The unanticipated popularity of Donald Trump in the ongoing U.S. primary elections has produced, among its many surprising effects, a slew of articles in the popular press comparing Trump to ex-prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi (e.g. Roger Cohen in The New York Times and Ruth Ben-Ghiat on CNN.com). As Silvia Marchetti points out in her piece in Politico.com, it has traditionally been Italy that has looked to the U.S. as the political trendsetter, but the rise of Donald Trump has now sent Americans studying recent Italian political history for explanations of our current situation and possible predictions. Indeed, the similarities between the two men are striking: both are real-estate moguls turned media magnates turned politicians; both fashion themselves political outsiders who can put the country’s political house back in order; both tout their business acumen as evidence of their ability to govern; both have aggressive, politically incorrect styles; both employ populist and nationalist rhetoric to attract voters; both take harsh stands on immigration; both are billionaires who flout their wealth and yet manage to connect to people on the lower end of the economy; both position themselves on the political right; both have eerily unnatural skin tone; and both draw much of their power from their expert management of media.
Berlusconi, of course, is no longer in power. He was ousted from government in 2011 after a series of sex and financial scandals. Americans now have the advantage of looking back over the 9 years between 1994 and 2011 during which Berlusconi held power as a kind of model of what a Trump presidency could look like (with all the caveats resulting from the obvious differences between our systems of government and political situations). Without going into detail, suffice it to say that Berlusconi did not deliver on most of his promises, reduced Italy’s political standing in the world to a laughing stock, and left the Italian right in a state of disarray from which it has not yet recovered. And yet, the most enduring aspect of Berlusconi’s legacy may be more sociological than political. The Age of Berlusconi (as it is often referred to in Italy) saw a decided spectacularization of the political arena, a marriage of the political and the mediatic to an unprecedented extent. The same seems to be taking place now in the U.S.
It may seem surprising that Italy has preceded the U.S. in this regard, and yet, a theory for understanding the phenomenon was put forward as far back as 1989 by the French critical theorist Guy Debord (1931-94). In his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, an addendum he wrote to his groundbreaking study The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord identified Italy as a pioneer in a new form of spectacular power, the “integrated spectacle.” Debord conceived of spectacle not just as the distraction of theatrics or even of the accumulation of media images and noise, but rather as “a social relation among people, mediated by images,” which distances individuals from lived reality until the spectacle becomes our reality and we have been divorced from real life. According to Debord, the integrated spectacle “has integrated itself into reality to the same extent to which it was describing it, and that it was reconstructing it as it was describing it. As a result this reality no longer confronts the integrated spectacle as something alien.”
Debord saw France and especially Italy as the laboratory for this new form of the spectacularization of life, and if we identify Berlusconi as one of the main agents of this development (both in his career as a politician and as a media mogul), it may be that the U.S. is following in Italy’s footsteps, with Donald Trump leading the way.
*Daniel Leisawitz, professor at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.