NEW YORK—Earlier this year, several newspapers compared Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump with the former prime minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi. Scholars and journalists agreed: both are blustery outsiders who rode a populist revolt to prominence. But just days away from the election, some Italians in New York say that Trump is not America’s Berlusconi—he is much worse.
Both Trump and Berlusconi are tycoons-turned-politicians. Both are businessmen who promise to save the economy and bring prosperity to the citizens. Both have been accused of misogyny. However, the differences are many.
“It is an impactful comparison, but it has some limitations,” said Stefano Albertini, director of New York University’s Casa Italiana. “Both Berlusconi and Trump are entrepreneurs and showmen. The main difference is that Trump uses an explicit rhetoric of hate and divisiveness. Berlusconi used a different rhetoric. He said, ‘Let’s all love one another,’ and ‘We are all Italians.’ He let the North League party do the racist part.”
The North League, Lega Nord in Italian, is a right-wing party that advocates for Italy to become a federal state. The party, known for its firm anti-immigration stances, took part in the coalition government with Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (Popolo della Libertà) between 2008 and 2011.
Berlusconi served as prime minister of Italy four times. When he entered politics, said Albertini, he had no experience in the field. So he surrounded himself with people who could help him lead the country.
“Berlusconi knew how to take advice from other politicians, such as Letta and Tremonti. He formed a ‘protection pad’ for the country,” continued Albertini, referring to Gianni Letta, undersecretary of three governments led by Berlusconi, and Giulio Tremonti, minister of economy and finances under all four Berlusconi governments. “Instead, I have some doubts that Trump is able to take advice from others. He seems to be unstable, and often changes the people he works with.”
Just three months before the election, Trump replaced his campaign manager for the second time, assigning Kellyanne Conway to the position. Conway’s predecessors were Corey Lewandowski, who was fired in June 2016, and Paul Manafort, who filled the position unofficially until Conway took over.
Although both Trump and Berlusconi “have objectified the female body,” Albertini sees a further vulgarity in Trump and feels that Berlusconi was “slightly more restrained.”
Albertini hopes that Trump will lose the presidential election, but he thinks that the Republican nominee will leave a dangerous legacy to the United States even if he is defeated. “He introduced a rhetoric of divisiveness, homophobia and misogyny in the political discourse.”
Maria Chiara Carrai, a post-doctoral researcher in law at New York University, said that, if she had to choose who would control America’s nuclear arsenal, she would choose Berlusconi over Trump. “I would have never voted for Berlusconi in Italy, but I consider him to be a man with brains,” she said. “Trump is delirious.”
Carrai, 30, moved to New York from Italy, but she also has studied in Hong Kong. She said she doesn’t know anyone in New York who will be voting for Trump on election day.
“I remember when there was the earthquake in L’Aquila,” recalled Anna Schumate, an American gemologist, who holds a close relationship with Italy, because one side of her family is originally from Naples. “[Berlusconi] said, ‘It will be just like a camp-out.’ It was very insensitive, very Trump-like.”
In April 2009, after a devastating earthquake in the city of L’Aquila, Berlusconi told a TV reporter, referring to the 17,000 made homeless by the disaster: “They have medicines. They have hot food. They have shelter for the night. Of course, their current lodgings are a bit temporary. But they should see it like a weekend of camping.”
Schumate thinks that Berlusconi is probably a better businessman than Trump. The Republican candidate made headlines this year for not being the successful mogul he wanted the American people to believe he was: many of his business ventures, including Trump Airlines and his casinos in Atlantic City failed, leading him to file bankruptcy more than once. In October, the New York Times rated 61 of Trump’s business deals, and concluded that around 40 percent of them had failed.
In contrast, Berlusconi has never filed bankruptcy. Earlier this year, the former prime minister sold his 99.93 percent stake in the AC Milan soccer team to a group of Chinese investors for €740 million.
Berlusconi is a product of Italy, said Alessandro Cassin, who is the deputy director of the Centro Primo Levi in New York. “His political rise embodied the ideal of the ‘smart’ Italian who didn’t pay taxes. The 20 years of ‘Berlusconismo’ had a devastating effect on the country.”
Cassin said that Trump is the result of a declining society and a “desperate Republican Party.” “The rise of Trump is unthinkable without the political and moral lynching of [President Barack] Obama, who has been falsely portrayed as a socialist. Trump is a product of the frustration of the American people.”
Although similarities between the two figures are easy to find, there is an important difference, said Cassin: “Berlusconi was leading a country that did not have such an important role on a world scale. Donald Trump, instead, wants to become president of a world-leading country.”
“There are many parallels between the two: both preach the ‘politics of the anti-politics,’ both are improvised politicians,” said Alexander Stille, a journalist and author. “However, Berlusconi was a more disciplined politician, especially during his first electoral campaign in 1993 and 1994.”
Stille, who teaches at Columbia University’s Journalism School, said that Berlusconi ruined Italy for 20 years. In his book “The Sack of Rome,” published in 2006, he wrote that Berlusconi was an opportunist who ran for office mainly to defend his own business interests.
“The United States is the most powerful country in the world,” Stille said. “Trump is playing with fire.”
Correction: This article originally misidentified Alexander Stille as a former editor-in-chief of Corriere della Sera. In fact, that was his late father Ugo Stille.
Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr