While hyperbolic comparisons with Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini have become commonplace when discussing the wayward presidency of Donald Trump, a more realistic analogy can be found in the public and private life of the controversial Italian businessman-turned-politician, Silvio Berlusconi. Growing up in post-war Italy the Milan-born entrepreneur initially dabbled in show-business before turning to real estate development, making a fortune building residential apartments around his home city in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Establishing his own cable television company in 1973, he found a ready audience for tabloid-style programming, gobbling up local stations across the country. Building on these successes, in 1980 he founded the first private national network, Canale 5, buying two would-be rivals, Italia 1 and Rete 4, a few years later. From these acquisitions the era of Italian stripping-housewives was born.
With the foundation of a right-wing political party, Forza Italy, in 1994, Berlusconi launched a sustained campaign to gain the prime minister’s office. Using his media empire to reach potential voters, the tycoon lambasted left-leaning opponents and newspapers in an unprecedented advertising blitz. However an inconclusive election a few months later left him at the head of a chaotic coalition government of antagonistic national, regionalist and neo-fascist parties. Inevitably this alliance fell apart amid bitter infighting and recriminations.
Undeterred, after several years of labour Berlusconi returned to power in 2001 as the leader of a broad coalition of conservative parties, promising reduced taxes, job creation and a heavy hand against crime, to some popular acclaim. Over the next decade the entrepreneur successfully shifted in and out of alliances, grabbing power when he could by playing friends and enemies off against each other. Finally in 2011 he stepped down from the premiership, beset by scandals of almost every conceivable nature and a growing economic crisis.
Throughout his political life Berlusconi used his influence over much of the country’s private television and radio networks to boost his career while destroying those of his opponents. These included a number of journalists and newspaper editors he viewed as being insufficiently respectful or loyal. However, the Italian demagogue did not have the same pull with the international news media. In 2009, the then prime minister accused the European press of slandering him and damaging Italy’s global reputation. This led him to threaten “hard measures” against foreign journalists and news teams. Fortunately Berlusconi’s ineptitude and relative weakness in office prevented him from following through on his promises.
So it is no surprise that Donald Trump seems to be following the same successful playbook as Berlusconi, threatening the American television networks and news media more generally with as yet unspecified punishments. The MSNBC current affairs show, Morning Joe, takes a brief look at this extraordinary development in an extraordinary presidency, one that was heretofore largely unimaginable in the United States.