That’s Italian

A new book reveals why Silvio Berlusconi’s countrymen put up with him.

Author Beppe Severgnini

Come hear Beppe Severgnini speak about Silvio Berlusconi and Mamma Mia! at a panel moderated by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and Stefano Albertini, the director of the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at NYU. The panel starts at 6pm on Friday, Nov. 4 at the Casa Italiano, 24 West 12th Street, New York, N.Y.  Please RSVP to as seating is limited.

Beppe Severgnini is a columnist for Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, a contributor to Time, the Financial Times, and the Economist. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, Mamma Mia!, Severgnini tackles the big question that foreigners have about Italy: Why do Italians tolerate Silvio Berlusconi?

How was it that Silvio Berlusconi—Mr. B. for short—was voted into power (1994), voted in again (2001), and voted back in (2008)? The hammerings he took in the administrative elections and referendum (2011) hint at change, but the question remains: Why does a majority of Italians support and/or put up with him? Can’t they see his appetites, his limits, his methods? Obviously, they can. If Mr. B. has dominated public life for almost two decades, there is a reason. Actually, there are 10.

1. The Human Factor
What do most Italians think about Silvio Berlusconi? “He’s just like us.” And the ones who don’t are afraid he might be. Mr. B. adores his kids, talks about his mamma, knows his soccer, makes money, loves new homes, hates rules, tells jokes, uses bad language, adores women, parties hard, and is convivial to a fault. He has a good memory and a knack for tactical amnesia. He’s come a long way, switching between life’s freeways and its shortcuts. He’s unconventional, but knows the importance of convention. He extols the Church in the morning and the family in the afternoon, and brings girlfriends home in the evening.

Mr. B. is great entertainment value, so he gets away with plenty. Many Italians ignore his conflicts of interest (haven’t we all got ’em?), his legal issues (a defendant is easier to like than a judge), and his international bloopers (he’s so spontaneous!). What about the broken promises, the half truths, the blurring of public and private life? Some people get worked up about that sort of thing; others turn a blind eye. Apparently, there are more of the latter than the former.

2. The Divine Factor
Mr. B. knows that praising the Church helps most Italians feel less guilty about not going to mass, or systematically ignoring seven of the ten commandments. We don’t expect our leaders to walk the walk when they talk the talk. Private indignation at public contradictions shifts votes in many democracies, but not in Italy. Silvio knows that he’s dealing with a country that eschews expectations to avoid disappointment.

The Vatican, if not Italy’s parishes, is content with Catholicism-friendly legislation and doesn’t worry about the bad examples. Catholic movements such as Comunione e Liberazione like to focus on ends, which are safely in the future and therefore negotiable, rather than the means their friends employ to reach them. This eschatological take is music to Mr. B.’s ears, for it shifts attention from actions to intentions.

3. The Robinson Factor
Every Italian feels he or she stands alone against the world, or if not the world, the neighbors. We take pride in surviving, socially and economically. It shows how resourceful we are. Much has been written about Italian individualism, its expedients, its limitations, and its consequences. Mr. B. started out from there, first amassing his fortune and establishing himself as a self-made man, before building on Italy’s distrust of all things shared, the widespread antipathy for rules, and the inner satisfaction Italians take in finding a private solution to a public problem. In Italy, there is no real cohesive public pressure for a new, fairer tax system. People evade the one they have. Every Italian feels like Robinson Crusoe, a castaway on a crowded peninsula.

4. The Truman Factor
How many newspapers, apart from sports papers, are sold in Italy every day? Five million. How many Italians regularly use bookstores? Five million. How many Italians browse major news websites? Five million. How many watch the Sky TG24 and TG La7 news? Five million. How many watch current affairs programs on late-evening television? Five million, across the political spectrum.

You get the feeling they’re always the same people, so we’ll call them the Five Million Club. Are they important? Obviously, but they don’t decide elections. Television—all TV, not just newscasts—remains pivotal, because it molds images, sends out messages, leaves impressions, tells you some things and, crucially, keeps quiet about others. Guess who owns private television and controls public TV in Italy. It’s like Peter Weir’s seminal film, The Truman Show. Someone helped us think.

5. The Hoover Factor
Hoover, founded in 1908 in New Berlin (now Canton) in Ohio, is synonymous with vacuum cleaners. In English-speaking countries, to use a vacuum cleaner is simply “to hoover.” The company’s door-to-door reps were skillful, legendarily tenacious manipulators of psychology, ruthless in pursuit of a sale.

Mr. B. has a flair for commercial seduction, carried over from his previous careers in construction, television, and advertising, that he now applies to politics. He’s well aware that a message has to be straightforward, appealing, and reassuring. He knows that repeating it works. And he is convinced that in an appearance-obsessed nation, image is key. In Italy, making the right impression wins hands down over doing the right thing.

6. The Zelig Factor
All politicians need to be able to identify with their interlocutors. Few are capable of actually turning into them. A need for approval has taught Mr. B. the art of transformation. Woody Allen’s Zelig would be proud. A family man with his five children (and two wives, while they lasted). A women’s man among the ladies. Youthful with the young. Wise with the old. A night owl with the night set. A worker at the workplace. Entrepreneurial with the business community. Youthful with the young. Rossonero to the core with A.C. Milan supporters. Milanese with the people of Milan. Lombard with the people of Lombardy. Italian with people from southern Italy. A Neapolitan among Neapolitans (and their music). If he went to see a basketball game, he’d walk out taller.

7. The Harem Factor
Silvio’s obsession with women, an open secret in his business circles and then in Rome’s corridors of power, became public knowledge in 2009, when he attended Noemi Letizia’s 18th birthday party and reports emerged about his soirées at Villa Certosa and Palazzo Grazioli. At first, he denied the charges, then he grudgingly admitted them (“Am I faithful? Frequently.”), and in the end he played along (“I’m no saint.”). The revelations left him unscathed. He lost his wife, but not his electoral base. Lots of Italians who prefer self-indulgence to self-discipline admit that Mr. B. does what they can only dream of doing. But there’s more to this than titillation. Youth is contagious, as they knew in ancient Greece (where pretty young things of both sexes took advantage to learn from the old). One staunch, longterm associate, now in his sixties, has described how restless Silvio gets during marathon meetings: “It’s clear he’s afraid he’ll catch old age from us.”

8. The Medici Factor
Together with the comune, or municipality, the signoria (absolute lordship) is the only original political unit Italians have created. All the others, from feudalism to monarchy, totalitarianism, federalism, and parliamentary democracy, have been imported from France, Britain, Germany, Spain, or the United States. Their Italian incarnations have always been slightly artificial—take Fascism’s cringe-making awkwardness, or the acquiescence of today’s Parliament—but a signoria stirs ancient instincts.

The attitudes of many Italians toward Mr. B. are reminiscent of how their forebears regarded the signore, or lord. We know he puts his own glory, family, and interests ahead of everything else, but we hope he’ll spare a thought for us. Giuseppe Prezzolini noted, “The fact that they had to lead such difficult lives, made of the signori keen observers of men.” Cosimo de’ Medici, founder of the great Florentine dynasty, is reported to have been circumspect and capable of reading a man’s character merely by looking at him. Silvio Berlusconi is also regarded as a formidable connoisseur of men, by whom he demands to be admired, not criticized; adulated, not betrayed; and loved, not weighed in the balance.

9. The T.I.N.A. Factor
T.I.N.A.: There Is No Alternative. Margaret Thatcher’s classic acronym says it all about many voters. The center-left alternative to Mr. B. has proved unappetizing—strife-torn coalitions, woolly ideas, and hypocritical behavior—and the Democratic Party’s communist origins are undeniable, as Mr. B. never fails to underline. When in power, Italy’s center-left has had spectacular, carbon-copy failures: elected in 1996 and 2006, only to commit suicide in 1998 and 2008.

Italians are pragmatic. Before selecting what they think is right, they take what seems useful. And some of Mr. B.’s initiatives are popular, or at least less unpopular than the alternative: abolition of the local property tax on first homes, discouraging illegal immigration, the fight against organized crime, and reforming traffic law. If these initiatives are successful, there are plenty of media channels happy to remind us of the fact. Should they flop, someone will help us to forget.

It also has to be said that a united center-right is at least as reassuring as a divided center-left is irritating. If the only way to keep a political alliance together is to own it, Mr. B. was swift to work out how much it would cost: financially, politically, and in frayed nerves. Without realizing it, Mr. B. followed the advice of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who said, apropos of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” This accounts for Mr. B.’s expulsion of, and disdain for, Gianfranco Fini, cofounder of the People of Freedom. In 2010, Mr. Fini dared to leave the tent after sixteen years without indicating which way he would be pointing.

10. The Palio Factor
You’ve probably heard about the Palio horse race in Siena. For the winning contrada, as the competing districts of the city are called, it is a huge source of satisfaction. But it’s equally satisfying when your most hated rival contrada loses. Lots of things work like that in Italy, from geography to industry, the arts, and sports. Lazio soccer fans, for instance, were delighted to lose to Inter Milan so that capital city rivals A.S. Roma would not be champions. Politics is no exception. Tribalism is not a tactic; it’s an instinct. To keep the left they see as unreliable out of power, many Italians would have voted for the Devil. And Mr. B. can be pretty diabolical. But Satan’s style is something else.