The Sack of Rome
by Alexander Stille
Hitler, Trump,... Berlusconi? I didn't believe it either. Italy is such a small place, I hardly pay attention to it, except for the food. But when we weren't looking, Silvio Berlusconi took over and ran a country already corrupted into the ground. And when I read about the parallels between Italy's prime minister and our own clown president in the New York Times in December, I decided to learn more.
The Sack of Rome was written in 2006, but rather than feel outdated, it is prescient. When the author compares Berlusconi's manipulations to those of George W. Bush, the impression is that W. was just a prequel to the Trump reality show. And that Trump is more Berlusconi than W., albeit even a bit stupider.
From odd bits like both being germophobes and referring to themselves in the third person, there are the more significant details of personal history, like the origination of their wealth in real estate development. In fact, the lies and obfuscations, the hidden deals behind the schemes, are eerily similar. Both bolster arguments with false quotes and statistics. Neither read much. And both garnered fame and power with the people of their country by virtue of media empire -- Berlusconi's ownership and control over television in Italy and Trump's fame and popularity beginning with Miss Universe pageants and culminating with the image of the successful entrepreneur and business mogul on the reality show, The Apprentice.
We mostly assume Trump is an idiot, because his poor impulse control and anger have led to some really dumb moves. His attacks on people who might be supporters tend to prove he is not as smart as he thinks. Or it might just be that the crazy has overridden the smart.
But Berlusconi seems to have a shrewd intellect wherein he has planned his successes with a philosophy that Trump can merely mimic. As owner of the first private television station in the country, Berlusconi imported popular American TV shows that had been unavailable through the government owned station. Then he built up commercial advertising in a way that multiplied both power and profit.
Berlusconi was hands on with both programming and personnel of his media empire. As Stille writes:
"Berlusconi went unabashedly after the lowest common denominator and made the silent majority the protagonist of his television. 'Remember that the audience of our listeners, as they say in America, have an eighth-grade education and were not at the top of their class,' he told his sales force in the late 1980's."
And then there is his involvement with the Mafia, the shady characters that aided and abetted his ambitious plan for power and wealth. Much as Trump and Russia, it was a mutually beneficial dirty deal. And supporters of both merely shrugged off the complicity as something that was necessary to bring change. Both assumed that it would take someone who knew how to deal and had the great wealth to prove it in order to bring order to their lives.
There needs to be a certain level of distrust and cynicism for the people of a nation to hand the reigns of power over to a leader who is known to be corrupt. And in our country we have grown accustomed to lies, deceits and deals from our politicians. We have a media that no longer is required to hold to standards of ethics or even pretend to fairness, in spite of claims to the contrary. Our political leaders spend more time courting the wealthy and powerful and holding meetings to plan how they will control the electorate than actually listening to voters, which has been proved dramatically during the past several months of town hall evasions by legislators.
And after years of lies and innuendo, buttressed by a media that went after the most outrageous news rather than the most credible, we saw our election sabotaged to the point where people who should have known better said they couldn't vote for Hillary because they just couldn't trust her. Day after day of Chuck Todd inserting in every story that these were the two most unpopular candidates ever, as though he had nothing to do with the perception.
The pressure on the media for ratings and ad dollars wakened and gave life to the hibernating Trump, but it took Russia to know what strings to pull to unravel our democracy. And the corruption seeped through the system. The cynicism that had been growing in the American people for decades allowed supporters to cheer when Trump said "crooked Hillary" even though they knew he had scammed Trump University enrollees; it is the kind of cynicism that has Michael Flynn yelling "lock her up" even as his is conspiring with the Russian government.
In fact, in the New Yorker article by John Cassidy cited above, he says,
"It is also worth recalling that, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, another populist businessman, served as Prime Minister four times despite a list of allegations against him that included bribery, tax evasion, sexual misconduct, and having ties to the mafia."For an American who isn't much interested in the world outside my own walls, this book was a page turner. I would like to recommend it, but I realize we all could use a diversion in these dark days. So let me suggest a drinking game to go along with the book. Take a shot every time you can substitute "Trump" for "Berlusconi." And don't plan on driving anywhere for awhile.