Is Trump the new Silvio Berlusconi?

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump

Story highlights

  • Trump resembles the Italian tycoon who wrecked Italy's international standing and help sink its economy, says Ruth Ben-Ghiat
  • There's a reason Trump is known in Italy as "the American Berlusconi."

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Donald Trump this week retweeted, and then defended, an Italian popular saying made famous by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini: "It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep."

    This is hardly surprising. Since last fall, Trump has used Twitter and speeches to circulate Nazi and other racist images. His repeated insults of blacks, Hispanics and Muslims suggest that whites of Christian European heritage are the main focus of his project to "Make America Great Again."
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    In this, he certainly follows Mussolini. While Italian fascism is often dismissed as an offshoot of Nazism, it was the first Fascist government in Europe, and Mussolini was the first sitting leader to have a comprehensive racial project. In 1927, six years before Hitler came to power, Mussolini warned that decreases in European fertility meant that "the entire white race, the Western race, could be submerged by races of color that multiply with a rhythm unknown to our own."
    But it's Silvio Berlusconi (Prime Minister of Italy on and off from 1994 to 2011), not Mussolini, who offers the closest guide to what a Trump presidency might actually look like. Trump may seem an authoritarian and a racist, but he has not campaigned on behalf of establishing one-party rule.
    The discussions of Trump's links to fascism get us off point. What is needed at this point in the GOP campaign is to take what we know about Trump and the office of POTUS and imagine them coming together. The example of Berlusconi can help us do that.
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    There's a reason Trump is known in Italy as "the American Berlusconi." The Italian tycoon disrupted politics when he founded Forza Italia (Go Italy), which took its name from a soccer stadium chant. Berlusconi's ego-laden pronouncements outraged the Italian political establishment, as when he described himself as "the Jesus Christ of Italian politics."
    Like Trump, Berlusconi came to politics with a personal brand in place, thanks to his fame as a media and sports entrepreneur. That and his wealth allowed him independence from traditional political machines and a glamour that attracted crowds. One of the secrets of charismatic personalities is that they are aggressive with their followers: They don't try to be likeable. Berlusconi's list of sexist comments goes way beyond Trump's, and yet Italian housewives were one of his most reliable constituencies. He mimicked Mussolini's skill in flattering and threatening audiences: Trump takes from both of them.
    The controversies surrounding Berlusconi are numerous enough to merit their own Wikipedia entry: accusations of misconduct in office, tax fraud, Mafia association.
    Berlusconi, owner of television networks, came to office threatening the media, just as Trump is doing now. Once in power he regularly tried to curb the power of rival and opposition newspapers and television stations, eroding over time the overall culture of journalistic integrity in Italy. He also subjected the Italian judiciary to unprecedented harassment on the grounds that it stood for the intrusion of the state into Italians' liberty, which was in part a smokescreen for avoiding his own judicial woes. Watch out when billionaires say they want to free the people from tyranny, and propose attacking the press and the courts as the way to do it.
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    Then there is the issue of the conflicts of interest Trump's business empire would raise if he were President. When Berlusconi was in power, the breadth and depth of his holdings meant he mixed his personal connections and business interests with state ones in his conduct of trade and foreign policy (his relationship with Putin has always been under special scrutiny).
    Trump is a member of this same international elite. He is shaped by its culture of favors, easements, offshore havens -- and its general view of national taxes and government financial checks as persecution. Ted Cruz dislikes the IRS as a government entity. Trump's issue with it is more personal. No wonder he spent so much time at the last GOP debate talking about being a victim of IRS audits. If Trump ever took office, divestments and firewalls would only go so far to guarantee the integrity of POTUS.
    Berlusconi regularly "disrupted" international affairs, acting inappropriately on numerous occasions. In 2003, at the New York Stock Exchange, he listed Italy's beautiful secretaries as a primary reason for Americans to invest in the country. A staple of his unfunny comedy was to call black people sunburned or "tanned," as he labeled President Barack Obama in 2008.
    Trump, too, revels in being politically incorrect. His incautious mode of speaking has already had negative consequences internationally. It is also a potential national security hazard, given that he would also be our commander in chief, someone whose every word and gesture will be studied by our allies and enemies.
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    Berlusconi often minimized Mussolini's evil, portraying Il Duce as a statesman who was good for Italy. So it's not surprising that Berlusconi was responsible for bringing neo-fascists to power, through his 1994 governing coalition with the National Alliance party and the racist Northern League. Seemingly the goal of keeping Europe a white Christian space has been part of that and every other party platform Berlusconi has issued: He anticipated the rest of the continent, and now Trump's America, in that regard.
    Italy's dignity and international standing worsened as a result of having Berlusconi at its helm. He made good on none of the promises of his economic platform, and the Italian economy was crippled by the time he was pressured to step down in 2011 during the Eurozone debt crisis.
    Berlusconi himself ended up convicted for tax evasion and expelled from the Italian Senate in 2013. His convictions for abuse of power and sex with an underage prostitute were overturned by an appeals court.
    Both Mussolini and Berlusconi came to power as outsiders who offered Italians a very different model of politics. But America has an altogether different scale of responsibility and power in the world. We cannot afford to gamble our position. It's time to look clearly, with Berlusconi as a cautionary tale, at what a Trump presidency would really mean for America.