Politicians and businessmen do not always see eye to eye. In ancient Rome the political elite, the Senatorial Order, squabbled with the wealthy Knights of the Equestrian Order. Cicero advocated a “Concord of the Orders,” where senators and knights would work together against the political ambition and military might of Crassus and Julius Caesar. Neither side listened, but Cicero’s plan might have saved the republic.
In the modern world politicians and the superrich seem to get along all too well. The very wealthy rarely bother to seek public office, since their money provides all the access they need to politicians. Now, however, Donald Trump is seeking the Republican nomination for president. His campaign has been greeted with enthusiasm by many middle-class folk—and not just of the Tea Party persuasion—but with anger and scorn by members of the political and financial elites and the mainstream media, including National Review and FOX News. Middle-class Americans, who have no one to speak for them in either political party, are excited by Trump’s advocacy of patriotic positions on immigration and trade, and his refusal to kowtow to political correctness. They are not bothered by the fact that he is rich and boasts of it.
Trump attributes his success to his ability to make deals. In fact, he “wrote the book on the subject,” the best-selling Art of the Deal. America’s middle class is shrinking because of unwise free-trade policies that have led to the disappearance of U.S. industrial jobs and even entire industries. Trump sees this. “China is eating our lunch,” he likes to say. He argues that the job losses are caused not by trade itself but by the poor negotiating skills of American politicians.
He may be right, but finance capitalists who profit from trade deals, from the Kennedy Round of GATT in the 1960’s to NAFTA in the 1990’s and the Trans-Pacific Partnership today, do not disguise their indifference to U.S. workers. Chrystia Freelands of Reuters reported in the Atlantic a conversation with the CEO of a global hedge fund whose investment committee contemplates with equanimity the devastation of the American middle class. Said the CEO, “If the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile that means that one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade.”
Donald Trump rejects this trade lock, stock, and barrel. His high standing in the polls is based on his patriotic positions on trade and immigration. His practical suggestions, from smarter negotiators to the Great Wall of Trump, are based on the three “core principles” of his immigration policy paper: “A nation without boundaries is not a nation. . . . A nation without laws is not a nation. . . . A nation that does not serve its own citizens is not a nation.” He expatiates on the last principle: “Any immigration plan must improve jobs, wages and security for all Americans.”
Similarly, a sound trade policy ought to improve jobs, wages, and security for Americans. Both parties support free-trade agreements that hollow out the middle class and increase the U.S. trade deficit. Congressional Republicans, having won a majority in both houses to rein in President Obama, used their majority to give him “fast-track” authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Like earlier trade deals, the TPP will ship U.S. jobs overseas and increase the nation’s trade deficits. It reportedly contains a free flow of labor codicil to undermine U.S. immigration laws.
We recall that NAFTA, for instance, was negotiated under George H.W. Bush and passed with the enthusiastic support of Bill Clinton in 1994. In 1993 the United States had a small trade surplus with Mexico of almost two billion dollars. By 2011 NAFTA had turned this surplus into a trade deficit of about $65 billion. The Economic Policy Institute estimated that imports from Mexico had eliminated 1.5 million American jobs, while exports supported fewer than 800,000 jobs. The net loss is about 700,000 jobs. This is the situation Donald Trump has been describing, and TPP will only make matters worse.
The conservative mainstream has responded to Trump with a two-fold strategy. Like the Tar Baby, they “ain’t sayin’ nothin’” about trade. The interviewers of the FOX GOP candidate debate asked no questions about it. Meanwhile, following techniques pioneered by Saul Alinsky, they heap personal abuse on Trump. Charles Krauthammer called him “a clown.” Jonah Goldberg proffered his resignation from a conservative movement that included Trump. George Will called Trump’s ill-bred habit of defending himself when attacked “an affront” to the project of National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr.—that of “making conservatism intellectually respectable.” Elsewhere on the NRO website there was a review of a recent documentary on Mr. Buckley’s commentary at the 1968 Democratic convention. When Gore Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” Buckley addressed Vidal as “you queer” and offered to “sock you in your goddamn face.” So far nothing Trump has said or tweeted about John McCain or Megyn Kelly tops that.
Those intrigued by the Trump phenomenon might be interested in Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi, like Trump, first became rich in construction before going on to create a media empire in Italy against all odds. After World War II the Italian state TV network, RAI, enjoyed a legally mandated monopoly. The Catholic Christian Democratic, Socialist, and Communist parties controlled the three RAI stations. Soccer was well covered, but political news was highly slanted. In the early 1970’s I saw an interview with the head of the right-wing Italian Social Movement, Giorgio Almirante. The RAI journalist took up most of the program lecturing Almirante, who was reduced to shrugging, grimacing, and indulging in the distinctive hand gestures that enrich Italian conversation. Those who were bothered by the three interviewers at the FOX debate taking up a quarter of the two-hour time slot with biased questions never saw the antics of Italian journalists in the days when RAI ruled the roost. Berlusconi broke RAI’s monopoly by setting up his own stations. Ordinary Italians were grateful, while the political elites were furious. In the process he became very wealthy.
Berlusconi entered the political arena in the 1990’s, a peculiar moment in Italian history. In Italian law magistrates combine the roles of investigator and judge. The separation of powers and attendant checks and balances among police, district attorney’s office, and judges in the American system do not exist in Italy. Magistrates in Milan caught a Socialist party hack accepting a bribe. His party’s leaders hung him out to dry, and in revenge he started leveling accusations at his former colleagues. The head of the magistrates, Antonio (Tonino) Da Pietro, saw a golden opportunity. He started investigating and charging not just lackeys but party leaders, especially the Socialists and Christian Democrats who had dominated Italian politics since World War II. The squad got its own name, Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”). From 1996 to 2000 there were 6,475 convictions for bribery, estimated in the billions of dollars. The Socialist and Catholic parties were destroyed. Politicians went to jail or into exile. Tonino Da Pietro became a folk hero. Few accusations were lodged against Communists, who had been active players in Italian politics without actually heading a government. It took a while for Italians to realize how unlikely it was that they were untouched by corruption.
Fifty years after the end of World War II the Communists finally had the chance to rule Italy. They changed their name to the Democratic Party of the Left. They backed a new voting system, where the party with the largest plurality of votes received extra seats (“first past the post”), as in France and England. With the collapse of the Christian Democrats and Socialists, they were the only large party. Then Silvio Berlusconi showed up. He felt in his bones that most Italians were not ready for Communist rule. He worked to form a voting bloc to challenge the Communists from the few nonleftist parties untouched by scandal. The new Catholic parties turned him down. The Italian Social Movement was now headed by the witty Gianfranco Fini, who renamed it the National Alliance and moved it from a nostalgic neofascism to a mainstream conservative nationalism. Berlusconi mentioned his admiration for Fini in a press conference, and the left started shouting “Fascist!” Once, this would have spelled a politician’s doom, but not this time. As with Donald Trump the old rules did not apply to Berlusconi. He also won over the Northern League, led by gravel-voiced Umberto Bossi, who wanted federalism and decentralization to protect Northern Italy from a parasitic government and the rising tide of immigration. Berlusconi founded his own party and called it Forza Italia, from a popular cheer for the national soccer team: Go, Italy, Go! Unexpectedly, this pickup squad defeated the experienced pros of the Democratic Party of the Left—i.e., the old Communist Party.
Less surprisingly, this rather heterogeneous new coalition had difficulty finding common ground, and the new government did not complete a year in office. Berlusconi did not give up. His coalitions won elections in 2001 and 2008, and he was prime minister in 2001-06 and 2008-11, making him number one among Italian prime ministers in length of service since Mussolini, whose circumstances were special, to say the least.
The judges got to work. Shortly after Berlusconi announced his entry into politics, his brother, Paolo, was accused of paying bribes ten years earlier. Soon the Mani Pulite judges were accusing Berlusconi himself, but he proved a master in avoiding conviction or winning on appeal. Of some 30 accusations, only one has stuck, recently. Under civil law there is no presumption of innocence, and judges can do things a U.S. district attorney cannot. Italian politics was heavily influenced by money, and many of the accused were guilty. Still, it began to dawn on Italians that the Clean Hands judges rarely accused Communists, as even Da Pietro finally admitted. He resigned as judge and entered politics with his own party, Italy of Values. After serving in parliament and various leftist governments, he was not re-elected in 2013. Italians had had enough.
For the 2008 elections the Democratic Party of the Left changed its name to the Democratic Party in order to unite leftist voters and attract moderates, just as Berlusconi had succeeded in doing on the right. The strategy seemed to guarantee victory, but Berlusconi won again. They never saw it coming.
The harassing accusations continued. The magistrates bugged his phone and leaked a conversation where Berlusconi made unflattering references to the physique of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She started objecting to Berlusconi’s presiding over meetings of the European Union and conspired with his political enemies in Italy. His remarks were not illegal, of course; they were leaked to embarrass him. (Recall that Megyn Kelly asked Donald Trump nothing about trade, but led with a grave question about celebrity tweets.) The leaks also distracted from more serious issues. Berlusconi was an articulate defender of Italy’s national economy against the European Union’s evolution into a de facto German financial empire based on a euro that is really the Deutschmark.
Berlusconi was forced out of office in 2011 by a peaceful coup, which replaced his democratically elected government with one manned by “nonpolitical technocrats” headed by economist Mario Monti. Unlike the coups in 2013 that overthrew democratically elected governments in Ukraine and Egypt, Italy was not faced with violent protests. Globalists and leftists did not want to wait for another election cycle. The newspapers and RAI news kept repeating that Monti was “highly respected,” although they admitted he had worked as international advisor for Goldman Sachs. He promised to resign, call new elections, and return to private life once he had submitted an austerity budget in 2012.
Instead, Monti formed his own party, Civic Choice, to contest the 2013 election so he could remain prime minister. The communists of the Democratic Party usually won the leftists, about 30 percent of voters. Since Monti was “highly respected,” his Civic Choice party was predicted to win another 20 percent, and the Democratic Party promised to back him for prime minister. The cynicism of an academic economist with ties to Goldman Sachs working with communists against a successful businessman turned off many voters. A comedian named Beppe Grillo won 25 percent of the vote. Monti’s party won barely ten percent and soon disappeared. Berlusconi’s party came in right behind the Democratic Party, but by the “first through the gate” rules the communists got many more seats in the lower house of parliament. Finally, the judges made sure a conviction stuck. Berlusconi was expelled from the senate and banned from holding office for six years, although he remains as head of the reconstituted Forza Italia.
Last year—without new elections—the president of Italy appointed the Catholic mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, prime minister with the support of the Democratic Party, where Renzi began to marginalize the Communist Old Guard. Journalists noted that Renzi models himself on Berlusconi in his media-driven cult of personality and his goals of simplifying the Italian electoral system, shrinking government, and loosening the yoke of German hegemony.
Both Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump began their business careers in construction. There is a real difference between finance capitalism and the worlds of industry, construction, and service. Buildings and factories are inevitably part of a landscape and a community with concrete locations. They are compatible with and tend to encourage respect for place, patriotism, and even nationalism. Whatever mistakes or gaffes these two men have committed, they got into politics because they were worried about their nations and fellow citizens. They have been rewarded by the loyalty of a solid subset of these citizens through attacks that would have crushed lesser men.
Berlusconi’s survival over so many years in so many elections is partially the result of his masterly use of media, which is also one of Trump’s strengths. Their wealth, however, is not a media illusion. They really are successful, and their political acumen is considerable. They talk about real issues. Trump speaks effectively about immigration and trade. Berlusconi has tried to reform Italy’s byzantine tax code. His governments have passed some of Europe’s toughest immigration laws, despite opposition from leftists and the Catholic hierarchy. Almost alone he opposed the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi, whose security forces used to control the human trafficking corridors through Libya—corridors that are now flooded with African immigrants. Whatever his personal failings, Berlusconi has been right on issues that matter to Italy and Europe.
Silvio Berlusconi has remained a force in Italian politics for 20 tumultuous years through a combination of his advocacy of sound policies in taxes and immigration, his rambunctious but likeable personality, and the repulsiveness of his enemies, judicial, financial, and political. Unfortunately, they have kept him from saving Italy. Their goal of destroying the middle class of small businessmen and farmers through high taxation and immigration (described in Aristotle, Politics V) has not been frustrated and now threatens the rest of Europe. What both Berlusconi and Trump offer their nations, in addition to sound and principled policies on taxation, immigration, and trade, is their irrepressible optimism and a sincere love of country. No nation is promised perfect leaders or even victory. As Tolkien wrote to his son, Christopher, “You and I belong to the ever-defeated, never altogether subdued side.” The supporters of Berlusconi and Trump can be confident, however, that they have a cause worth fighting for—their nation—and a leader who fights for them because he believes what he says, not because it will make him richer or popular with the Right People. Inevitably, Berlusconi and Trump are a mystery to people like George Will and Megyn Kelly—and always will be.