Through his multiple stints in office, Berlusconi ran Italy’s government longer than anyone since the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. He came to power as a modernizing wrecking ball, aimed at supplanting an establishment collapsing under the weight of corruption scandals and public disenchantment. He exits the stage a diminished, if unbowed, figure — a junior partner in a right-wing coalition who spent years fighting tangled legal battles over all sorts of damning charges, from bribery to abuse of office to paying for sex with an underage minor.
For a time, though, Berlusconi captured the imagination of the public like no other, using his control and influence in the media and his carefully cultivated mass appeal, including his tabloid-catching role as owner of one of Italy’s most popular soccer clubs.
“Berlusconi’s marshalling of Il Cavaliere, or the Knight, as he was called, did this almost entirely on his own terms,” wrote Jason Horowitz in The Washington Post’s obituary. “He rode his television airwaves into the center of the vituperative political arena and used all the weapons at his disposal to stun the opposition, lasso a coalition out of warring allies and, above all, fight for his own survival.”
“It is now difficult to imagine an Italy without Berlusconi,” declared a Monday editorial in La Repubblica, a major Italian daily. “In the last 50 years, there hasn’t been a day in which his name hasn’t been mentioned, on TV, in the newspapers, in Parliament, in bars and at the stadium.’’
Berlusconi’s populist appeal was anchored in Italian fatigue in a fraying liberal-democratic project. But what he offered was a polarizing mix of nationalist and anti-elite tub-thumping that paved the way for the Italian far right to capture the mainstream, including Berlusconi’s own center-right base.
“To the mass of the people, Berlusconi appeared capable of delivering change. He appeared new,” Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist at the Rome-based university Luiss, told The Post. “Some will remember him as a man who could have done more to modernize the country. For others, he will be the great corruptor of Italian society, and it will take a generation to recover from the malaise that he has instilled.”
Analysts routinely trot out the parallels between Berlusconi and former president Donald Trump, and for good reason. “Both men began as real-estate magnates, became media stars and segued into politics. Both have made a point of undermining their country’s established institutions, including the press and judiciary,” wrote the Guardian’s Jon Henley. “Rejected by their respective liberal establishments, both also have responded — despite their great wealth — with the populist tactic of portraying themselves as the true voice of the people against an out-of-touch and corrupt elite.”
Berlusconi had cozy relations with other illiberal nationalists, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who could well take inspiration from Berlusconi’s overcoming of his legal challenges. Despite his many cases, the former Italian prime minister was only found definitively guilty once — in 2013, when the country’s highest court upheld his conviction for tax fraud, a move that saw him frozen out of parliamentary left for half a decade.
“No politician anywhere in the world, not even Netanyahu, faced over their career anything like the number and range of criminal allegations that Berlusconi did,” wrote Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer. “But he wore his prosecutors down with time-delaying tactics, a relentless barrage of pressure in his tame media and finally, when it became necessary, changes to the law that ensured he would not have to go to prison and could remain in politics.”
Pfeffer, writing in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, added: “It was enough to redefine Italian politics and the media so enough of them could be convinced that he was the victim of left-wing enemies, and maintain the base support among his Forza Italia party.”
A similar dynamic is on show now in the United States, as Trump and even some of his Republican rivals attempt to use the ongoing investigations into (and indictments of) the former president to stoke grievance among their base support. While Berlusconi was less ideological than many of his right-wing counterparts, his politics of personality offered a template for how democracies can erode.
“Berlusconi demonstrated that institutional guardrails are, even in supposedly consolidated democracies, much weaker than politicians and political scientists had assumed,” wrote Yascha Mounk in the Atlantic. “The threat he embodied was in his example; he himself remained a deeply personalist politician, who relied on his charisma and cared mostly about his own interests. Berlusconi’s successors are just as willing to bend the rules or exploit their image, but for purposes that could do much more severe damage.”
It’s not a coincidence that some of Berlusconi’s fond friends on the world stage were autocrats and demagogues themselves. One of the most eye-catching tributes to him Monday came from Russian President Vladimir Putin, a close friend, as my colleagues put it, “linked by a shared boorish machismo” and no shortage of rumors of covert business deals and joint escapades in “bunga bunga” sex parties.
Putin penned a lengthy letter hailing Berlusconi. “I have always sincerely admired his wisdom and his ability to make balanced, far-sighted decisions, even in the most difficult situations,” Putin wrote. “During each of our meetings, I was literally charged with his incredible vitality, optimism and sense of humor. His death is an irreparable loss and great sorrow.”