ROME—Americans may have a lot to learn from the fact that Italians have just welcomed Silvio Berlusconi, an 81-year-old cad tried for sex crimes and convicted of tax crimes, back to mainstream politics.
Berlusconi, Italy’s thrice-elected prime minister, known as the grand master of “bunga bunga” sex parties and leering licentiousness, arrived at his political homecoming party on the posh island of Ischia last month aboard a fancy yacht alongside his 30-year-old live-in girlfriend Francesca Pascale and his closest advisors.
The entourage docked an hour late after one of his bodyguards got seasick, but Berlusconi, never at a loss for words or deeds, took advantage of the situation to bask in the sun and post pictures of himself doing so on social media.
When he finally arrived on the island, his face curiously taut after months out of the public eye, he was met with cheers of unashamed adoration from both men and women. “Presidente! Presidente!” the people cheered. “Il Cavaliere (the knight) has returned!”
Just how a man who has bragged about his personal objectification of women and narrowly escaped conviction for sex with a minor could possibly return to power in the era of Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K, and the #metoo tsunami says a lot about Italians, who have a proven track record when it comes to victim blaming and general misogyny.
But Berlusconi’s comeback might also serve as a warning to those Americans who find it hard to swallow the notion that vile behavior, even on such a grand scale as Berlusconi’s, can be forgiven in pursuit of agendas like tax breaks. And not the least of his advantages, is that voters find Berlusconi–who was a cruise ship crooner before he built a media empire and made billions–entertaining.
Could it mean that Donald Trump could enjoy the same impunity if he stands for reelection in three years? Such a notion is not something to be discounted.
Berlusconi has made it a point to distance himself from Trump, whom he says he disagrees with politically. And it should be noted that the Italian media and real estate mogul was kicked out of office and convicted of both tax evasion and for paying a 17 year old Moroccan girl known by her stage name Ruby the Heartstealer for sex. He later won an acquittal on the sex charge, not on a denial that he paid for sex, but on the simple fact that the prosecution failed to prove that he knew the girl was underage. “She said she was 18,” his lawyers proclaimed, and convinced the court, as Berlusconi smugly stood by.
Yet when he announced he was returning to politics, he wasn’t met with an eye roll. His return was met with relief by many who’ve grown weary of relatively colorless politicians with less success manipulating the public, and even more limited entertainment value.
Among Berlusconi’s many admirers is Cinzia Viola, a woman in her late 50s who regularly posts on his Facebook page and who told The Daily Beast that the fascination with Berlusconi is related to the way he seems to shake up the system. “He appeals to both men and women because he isn’t politically correct,” she says. “He is not afraid to ruffle feathers and say what he thinks. It’s more than his money and power that leads to his charm.”
At the moment, Berlusconi is banned from actually holding public office until 2019 because of his 2013 tax evasion conviction. (Trump says his own unreleased returns were being audited. In Berlusconi’s case, certainly, the auditors didn’t like what they saw.)
Berlusconi has launched an appeal in the European Court of Human Rights on the premise that judges unfairly banned him from office for a crime that had nothing to do with his time at the helm of the country, which is debatable to say the least. But even if he has to wait another year, it is fathomable that whoever is elected in Italian elections expected next year might soon fall, as Italian prime ministers often do, and then Berlusconi could sweep into power once again.
Even without his name on the ballot, he is still very much in charge of his Forza Italia center-right party, which boasts more women than men in its membership demographic.
“No one has as much power as he does at this moment in time,” Renato Brunetta, the leader of Forza Italia in Italy’s lower house of parliament, told a small group of reporters in Rome this week. “He still has the political weight and influence, among those who vote, to carry us forward. He is still the man in charge.”
Berlusconi brought his party to a somewhat astonishing victory in regional elections in Sicily last week when his candidates outperformed expectations on a platform for change which, for the longest-serving elected prime minister in modern Italian history, is a curious promise. But he also embraced an anti-immigration stance promising that Italy would no longer be the welcome mat for migrants. He promised his party would cut taxes and renegotiate some key trade deals, which, as a businessman only he has the smarts and the power to do. “It’s time to put Italy first again,” he said, sounding comfortable paraphrasing and adapting in one stroke Trump’s “America First” and “Make America Great Again” slogans.
It’s worth remembering that when Trump was elected as president of the United States a year ago, many made comparisons to Berlusconi. In the years to come, watching the fate of one may tell us a lot about the fate of the other.