Tuesday, March 6, 2018

General Priapic Lewdness

From a profile of Silvio Berlusconi from 2009, actually, by our new friend Michael Wolff for Vanity Fair. Illustration by Darrow.

David F. Brooks ("The Chaos After Trump") is suggesting we take a look at the Italian election results for clues as to what's going to happen to the US after the Trumpery goes away, presumably because Trump is the same person as Silvio Berlusconi:

What happens to American politics after Donald Trump? Do we snap back to normal or do things spin ever more widely out of control?
The best indicator we have so far is the example of Italy since the reign of Silvio Berlusconi. And the main lesson there is that once the norms of acceptable behavior are violated and once the institutions of government are weakened, it is very hard to re-establish them. Instead, you get this cycle of ever more extreme behavior, as politicians compete to be the most radical outsider. The political center collapses, the normal left/right political categories cease to apply and you see the rise of strange new political groups that are crazier than anything you could have imagined before.
Which is as good an opportunity as any to note that Trump is not, in fact, the same person as Silvio  Berlusconi. Berlusconi is, for one thing, extremely rich—his family ranks fifth on the Forbes list for Italy, with assets of $7 billion—though not as rich as he was when he was prime minister, when he often ranked first, because he was very good at using his political situation (originally as friend of the "Socialist" prime minister Bettino Craxi, later as "center-right" prime minister himself) to build up his fortune (it's incredible what small-ball Trump plays in this respect, with his tummler act at Mar-a-Lago and selling of presidential seal tchotchkes—no, I don't believe he's a billionaire). He fathered a media empire (Trump was begotten by one). He managed to avoid getting convicted for any of his crimes until he was too old to go to jail, by Italian law, which was clearly a major goal of his political career. He has surrounded himself at certain times of his life with a kind of harem of lovely young women ready to satisfy his every whim. He never felt a need to call up the newspapers to assure the public that his potency was undiminished, as Trump has done since he was in his forties. He's still beautifully dressed, slim, and cheerful at 81. His hair looks real, though I'm sure it isn't.

Berlusconi has been a shameless crook, deeply dishonest politician, bad prime minister, and monstrous narcissist, but never less than competent in his chosen way of life. Berlusconi is who Trump tries unsuccessfully to play on TV.  Berlusconi is who Trump is in his dreams.

In office, Berlusconi did nothing to address Italy’s core problems, but he did degrade public discourse with his speech, weaken the structures of government with his corruption and offend basic decency with his Bunga Bunga sex parties and his general priapic lewdness.
Though I always say if you're going to be lewd, do it priapically.

Also, and more to Brooks's point, Berlusconi has been out of office for seven years. What happens after Berlusconi has already pretty much happened. It was in the 1980s that "strange new political groups that are crazier than anything you could have imagined before" cropped up in Italy, when the Radical Party's headline parliamentary candidate was Ilona Staller or Cicciolina, the first woman to appear bare-breasted on Italian television. Berlusconi arose after that, and what happened after Berlusconi was the soberest series of center-left governments Italy has ever seen.

Which is probably why Brooks literally doesn't remember it. Bo-ring!

(And, to be honest, they didn't fix everything that's wrong with the country by a long shot, though the most important thing, which is the same problem Greece and Spain have, isn't their fault but that of the Schweine running the European Central Bank.)

The comical thing is that the big winner in the Italian elections, the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) or "Grillini", after their founder, comedian Beppe Grillo (who had been gradually backing out from the party and from politics in general, and finally abandoned it in January, saying he was "fed up with opinions"), are the most Brooksish, extreme-centrist, no-labelsy, just-do-it party ever, bringing together rightists and leftists who want to just solve problems without talking about them so much, which is going to be a big part of their difficulty in forming a governing coalition (in particular they can't form an alliance with the openly fascist Lega without driving half of their own party out, which is good news).

BooMan is worried about their Russian connections, but as I look around the Intertubes trying to get a fix on Russian interference in these elections, I'm somewhat reassured. An important policy brief produced by Giovanna De Maio for the German Marshall Fund clarifies: Russia's approach to Italy is different in any case from its approaches to Poland or Britain, or the US either, in that they are not interested in shaking it out of the EU, and they are not really interested in owning politicians from these parties, which they don't quite trust.

Italians, on their part, have an excuse for being a little pro-Russian, because of very longstanding business relationships that are being damaged by sanctions—this applies especially to the small business proprietors who make up the Lega base, which got 18% of the vote, which is coincidentally the percentage of Italians who approve of Vladimir Putin. Or not so coincidental; they are also sympathetic to philosophical Putinismo because, putting it bluntly, they're racists:
Lega’s nationalistic, anti-immigration, and anti-LGBT rhetoric has gained the sympathy of some of the most conservative voices in Russia. In 2014, Gianluca Savoini, Salvini’s spokesman and a journalist at the party’s now defunct newspaper, La Padania, created the Lombardia-Russia Association in order to “fight disinformation on the Ukraine crisis.” It has several times hosted the ideologue of Russian neo-eurasianism, Aleksandr Dugin, whose traditional-values rhetoric has often been echoed in Lega’s platform, and Irina Osipova, the president of the Young Italians and Russians Movement, which helped organize Salvini’s trip to Moscow in 2014. The honorary president of the association is Aleksey Komov, who is strongly linked with the Russian Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. Komov is also the Russian and Commonwealth of Independent States representative at the World Congress of Families, a forum created in the United States in 1997 that is comprised of right-wing activists from around the world who defend the “natural family” and oppose LGBT rights and abortion.
The M5S, in contrast (32%), has been warm to Russia for much less systematic reasons, like to show that they're not establishment tools, and as they came closer to the election and the likelihood that they might have to govern for reals, they have distanced themselves to a considerable extent from the oppositional defiance stance and from Russia, and become much more positive about the EU and even the beastly Euro:
"We need to renegotiate some EU rules, but not in an in/out referendum," [party leader Luigi di Maio] said, noting that the U.K.'s decision to leave the EU had "weakened" the bloc.
The 5-Star Movement has repeatedly stated in the past that it would like to hold a referendum on euro zone membership and new leader Di Maio has echoed that perspective as recently as December. As the election on March 4 approaches, however, he appeared to have changed his mind.
When asked [January 31] if a M5S-led government would hold a vote on euro zone membership, Di Maio said he "wouldn't even contemplate that last resort."
"Germany, France, Spain are renegotiating some of the EU rules. This is the time to make some deficit, to make investments and relaunch the Italian economy. I don't want to even consider that last resort," he said.
I think they're pushing for a coalition with the Democratici they just pushed out of office and some of the tiny left groups that cluster around them, which is the only coalition they could make that would permit them to do anything like what they claim they want to do (the conservatives, with Berlusconi's Forza Italia party at 14%, aren't in tune with anything). The Democrats have absolutely refused to consider such a thing, but then Germany's Social Democrats said the same thing to Merkel just a few months ago, and have ended up joining her anyway, once again. The curse of being responsible, which afflicts all us moderate leftists. If they don't, I predict M5S will not be able to form a government at all, and we'll be seeing another election in six months.

Oh, and the other thing: you remember #fakenews spread by Facebook and Twitter affecting the campaigns with their outrageous lies and calumnies? There's been plenty of that in Italy this season, disgusting stuff, but it doesn't seem to have come from the Internet Research Agency and Russia at all: this great BuzzFeed investigation finds that it's a rich Roman businessman with his own Facebook news pages, DirettaNews and iNews24, and one of those super-gloomy Catholic associations, La Luce di Maria. That's italianissimo too, paranoia and all, and its assembly doesn't require any Russians at all.

None of this is to say Steve's current view on what's happening in our politics is wrong, just that Italy doesn't offer a very useful analogy. There's something comparable between Italy and the US, in the particular distribution of our inequality and the particular failures of our educational systems, the existence of the wealthy but uneducated petite bourgeoisie, I think—Italian paranoia is remarkably similar to ours, which might surprise Richard Hofstadter—but they don't work, or fail, the same way.

And Brooks? Jeez, I forgot all about that guy! Let's just leave it that way for a change.

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