Being Berlusconi – Italy’s Donald Trump

The cover of "Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga" By Michael Day
The cover of “Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga” By Michael Day

As American businessman Donald Trump steals the US election campaign show, dominating the press coverage and moving to the top of the polls among Republicans in the primary, many American intellectuals are asking how this buffoon can be so successful.

Frank Bruni, New York Times op-ed writer and former correspondent in Rome, recently wrote a piece titled “The Dolce Donald Trump” pointing out the similarities between Trump and long time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Bruni is so good, I am going to quote a chunk:

“Aren’t they essentially the same man? The same myth? They have the same obsession with their wealth. Same need to crow about it. Same belief that it’s the irrefutable measure of their genius. Same come-on to countrymen: If I enriched myself, I can enrich you. They’re priapic twins, identical in their insistence on being seen as paragons of irresistible lust. If hideously sexist utterances ensue, so be it. Loins before decency. Pheromones over good sense. And the vanity. Oh, the vanity….”

“Those Italians whose art we bow down before and whose food we fetishize… repeatedly elected him, so that he could actually do what Trump is still merely auditioning to do: use his country as a gaudy throne and an adoring mirror as he ran it into the ground….

“Trumpusconi is a study in the peril and pitfalls of unchecked testosterone and tumescent avarice. It’s a commentary on wealth in the Western world: how ardently certain blowhards pursue it, how much the rest of us forgive in those who attain it, how thoroughly we equate money and accomplishment.

It’s a comedy. It’s a tragedy.”

Well if anyone might be wondering what kind of tragedy Bruni might be talking about, all you have to do is read Michael Day’s excellent new book “Being Berlusconi: The Rise & Fall From Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga.”

Michael Day has been Italy correspondent for “The Independent” for the last six years. During this time he has seen Berlusconi up close and witnessed the damage he wreaked on the country. For those who don’t remember, Silvio Berlusconi served as Italian Prime Minister three times between 1994 and 2011, while owning three private TV channels and dominating the three public ones.  He has also long been one of Italy’s richest men.

In “Being Berlusconi” Day goes beyond his years in Italy and reaches back to the beginning of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s career taking the reader through all the illegal and legal, brilliant and idiotic twists and turns made by one man to become the richest, most powerful man in Italy for two decades.

Michael Day, journalist and author of "Being Berlusconi" on the roof of Milan's Cathedral while covering Silvio Berlusconi receiving the "Grande Milano" award.  Milan,  July 19, 2010.
Michael Day, journalist and author of “Being Berlusconi” on the roof of Milan’s Cathedral while covering Silvio Berlusconi receiving the “Grande Milano” award. Milan, July 19, 2010.

Day’s prologue describes covering Berlusconi at an award ceremony on the top of Milan’s Duomo (see photo above) and introduces the reader to Day’s trenchant style, “Pretty young stewards armed with clipboards and insect repellent welcomed politicians, journalists and hoary TV celebrities, some accompanied by young female companions tottering in six-inch heels, as they stepped onto the roof of the Cathedral. The sun sank and the eastern sky turned mauve, but the mercury didn’t budge from the 86-degree mark. Swarms of mosquitos danced around sweating guests, whose eyes darted around anxiously—and in vain—for evidence of a bar.”

Day goes on to describe how Berlusconi – who loves the sound of his own voice– launched into a lengthy speech singing his own praises and attacking Italy’s judges.

“Sitting at the far end of the ceremony with other journalists, I felt my shirt stick to my back in a big wet patch as I turned to a reporter from “La Repubblica” and asked how long she thought the speech would last.”

“Forever,” she scowled.

Both reading the book and living through it, it seemed like Berlusconi’s grip on Italy was going to last forever.

I met with Michael Day at the Foreign Correspondents’ Association in Rome today to talk to him about writing the book. I asked him what impression Berlusconi made on him when he saw him in person. “He was just like I expected,” Day replied, “Short and orange.” Berlusconi is 5 feet tall and constantly covered in a orangey color face make-up presumably to make him look young and tan.

In “Being Berlusconi” Day takes the reader carefully and meticulously through Berlusconi’s professional life detailing how he moved from cruise-ship crooner, vacuum cleaner salesman, and real-estate mogul to TV tycoon and finally to Prime Minister with the help of a few corrupt cronies who paid off judges and cozied up to the Mafia, and sleazy politicians who filled their pockets and bent the laws to help their friend Silvio.

Day uses his poisoned pen with glee, displaying a verbal virtuosity in his approach to anyone in Italian politics over the past 30 years and just about anyone else who brushed up with Berlusconi. Day starts with Berlusconi who gets summed up more or less as the “devil” in the first pages of the book, he moves on to “medieval moralists at the Vatican”, “officials in Brussels” choking on their “long, Michelin-starred lunches,” “pompous bureaucrats at RAI, Italy’s state broadcaster, Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, a“corrupt politician” and a “power hungry pragmatist and bully”, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi “a mumbling economics professor”, “Britain’s freeloading first couple Tony and Cherie Blair” and Mother Teresa “not the saint she would have us believe.” Day also runs down a list of “The mogul’s “important friends” – Bush (dunce), Clinton (liar), Putin (tyrant) and Chirac (crook)…”. Ouch.

But Day’s sometimes snarky comments are often bulls-eyes.

Here is Day’s take on Berlusconi’s appointment of Mara Carfagna to Minister for Equal Opportunity “…the quintessential female appointment in Berlusconi’s third government. This strikingly attractive brunette from Naples had been a topless model and a dancer on one of Berlusconi’s tacky TV shows; she was a shoo-in for Equal Opportunities Minister.”

I asked Day about his take-no-prisoners style as he tossed back a caffe’ macchiato. He said that he developed that style working for “The Independent”  which “allows me to write as I like, to be fairly opinionated. Its readership is quite well-informed and I think it expects me to tell things as they are. I don’t have an agenda. But I think you have to take a position, and being completely even-handed in extreme situations isn’t really appropriate, not when things are completely skewed.”

Despite his sometimes scathing criticism of what happens in the bel paese, Day does not hide his passion for Italy, “This country is mad, but it is beautiful. I love Italy and it has loads and loads of things going for it, but I don’t think I would be doing Italy or anyone a favor by downplaying any of the things I criticize.”

There are a few people who escape Day’s withering prose – Ilda Boccassini, the Milan Prosecutor who has tackled the powerful ‘Ndrangheta Mafia in Northern Italy, and who went after Berlusconi for the illegal behavior surrounding his bunga bunga parties which eventually led to his trial for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and using his power to cover it up. Day describes Boccassini as “the famously dogged Neapolitan magistrate…whose unrelenting efforts had ensured that Cosa Nostra killers…were brought to justice.” He describes her physically as “small and olive skinned, with fiery red hair and a temper to match…” (See my blog post on her “The Italian Tiger Mamma”)

Berlusconi’s second wife Veronica Lario also gets a good rap from Day. Throughout the book she seems like one of the only honest, level-headed people around, and the only one who managed to see through the manipulative charms of her husband and get the best of him. (See my blog post on her “Veronica’s Revenge.”)

It would be impossible to do a book about Berlusconi without diving into the sludge that was his sordid sexual habits. Day gives due attention to the salacious details of Berlusconi’s sex life as the billioniare politician descended into an abyss of squalid behavior with the so-called “bunga bunga” parties with dozens of young girls performing sexual acts for Berlusconi and his cronies. (I have reported on this myself in numerous stories for AP and on blog posts: Berlusconi’s Babes – Part II , Walk on Cadavers and Sell Your Mother, The End of Italy’s Bunga Bunga EraBerlusconi gets a 7 year Sentence”)

Day takes a stab at journalists too who gleefully covered what became known as the “Bunga Bunga” trial: “for reporters, it was like eating a whole box of chocolates at once, with sleaze, prostitution and national security concerns.” He’s right. It was a chocolate high.

Despite his withering descriptions, Day has been effective in frequently pointing out Berlusconi’s brilliance, noting in the first pages, “It’s a testament to Berlusconi genius as a businessman and politician—and key to his popular and vicarious appeal—that he started with very little and rose to become Italy’s richest man and dominate its politics for two decades”

Throughout the book Day describes Berlusconi’s sense of loyalty to everyone from his first wife to his corrupt cronies. Day also explores in some detail Berlusconi’s talent for understanding the average Italian. As a young businessman Berlusconi understood that TV viewers didn’t want education and culture on TV, they wanted lowbrow fare. This seemingly obvious conclusion made Silvio Berlusconi a rich man. Berlusconi also understood that his womanizing could appeal to many Italian men. According to Day, ““Berlusconi’s womanizing and ostentatious wealth gave many middle-aged Italians a vicarious thrill.”

Reading “Being Berlusconi,” someone who has not spent time in Italy might pause and think “no, it is not possible,” “how could it be so,” “Day is exaggerating.” And yet as a fellow journalist who has covered Berlusconi for decades I can say, “it is true, I was there too.” And at AP television we have a lot of video in our archive of Silvio Berlusconi doing many of the things described so comprehensively in “Being Berlusconi.” There are the absurd gaffes – calling President Barack Obama “sun-tanned”, telling German MP Martin Sculz he would make a good Nazi prison camp guard, and hanging out with Muammar Gaddafi, not to mention his physical appearance and transformations – the face-lifts, the hair transplants and hair piece, and the odd orangey face make-up.

These days life is a bit rough for Berlusconi.  His Forza Italia party is crumbling to pieces, he is banned from public office, he has been convicted of tax fraud, and even had to serve time doing community service with alzheimer’s patients.  His spends his free time with his new companion, the 30-year-old Francesca Pascale and her fluffy, white poodle Dudu.  But the man continues to make news.  Word got out last week that speaking at a dinner with some Forza Italia party members Berlusconi said that his friend Vladimir Putin had offered him Russian citizenship and a job as Minister of the Economy.  I ignored the comment when it came up in the papers.  Next thing I knew my London editors wanted a story on it.

Like Donald Trump, Berlusconi comments continue to draw media attention even when they do not merit it.

I asked Day if he thought the comparison to Donald Trump is apt. Day argued that “Berlusconi has a hell of a lot more ability.  Trump its just crass and crude.  Trump also really believes in right wing politics, he is an ideologue.  But although Berlusconi has a kind of innate political ability — to connect with people –he was never an ideologue.  He would have joined the communist party if it could have helped save his business and keep him out of jail.”

And then Day couldn’t resist one of his zingers- “and at least the dead animal on Berlusconi’s head is glued down; with Trump you are not sure if it is going to jump off and bite you.”

26 thoughts on “Being Berlusconi – Italy’s Donald Trump”

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Hysterical to read about, but I think many Italians didn’t find it very funny when he was dragging their country into the mud. I wish we could let loose Michael Day to cover the Trump campaign for a while.

  1. Looks like a fascinating read…am running to the bookstore! Am so interested in the first hand accounts to the Berlusconi swindle. I think it is like Hollywood come to life because nobody could make this stuff up…no one would believe it!! And as far as Trump is concerned, I don’t think you can compare him to Berlusconi because Trump does not wield the (truthful) net worth that Berlusconi does 7.4 billion vs. 4 billion and Trump does not have the power of the media (and media savvy) that Berlusconi had and that, let’s face it, is priceless.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      I think you are right Kay, and I am guessing Michael would agree with you too. Berlusconi — as Michael repeats frequently in the book — has many assets and many talents, among them his media empire and his media savvy, and his charm. Sounds funny to say it, but he really does work his charm on a lot of people. Over 20 years covering Berlusconi I interviewed so many Italians about him –I cannot tell you how many adored him. Men thought he would make them rich, and they admired his success with women. Hard to believe but many women actually saw something in him. A 40-something, attractive cousin of a friend of mine ended up sitting next to him at a dinner event years ago and he was flirting with her the whole evening and asked for her phone number and even called her the next day. I had lunch with them a few days afterwards and she was still so excited and desperately hoping he would call again. She chattered on endlessly about him. AAARRGHGGH

  2. Wonderful review! That book is definitely going on my ‘To Read’ list.

    Fortunately the similarities between Berlusconi and Trump, more or less stop at their peculiar appearance.
    Trump doesn’t have a shred of Berlusconi’s political nous, nor does he appeal to any section of the American electorate beyond the right-wing crazies. It’s summer = slow news times; I doubt his campaign will last past September.

    Berlusconi was and maybe is (hopefully not) a more challenging creature. Like you and Mr Day, I passionately love your insane, beautiful, impossible, anarchic country and despise what he and his friends have been doing to it. I hope the future will be better governance and more honest leaders for Italy.

    If Silvio does take his friend RatPutin up on his offer, I’m sure he and that other notorious runaway looney, Gerard Depardieu will have much to talk about.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Ha! Just the idea of Gerard Depardieu and Silvio Berlusconi hanging out together in Russia is enough to make one laugh. I think you are probably right that Donald Trump is just a slow summer news sensation and his campaign will probably crash and burn come September. Nevertheless, it is a bit disconcerting seeing him at the top of the polls for the republican candidates.

  3. Let's face the facts

    Berlusconi’s successors are even worse, and more importantly, are not elected by anyone.

    Renzi is a joke: taxes, taxes, taxes… and hordes of illegal immigrants… A lot of people are fed up.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      You are correct in saying that Italy’s current Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has never been directly elected by the Italian people. He kind of slid in the back door with a bit of an inter-party putsch, kicking out PM Gianni Letta. A bit Machiavellian, and also perhaps fairly normal in Italian politics. And as far as Renzi’s ability to govern is concerned, maybe Michael Day should write a book about him as well. Renzi certainly is an interesting personality.

      1. Let's face the facts

        Renzi still refuses to talk about elections… Also, Monti was not elected, Letta was not either… Is that a democracy? North Korea is more transparent.

        Basically Berlusconi was the only one who had been elected, until the European Union removed him.

        1. Trisha Thomas

          I agree with your point on Renzi, Monti, and Letta–but it is more complicated than that. You must clarify how elections work in Italy. No candidate for Prime Minister is ever elected directly. Unlike the United States where we vote directly for our presidential candidate, in the Italian parliamentary system voters choose a party, not a candidate, at the polls. As far as the EU ousting Berlusconi is concerned, I think there were a lot of factors both inside and outside Italy that might have played a role — other politicians (President Napolitano for one), banks, the Catholic Church etc.

  4. Joan Schmelzle

    I enjoyed the review of the book, but I doubt I will read it. I have probably known more about Berlusconi than many tourists because I often had discussions with one of the young men at the desk in the hotel I always stay in. He was no fan, and I was no fan of our President at the time so we commiserated in our chats.
    I did use one of my 10-free-a-month articles from my online NYT headlines to read Bruni’s column, and I enjoyed it. Also loved Day’s last comment about “the Donald’s” hair–so true. I may have to watch the first Republican debate to see what he does–I’ll be well armed with wine to be sure.
    One last note on Mr. B–during my 2012 stroll down the Via Gregorio Armano in Naples to look at the Nativity scenes, I saw a figure of him with a sign “sconto 50%”! Ah well!
    A presto,

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Ha! I love the Berlusconi figure on Via degli Armeni in Naples with the “sconto 50%” — that is so funny. I wish I could watch the first republican debate. I am sure it is going to be quite a show! And I think a glass of wine will be very much necessary — or maybe a Whisky! Actually, I am going to see if somehow I can watch it here. And yes, the hair comment was hilarious!!

  5. My husband and I contemplate moving to Italy in about 10 yrs, and I have recently asked if he would promise me to accelerate the move to ensure we are there before Trump is inaugurated if he wins (however remote the chance is). My husband basically said that if I thought moving to Italy would let me escape all the things I hate about Trump, I needed to learn more about Berlusconi and we needed to reconsider our plan!

    1. Trisha Thomas

      That is so funny. You can definitely escape to Italy if by any chance Trump wins because the Berlusconi days are pretty much over. It sure was a hell of a ride though — as I said in the post, Michael Day summed it up pretty well — covering Berlusconi for a journalist was like eating an entire box of chocolates–sex, sleaze, power, corruption– it was all there..

  6. Well, this is simply delicious. I must read this book. Thanks for the intro. I am troubled by Donald Trump’s appeal. I do not know how long he can sustain it. Frankly, it frightens me. He speaks to the disaffected, folks who feel marginalized by the new America, an America whose face is no longer white. Just look at his audience, at the supporters who flank him. To this student of history it sounds all too familiar.

    I have often mused on the topic of why the ultra-wealthy candidate appeals to the poorer voter. So often the values of the candidate and those of his supporters are diametrically opposed. It is often the case that people vote against their interests, a classic juxtaposition being the union worker who votes for and actively supports the union busting CEO candidate.
    I think it is often true that people take comfort in thinking that they too can be as successful as the candidate. What a world.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      It is an odd thing — the ultra-wealthy candidate appealing to the poor voter. I remember very will the first time Berlusconi ran for office and I went to Naples to do a story on the election. I interviewed the fishermen in the Bay of Naples who were big supports and they said “he will make us rich like him.” The believed because he knew how to run a company, to be a successful business he would know how to run a country and make it successful financially. As this book shows so clearly in Berlusconi’s case his business was built on corruption through the use of corrupt politicians, ties to the Mafia, paying off the right people. Yes, in many ways Silvio is a good businessman because he knew how to make the system in Italy work for him. The second point, made clear in the book, is that Berlusconi entered politics to save himself and his business. He knew he his business was built on a lot of corrupt deals, he knew the prosecutors were after him and he wanted the parliamentary immunity and the power to change Italian laws. Despite what he said to the Italian public, once in office he moved quickly to protect his own financial interests and certainly did not spend much time worrying about the fisherman in the Bay of Naples. And one last point — people forget that a business if more or less a dictatorship — orders come from the top. Businesses are not democracies. So, even if Berlusconi had been a completely clean and honest successful businessman, that would not necessarily mean he could have made his country rich like him — he would still have to deal with a lot of other forces. I am seeing this now with current PM Renzi (who unlike Berlusconi was the Mayor of Florence before becoming PM, not a businessman), who I believe is honest and has good intentions, but is not getting very far in improving the Italian economy.

  7. An excellent piece! I was interviewed by some pollster yesterday, and found myself answering Trump to a number of questions, and made the comment that he was the most interesting candidate because he was outrageous and clearly having fun, and I think that is what people are drawn to. And the darker side is that he gives voice to white racism, about blacks and Hispanics (he led the charge on questioning Obama’s birth certificate, and still questions it). He loves to be naughty, and intimates that he is also nasty when off-camera, and doesn’t need to appeal to rich donors, for him, running for President is sport, like shooting the black lion in Africa.
    Part of me would love to see him the nominee, for entertainment, and another part of me thinks that would be so dangerous, as he might well win. Right now Hillary beats him, but her edge is slipping against other candidates in polls, and the real mudslinging contest has not begun.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      I agree with you Nancy — Trump is very entertaining, but also dangerous. I also agree that the mud-slinging has not really begun yet. It is going to be an interesting August and Fall.

  8. Trish – So many funny (and pathetically sad) comments here on Berlusconi. “Short and orange”- HA! When I read Bruni’s column in the NYTimes, it wasn’t the first time I heard someone compare the two buffons. I didn’t know about Day’s book, so thanks for pointing it put. Sounds like a good read. As for Donald Trump, I am enjoying the freak show but appalled that some people are taking him seriously. He doesn’t really have a chance of being the Republican candidate. He is helping the Democrats’ cause for sure though, and the Republican debate next week will provide lots of entertainment, I’m sure.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Well, it is funny and both Michael Day and Frank Bruni have a way of writing that makes it even bette. But at the end of the day it was sad for the Italians who had to pay the price of bad leadership. And it definitely will not be funny if Donald Trump becomes President of the US. But I think we can exclude that. I am hoping that I can catch the first Republican debate here. Should be quite a show.

  9. Thank you for flagging this. It looks both entertaining and very informative, and I’ll certainly buy it. Your blog is a gold mine of the arcane, curious, fascinating and illuminating details of Italian, and Vatican, life.

    1. Trisha Thomas

      I am glad you will buy the book. Thank you for your compliment on my blog. The truth is that my blog is all over the map — I’ve lost my focus a bit. I originally intended it to focus on my experiences of being a mother in Italy but that was when I started back in 2011. Since then, it has spiraled out of control basically becoming a diary of whatever I feel like writing about. I am so pleased you like it though.

  10. I’m not sure this is fair to Trump. I don’t think he’d make a very good President, but to imply he’d be worse than Berlusconi? I’m not aware he’s shown anything near a similar level of legal, political and moral corruption.

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