconi for some of the same reasons other Europeans vote for the radical right.

First, Berlusconi is a beacon to that nearly 25 percent of the Italian workforce who are small shopkeepers and small business owners providing basic services–the likes of “Joe the Plumber.” This sector, long protected by the Christian Democrats, now ill equipped to deal with twenty-first-century market competition, has been hard-hit by the economic downturn. Many of them, even those small manufacturers who do make profits in good times, are chronic tax evaders, a fact that Berlusconi has long made clear he condones. As a group, the self-employed tend to admire Berlusconi and dream of matching his success.

Second, Berlusconi and his allies have invested heavily in the politics of fear and hate. Appearing in Milan the day before the election, in a last-ditch effort to snatch some votes from the Northern League, Berlusconi declared he had seen so many black faces that Milan looked “like an African city.” The government has produced virtually no economic policies to deal with grave unemployment and the depredations of globalization. Attacking the immigrants is Berlusconi’s only real strategy. The message is: Immigrants come from afar, and they threaten your jobs. Despite dire warnings from the Bank of Italy about the need to build more economic safety nets, and calls by the industrialists’ association to spur economic growth, the government has done neither. Meanwhile, the center-left Democratic Party (it got 26 percent) has been floundering for months, while the rest of the opposition (another 20 percent) ran on various tickets, several so small they failed to meet the quorum.

Yet Berlusconi may still be his own undoing. And the “woman question”–the ranks of glamorous young veline (starlets) he likes to promote for public office; his unexplained ties with Noemi Letizia, a teenager from Naples aspiring to velina status; his wife’s accusations that he is “sick” and “consorting with minors”–could be his Waterloo. Speaking recently at a meeting of the powerful industrialists’ association Confindustria, Berlusconi pretended to flatter its president, 43-year-old Emma Marcegaglia, by telling her she looked “just like a velina,” a gross faux pas. Yes, Italy’s business leaders have cultivated Berlusconi, hoping for favors from the government. But no, they–and especially their number-one, Marcegaglia–don’t actually think they would be better off in the emperor’s harem. Could that be why, just before leaving for Washington, Berlusconi denounced a “subversive” plot to unseat him?