The Brotherhood of Philandering Oligarchs

From a New York Times column by Frank Bruni headlined “The Brotherhood of Philandering Oligqrchs”:

I covered Donald Trump’s political ascent more than a decade before most other journalists did, which is another way of saying that I covered Silvio Berlusconi.

That was from 2002 to 2004, during the second of his four stints as prime minister of Italy. He was arguably at the peak of his power. And he was Trump before Trump, a harbinger of Trump, a dress rehearsal of Trump, nearly as hubristic, similarly nationalistic, contemptuous of norms, disdainful of the law, a creature of show business awash in creature comforts, loud, lewd — all of it.

I was then The Times’s Rome bureau chief, and I twice met at length with Berlusconi. He crowed about his accomplishments and squawked about his critics. Those of us who chronicled him back then often wondered, in our journalism and among ourselves, if his rise from cruise ship crooner to obscenely wealthy media magnate to leader of one of the world’s 10 largest economies was a peculiarly Italian phenomenon. How well would his shtick play in another country, one with greater weight in the world and more at stake?

Trump provided — and continues to provide — the answer. He is Berlusconi after Berlusconi, part pupil and part echo, though he’d surely loathe that characterization: He doesn’t believe that anyone really compares to him, a facet of his self-love that only proves his kinship with his Italian forebear.

Berlusconi died on Monday, at the age of 86, and I’m hardly the only journalist prodded by that milestone to think about the Berlusconi-Trump connection — the brotherhood of the philandering oligarchs. In The Times on Tuesday, Mattia Ferraresi sketched the many parallels between the two tycoons, noting, for example, that Berlusconi and his businesses were constantly drawing the attention of prosecutors, that he claimed to be the victim of rigged elections, that he bellowed about his persecution and that he cozied up to Vladimir Putin. Berlusconi and Trump are a Venn diagram that’s all overlap.

And it’s worth dwelling a bit longer on those shared traits, because they point to verities bigger than the both of them — to dynamics that will play out in Western politics for some time.

One of those is that ultimate power and ultimate persuasion depend on an intuitive, visceral understanding of the age’s media — of its timbre, its metabolism. Berlusconi owned and ran a television and publishing empire in Italy and grasped in particular how well spectacle and sex sell. He put them on the air; he wove them into his public persona. He seemed unbothered by the reports of “bunga bunga” sex parties at one of his opulent villas. Debauchery was his brand.

Trump, too, has benefited from a congenital affinity for television. But he also took to more recent inventions, to changes in the information ecosystem that suited him as well as “The Apprentice” did. He spotted the internet’s fertility for lies. He saw that the greatest currency on social media is spite. That’s what all those uppercase letters and exclamation points tap into. They’re not typographical. They’re psychosocial (and sometimes just plain psycho).

Another Berlusconi-Trump lesson is that vulgarity can be an asset, not a liability, because as soon as it’s derided as such — the minute detractors tsk-tsk and curl their lips — it positions a politician in opposition to “the elites.” It turns a man of riches into a man of the people.

Another: Voters will put up with narcissism because many of them will interpret it at least in part as a perk of success and as confidence’s sufferable sidekick. They’ll vicariously enjoy, and envy, not just the operatic living but also the histrionic boasting. There but for a few hundred million dollars brag I.

And there’s an authenticity to artifice. Trump embodies that oxymoron the same way Berlusconi did.

With fake tans, labored efforts to obscure his baldness and defensive insistences that he wasn’t as slight in stature as his enemies mocked him for being, Berlusconi copped fully to his physical vanity.

With an orange complexion, a cantilevered coiffure and nervous promulgations that his hands are generously sized, Trump does likewise. And while that can play as petty and desperate, it’s also relatable, at least to some people. Who among us hasn’t put a coat of lacquer over our vulnerabilities, a serene facade on our roiling insides?

Few among us have gone to the amoral lengths of a Trump or a Berlusconi to preserve ourselves (and I don’t mean cosmetically) at any cost. That’s the real secret binding these braggarts.

If you don’t care about how thoroughly you’re degrading your country, if you’re willing to sacrifice its future on the altar of your own greedy here and now, you can scheme with abandon, lie with conviction and vilify anyone and everyone who gets in your way. Shamelessness is its own reward.

The Trumps after Trump are taking notes.

Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a Times contributing Opinion writer.

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