The great Berlusconi swindlePosted by Alexander Hay
Berlusconi's brand of anti-politics is brilliant on one level but depressingly typical on another.
The latest attempt, Tuesday's vote of confidence in the Italian parliament, failed to unseat him, leaving The Cavalier, as he is known, to carry on as before with his improbable 14 year on-off career as leader of his nation. Fittingly, this kicked off riots in Rome and even more acrimony. In that sense, he is the perfect Italian politician.
What is the secret of his success? It is true that in many ways Berlusconi is a clown masquerading as a Statesman, and yet he is one of the great historical figures of his age. Certainly, his extracurricular antics go some way towards explaining his fame.
Though in many ways it is what he represents as a politician that makes him more important. He is the antithesis of a good parliamentarian, an inversion of everything we expect politicians to be - at least in public.
Take his appetite for excess. Berlusconi plainly has a soft spot for young nubile women, and rumours abound that he is not averse to paying for their attention. He drinks too much, enjoys himself far more than presumably he actually works and gets very little sleep. In so doing, he challenges the often-puritanical side of modern politics (all those smoking bans, alcohol crackdowns and finger-wagging at fat children) while at the same time not caring whether this effects his standing. That many politicians preach one thing then do another, or we somehow continue to be shocked by this is proof that at least Berlusconi has one moral advantage – he doesn't bother to hide his immorality.
Then there is his media empire. What's remarkable about Berlusconi is not that he owns three Italian television channels or a big chunk of Italy's conservative media, or that he owns AC Milan football club. No, what's significant is that he is so blatant about it.
While Rupert Murdoch and the Lords Rothermere court and woo politicians by promising either positive or unflattering coverage in their media, Berlusconi is far more blatant about it. Here is a politician who actually owns the media and it's obvious that he uses it to promote himself. We all know, of course, that media barons try to win favour with politicians, but Berlusconi simply cuts out the middle man. He exposes the hypocrisy by being a hypocrite.
Even his approach to politics is brutally honest. His choice of cabinet ministers – ranging from ex-porn stars and showgirls to ex-fascists and Northern League seperatists – is a PR nightmare, but it reveals an essential truth about politics: It's not so much doing a deal with the devil as getting into bed with him. (Something Nick Clegg may well soon regret.)
We all know that politicians in the same party hate each other or have views that other politicos, and indeed the public, find abhorrent, but we feign ignorance until they are revealed. Berlusconi disposes of this charade by being open about his cronyism, dealings with extremists and dropping in placewomen under the blatantly unconvincing pretence of equality.
His government's inequities are handled in a unique way too. Not for him the cover-up, the smear-job nor the Machiavellian backroom machinations. How does he deal with claims of bribery, mafia links, car bomb conspiracies, judge stalking, judge bribing, perjury and as almost an afterthought, money laundering? Other nations have vast security apparatuses to do their dirty work. He simply passes a law making him immune from prosecution. Moral? Of course not. Inspired? Certainly.
Finally, there is Berlusconi's stagecraft. The deliberately tactless and racist jokes made at summits suggest a man with no shame. The priceless PR shots of him standing stoic after being smashed in the face suggest a man with no fear. And the partying plainly suggests a man who doesn't give a monkey's. In other words, he is the archetypical anti-hero, a man who rejects virtue but elicits sympathy by being so apparently honest and shameless about it.
Which brings us to the secret of his success: He double bluffs his public. His anti-politician image is in many ways a political master-stroke, his reputation based not on achievements and success but by gravity-defying survival. As we grow ever more cynical, and increasingly confuse cynicism with wisdom, so the likes of Berlusconi seem ever more desirable. But in truth, it's just more of the same – a career politician leading his public ever further up the garden path.
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