Politics

The Lesson for America From Italy’s Election

The story isn’t just about Giorgia Meloni’s success, but Silvio Berlusconi’s decline.

Donald Trump speaks at a lectern lit from the back.
Donald Trump speaks at a Save America Rally in Wilmington, North Carolina. Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Italians woke up Monday morning to the prospect of a post-fascist government, nearly eight decades after Benito Mussolini fell from power in Rome. Many are already analyzing the worrying consequences for Italy and Europe—but here in the United States, the most relevant lesson comes not only from the disturbing victory of the fascist-linked Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), but also from the fate of the former strongman of the Italian right, Silvio Berlusconi. Sunday night, the man who reshaped modern Italian politics, in many ways setting an example for Donald Trump to follow, suffered a humiliating fifth-place finish, supplanted by his more radical protégés. That result may preview the future of a post–Donald Trump Republican Party.

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Berlusconi—or Il Cavaliere, as he is fondly, and sometimes mockingly, known in Italy—rose to power in the 1990s, in the wake of the implosion of the Christian Democrats. That centrist party had ruled Italy almost without interruption for five decades, finishing first in 12 straight elections until their self-inflicted demise in 1994. Berlusconi, a self-made media mogul, stepped into the void, becoming a hero to millions of Italians despite countless criminal investigations and a pattern of gaffe-prone, womanizing misconduct (including his infamous bunga bunga orgies while in office). The comparisons to Donald Trump write themselves. But such comparisons may give Berlusconi too little credit. Unlike Trump, Berlusconi rose from relatively modest middle-class roots to great financial heights, amassing in real life the multibillion-dollar fortune that Trump has often claimed to have. And as profiles in leadership go, Trump’s minute attention span and lack of interest in actually governing make Berlusconi’s own stunt-laden premierships seem almost sober by contrast.

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Despite these dubious advantages, Berlusconi is still a useful proxy for Trump, and as of Sunday night, it couldn’t be clearer that he has long worn out his welcome. The election’s big winner, Giorgia Meloni, presents herself as a more focused alternative following decades of the aging Cavaliere’s political contortions. The 45-year-old Meloni has repackaged Fratelli d’Italia, or FdI, from its origins as a successor to Mussolini’s National Fascist Party into a seemingly more traditional, and therefore more palatable, right-wing movement. She has retained the fascist watchwords “Dio, patria, famiglia” (God, fatherland, family) while condemning the movement’s antidemocratic and antisemitic past. She sought to reassure moderate voters by presenting herself as a problem-solving realist, not a right-wing fanatic.

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Her approach has been strikingly effective. Early results show that FdI grew from only 4 percent of the vote in 2018 to a commanding first-place finish Sunday with 26 percent, eclipsing the other right-wing parties as well as the center-left and populist parties that have governed Italy for most of the past decade. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia suffered particularly badly, losing over 2 million voters (nearly 50 percent) since 2018. This means that with the right wing poised to return to power 11 years after he left the prime minister’s office, Berlusconi has become a junior partner in the coalition he once led.

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Thanks to Italy’s multiparty system, this shift in FdI’s favor is happening out in the open, making it easier to observe than similar moves within the Republican Party here in the U.S. But what’s happening might feel familiar: Established Italian right-wingers—Berlusconi and his sometimes ally and oftentimes rival Matteo Salvini, leader of the virulently anti-immigrant Lega (League)—have been forced to sharpen their rhetoric to halt defections to the far right. In fact, this entire election campaign was sparked by Berlusconi’s and Salvini’s fears that they were losing ground to Meloni after she cynically but cannily refused to join a national unity government last year. That move tightened Meloni’s grip on the right wing and allowed her to repackage her extreme ideas as critiques of the establishment.

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The same realignment is on the horizon in the United States. While Donald Trump remains a central figure in today’s Republican Party, he is already resorting to a more extreme coupling with QAnon to retain his grasp on the movement he jump-started. Trump’s mounting legal peril (a situation Berlusconi has also confronted, with a lengthy record of convictions, suspended sentences, and court-ordered community service), advancing age, and eager coterie of would-be successors makes the transition to a post-Trump GOP only a matter of time, regardless of a potential 2024 comeback. As Meloni did to Berlusconi and Salvini, extremist candidates here are already seizing the MAGA mantle for themselves, including Pennsylvania Senate candidate Kathy Barnette, who announced, “MAGA does not belong to President Trump. … It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.” Savvy MAGA candidates may take the next step in Meloni’s playbook by abandoning the boorish excesses of their progenitor and rebranding their extremism as faux-mainstream solutions.

The fate of Silvio Berlusconi—a slow, ignominious fade from political relevance—may be any publicity-hungry mogul’s worst fear. But just as Berlusconi’s rise to power three decades ago presaged Trump’s ascendance within the GOP, his decline and the post-fascist rise to power in Italy today is a grave warning: Trump’s fall may unleash an even greater threat to American democracy than his ascent.

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