The Damage Silvio Berlusconi (1936–2023) Leaves Behind

The Damage Silvio Berlusconi (1936–2023) Leaves Behind

The Damage Silvio Berlusconi (1936–2023) Leaves Behind

The notorious tycoon and former Italian prime minister is gone, but his toxic legacy remains.

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Silvio Berlusconi, former prime minister of Italy, media mogul, and owner of the AC Milan soccer team, died in a hospital bed in Milan at the age of 86 on Monday. It is not easy to capture the mix of political and cultural ingredients that brought this central figure of contemporary Italian history to power and allowed him to mold the world in his favor for decades. There’s a risk of reducing his career to a swirl of folklore, corruption, and media manipulation—though, given his perennial sordidness (remember the bunga bunga sex parties?), of course they play an important part in this story. But considering the laudatory words following his death from journalists and politicians from across the political sphere, casting him as a cunning strategist, the greater risk is failing to account for the damage that Berlusconi has left behind him.

Forged in the optimism of the late 1980s, Berlusconi first gained power as a property developer, scaling the ranks of an entrepreneurial capitalist class that was celebrating the putative “end of history” while looking for a new political offer that would represent its interests. Italy’s “first republic” (established by referendum in 1946) was collapsing—a result of the revelation of widespread political corruption across the country—and with it a whole political system.

Helped by the right connections, Berlusconi built a media and publishing empire, an asset he knew how to use to his advantage when he saw the opportunity to go into politics and give a voice to the consumerist, individualistic, and entrepreneurial narrative that was flourishing with Italy’s economic boom. He did so through the creation of Forza Italia, the archetype of the personalized party-company, tied financially to his economic fortune and built entirely around his figure—a formula that would soon be copied across the Western world. He substituted popular mobilization with infotainment and forever transformed the electorate into his TV audience. The resonances with the course later charted by Donald Trump are hard to miss.

This was the birth of the “man who screwed an entire country.” Using his immense media power, Berlusconi carefully crafted an image of himself as a self-made entrepreneur who had remained close to “the people”: simultaneously “the last of the first” (down to earth and anti-elitist), and “the first of the last” (a leader that his followers/consumers could identify with). After decades of grey-haired party bureaucrats moralizing over Italians’ every move, Berlusconi seemed to say, I will not only give you freedom, I will embody it: freedom from the state, from biased media, from corrupt politicians and communist magistrates, freedom to do whatever you want—even break a rule here and there, for nobody is perfect.

Least of all Berlusconi himself. Throughout his career, he faced over a dozen trials on charges ranging from fraud and false accounting to bribery and corruption of a minor. While his supporters argue that he has never been convicted, this is far from accurate. There have been instances where convictions were secured, only to be overturned thanks to technicalities within complex legal proceedings, leading to the expiration of the statute of limitations. On at least two occasions, he played a role in changing the law, ultimately resulting in the dismissal of the cases against him.

It’s ironic that for somebody who had entered politics as the Cold War was coming to an end, Berlusconi brought back a new kind of bipolarism, no longer based on the rivalry between Communists and Christian Democrats or Americans and Soviets but on that between those who were on his side and those who were not. With his figure dominating national discourse and his private life an endless source of gossip and televised debate, Berlusconi managed to transform himself into somebody you either loved or despised, either extreme distracting the public from how little he ever accomplished when in government.

Many of those who chose his side back then are now important figures in the most right-wing government in Italy’s democratic history, a government that of course Berlusconi himself played a part in until earlier this week. Perhaps the most toxic aspect of his legacy—and yet another way he anticipated other Western democracies—is his legitimization of neo-fascist groups within center-right coalitions and governments. In Italy, it began with his support for Gianfranco Fini in 1993 for mayor of Rome; he was the candidate of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano—the ancestor of current Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s party and direct descendent of Mussolini’s regime.

Now that Berlusconi is no longer there to hold the reins of a party that was made in his own image, many are wondering what will happen to Forza Italia and the center-right, pro-market current it represents. For the time being, it is probable that the right-wing coalition will maintain an honorable silence in his memory, pushing their differences aside.

Yet the vacuum left behind by the possible disappearance of Italy’s center-right party will not remain without contenders to fill it for long. Matteo Renzi, leader of the centrist Italia Viva party, has long positioned himself as an alternative for those left without representation by Forza Italia’s slow decline who are unwilling or unsure about shifting rightward.

On the other hand, many will indeed do just that. After all, during his reign, Berlusconi legitimized racism, homophobia, sexism, religious fanaticism, and alliances with such figures as Vladimir Putin and Moammar El-Gadhafi, paving the way for the electoral success of today’s far-right politics and inspiring other billionaires to follow in his footsteps. For this reason, it is hard to imagine that any of his former followers perceive Meloni’s party as a shift rightward.

Nonetheless, Berlusconi’s legacy remains contested. For some, the autocratic turn that he oversaw during his career might make him a great statesman. For others, he will be the man who first started to chip away at the foundations of democracy, showing contempt for the checks and balances on which it is built, personalizing the political sphere, systematically spreading lies and disinformation through the media channels he owned, and ushering far-right politics into the mainstream.

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