Winning the New Hampshire primary does not make Donald Trump the inevitable Republican front-runner. Voters there are not exactly representative of Republicans nationwide. After all, 16 percent of them voted for John Kasich, a result which is not likely to be replicated anywhere else. But New Hampshire does keep alive Trump’s crab bucket path to the nomination: splitting the rest of the vote among a crowd of candidates who have an incentive to tear down anyone who rises above them in the polls (as Chris Christie did to Marco Rubio before dropping out). That’s the only way Trump can win with only 30 to 40 percent of the Republican vote.
I still think this is unlikely, but it’s also looking unlikely that the field is going to winnow down to two or three choices anytime soon. So it’s time to start contemplating what a Trump presidency might look like and what it would mean for the country’s political future.
Given his quasi-authoritarian sales pitch that only a strong leader can solve all of America’s problems by the force of his own supposedly overpowering personality and strength of will, some of Trump’s critics have compared him with Mussolini. I think this is a bit overwrought. Mussolini was a theorist of totalitarianism, who took the oppressive system of the Communists and reworked it into a nationalist, corporatist variant. Trump is no theorist, nor is he the leader of any wider nefarious movement (despite his disturbing habit of retweeting neo-Nazis). Nor, given the opportunistic and mercurial pattern of his career, do I think he has the kind of bloody-minded drive and determination to impose a dictatorship, even if he wanted.
But thinking about Italy puts us in the right direction because the politician Trump most resembles is Silvio Berlusconi — the flamboyant, Italian billionaire and off-and-on prime minister.
Like Berlusconi, Trump has leveraged his wealth, celebrity, and manipulation of the media (Berlusconi is a television magnate) into political prominence. Like Berlusconi, he makes his own life, personality, and outrageous statements the center of a national political circus act. And who knows, given his extravagant boasts about his prowess with “the top women in the world,” we might even get some version of Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties. (I really hope not.)
To be sure, Berlusconi has been very successful politically, benefiting from the collapse of Italy’s extremely unappealing far left, just as Trump might benefit from the Democrats’ lurch toward outright socialism. Between 1994 and 2011, Berlusconi served as prime minister for a total of nine years, dominating Italian politics for nearly two decades. That’s not much more than a two-term American president, but by the standards of turbulent Italian parliamentary politics, it’s practically a lifetime.
Yet the example is definitely a cautionary one for America, for two reasons.
First, while Berlusconi’s political career was very good for Berlusconi, it was not good for his political party, Forza Italia, which has disintegrated. To be sure, splinter parties tend to come and go in Italy’s chaotic political system, but Berlusconi also did few favors to the wider cause he hijacked. He rose to power at the time when Italy’s center-right, pro-free market faction was in crisis and needed a champion to help fend off the outright Communists. It wasn’t exactly the American Tea Party movement, but it was a populist movement appealing to voters in the industrial, entrepreneurial regions of northern Italy. When he came back into office in 2001, Berlusconi did so on the strength of a “Contract with the Italians” inspired by the “Contract with America” that Republicans had used to win back the House of Representatives in 1994. Among its provisions were pledges to decrease taxes and fight crime.
But he didn’t really deliver on any of those promises and instead spent much of the political capital of the Italian center-right on his own travails, including personal scandals and numerous trials on charges of financial corruption. In short, Berlusconi did well, but his agenda did not. It’s an object lesson in the peril of investing your political goals in a single personality.
Second, Berlusconi didn’t exactly Make Italy Great Again. Through all his years in office, he never dealt with the country’s big, important problems: a too-generous welfare state, high borrowing, and a stagnant, over-regulated economy. As a result, Italy got pulled into the Euro crisis during the global downturn.
Similarly, Trump is unlikely to fulfill his key promises. Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall, Congress is going to balk at starting a ruinous trade war with China, and Vladimir Putin has a record of eating posturing billionaires for breakfast. Meanwhile, Trump hasn’t even put forward a plan for dealing with our biggest problems, particularly our unsustainable middle class entitlements. Instead, we can expect a Trump presidency to be dominated by the artificial drama of his vulgar personality. Why can we expect that? Because that’s what he has already done to the Republican primaries.
When Berlusconi last left office, The Economist summed up his legacy:
When this newspaper first denounced Mr. Berlusconi, many Italian businesspeople replied that only his roguish, entrepreneurial chutzpah offered any chance to modernize the economy. Nobody claims that now. Instead they offer the excuse that the fault is not his; it is their unreformable country’s.
See if any of that sounds familiar, because this is exactly the case now being made for Trump.
In Italy, Berlusconi’s personal drama derailed a center-right movement that had been struggling to recover from devastating corruption scandals. But in America, the tragedy is worse: Trump is derailing a center-right party that had been looking forward to the rise of a whole new generation of promising leaders who are in danger of being cast aside in favor of a media celebrity.
That might achieve Trump’s goal — he is happy with anything that keeps him at the center of attention — but judging from the example provided by Berlusconi, it won’t be good for Republicans, for the cause of limited government, or for the country.
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