The conventional wisdom in American politics is still that Donald Trump’s increasingly bizarre antics, from his apparent complicity with Russia to his multiple alleged payoffs to porn stars and Playboy bunnies, will eventually lead to his downfall. Surely, the thought goes, even his supporters will eventually grasp that he is an absurd buffoon incapable of delivering on his promises—and ditch him for good.
It’s a tempting assumption. But a look at the populists of the past—and the remarkable comebacks they have staged in recent months—suggests that Trump is not the only controversial politician who “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing support.
Take former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, easily the most eccentric politician to lead a major Western democracy until Trump moved into the White House. A billionaire with a knack for shameless self-promotion, a love of surrounding himself with beautiful women, and a long history of legal troubles, Berlusconi looked likely to go to jail when a giant corruption scandal engulfed Italy’s traditional political parties in 1992. Instead, he founded Forza Italia, a proto-populist party named after the slogan supporters of the national team sing at international soccer tournaments. Within less than a year of entering politics, Berlusconi won a big majority in Parliament, going on to dominate Italy’s politics for the better part of the next two decades.
Once in office, Berlusconi proved to be a strange mixture of ideological moderation and institutional destruction. While his economic and even his social policies largely stayed within the traditional mold of Italian politics, he denounced the opposition in increasingly colorful terms and used his political power for personal gain—passing laws favoring his business empire, undermining the functioning of the judiciary, and gerrymandering the electoral system in a blatant attempt to keep himself in power (and out of jail).
Though his extreme rhetoric frequently drew outrage, Berlusconi remained surprisingly popular, winning three legislative elections in a span of 17 years. Only in 2011, when he was forced from office by a ruinous fiscal crisis—and subsequently convicted for paying to have sex with a minor—did it finally look as though his reign had ended for good. He was succeeded in office by Mario Monti, a technocrat who was all the more popular for being so colorless. Italy’s populist moment appeared to have passed.
Seven years on, the country’s politics are more thoroughly dominated by populist parties and candidates than ever before. Though Italy’s baroque electoral system makes predictions hazardous, a coalition headed by—you guessed it—Silvio Berlusconi is widely expected to gain the most seats in the March 4 parliamentary election. After half a decade on the sidelines, the grand old man of European populism looks set for a triumphant return.
If Berlusconi’s remarkable comeback shows just how difficult it is for a country to rid itself of populists once they have infiltrated the system, it also suggests that the success of one populist party can easily spur a whole slew of imitators. Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about Berlusconi’s return is that the rest of the country’s political scene has surpassed him in craziness during the years of his political exile.
It is Berlusconi’s old coalition partner, the Lega Nord, that may have undergone the most radical transformation. Founded as a separatist movement advocating independence of the country’s affluent north, it has long since become a nationalist party modeled on far-right movements like France’s Front National. Virulently anti-immigrant, the Lega Nord has failed to distance itself from a former candidate who went on a shooting rampage against African immigrants in the southern city of Macerata a few weeks ago, seriously wounding six; the real culprit for the attack, the party’s leader claimed in its aftermath, was a government that “foists illegal immigrants on us.”
To make things worse, the stiffest competition to Berlusconi and the Northern League comes not from the increasingly bloodless center left, but rather from an ideologically inchoate movement by the name of Cinque Stelle, or Five Stars. Founded in opposition to Berlusconi—its founder, a comedian, drew millions to so-called fuck off rallies in which he went on expletive-laden rants against the “political caste”—the movement increasingly bears a remarkable resemblance to his populist brand of politics.
Political scientists studying the rise of populist leaders have not yet given a full accounting of what happens once they fall. As a result it, for now, remains impossible to know just what share of countries that suffer a populist revolt see their leader consolidate his power; celebrate an unlikely comeback after a brief political exile; or yield ground to yet another—possibly even more radical—populist movement.
But a cursory glance around the world is enough to show that populism has remarkable staying power, both in its original form and in the shape of a set of metastasizing mutations. Indeed, just over the span of the past few months, a populist leader has moved ever closer toward concentrating power in his own hands in Turkey; a disgraced former dictator managed to obtain a pardon, clearing the way for his return to electoral politics, in Peru; and a right-wing extremist party has firmly established itself as the main opposition to a strongman leader in Hungary.
All of this bodes very ill for the United States.
The experience of a host of other countries suggests that Donald Trump may have a somewhat better shot at winning re-election than his opponents assume. It suggests that, if he does lose in 2020, he or one of his relatives may stage a shocking comeback in 2024 or 2028. And it also suggests that the vast damage done to basic democratic norms during the Trump presidency could blaze a big trail for other populists even if Trump does leave the stage for good.
This is why it’s such a mistake to think of Trump as the root of America’s problem rather than its most dangerous symptom. Populism, the fate of similar leaders across the world suggests, is a multiheaded hydra. When it threatens to eat you alive, it is necessary to cut its head off. But in the long run, the only way to vanquish it is to stop it from multiplying altogether.
In other words, American defenders of liberal democracy now face a momentous task: To stave off a clear and imminent threat to our institutions, we must restore real checks on the executive by flipping the House or the Senate in the midterm elections, and beat Trump when he runs for re-election. But to ensure that the brand of politics he has imported to our shores does not take root here, we must also address the deep and widespread frustration with the shortcomings of our political system.