On June 12, after a prolonged illness, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi passed away. A controversial figure in Italian politics, Berlusconi continues to divide Italians after his death, too. While many on the left reflect on his negative legacy, the far-right leaders of the current government, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her deputy, Matteo Salvini, have been visibly moved by his passing.
They owe him a lot: Berlusconi laid the ground for the triumph of right-wing populist politics in Italy. But his legacy has had an impact far beyond Italian borders. His brand of populism, which attacked democratic institutions and twisted the truth, was a harbinger of the post-truth era that would emerge two decades later. His public image and political tactics undoubtedly inspired the likes of Donald Trump in the United States.
Using his credentials as a successful businessman, Berlusconi entered politics in 1994 advocating for free market economic policies that would fix Italy’s problems accumulated after decades of what he called “illiberal” state intervention in the economy. His obsession with freedom from the control of the state led him to name his centre-right political alliance the “Pole for Freedoms”. His programme promised lower taxes for all and deregulation in most sectors of the economy to kick-start Italy’s growth after prolonged stagnation and growing public debt.
He stepped on to the political scene at a time when the old political class that had governed Italy since the end of World War II was facing high-level judicial inquiries into corruption and growing unpopularity. Berlusconi sensed the popular anger against the establishment and successfully played it in his favour.
In building his public profile, Berlusconi skilfully used mass media. The owner of a media empire that included TV stations, newspapers, magazines and book publishers, he appeared regularly on air and projected an image of a jovial and approachable salesman who knew the concerns and hopes of ordinary Italians.
Like Trump, he effectively turned politics into entertainment. He invested heavily in emotional campaign messaging that employed commercial advertising tactics. For example, in 1994, he had a song produced with the title Forza Italia, the name of his party – something unprecedented in Italian politics at that time.
He made singing and telling jokes part of his public persona. He used humour in political debates to disarm his adversaries and undermine their arguments. Over time, what had started as lighter entertainment thinly playing on the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate, turned into a morbid compulsion marked by increasingly offensive and sexist jokes.
Berlusconi’s media also gave a platform to fringe right-wing and anti-left narrations of history and current affairs that undermined the values of the Italian cultural mainstream, which was, until the 1990s, largely oriented towards the centre and the left. Far-right views, while not dominant during Berlusconi’s golden years in government, were given a legitimacy by his media empire they never had during the post-War period. Many of these propagandists became key media figures in the right-wing populist wave which swept through Italy from the mid-2010s onwards.
Once in power and exposed to public scrutiny, Berlusconi resorted to attacks on public institutions and conspiratorial rhetoric to fend off criticism. He led many Italians to believe that his legal troubles – which included many trials for corruption and one sentence for tax fraud – were the result of alleged persecution orchestrated by a cabal of judges set on destroying not only him, but the very foundations of freedom in the country. He shamelessly defended the notorious “bunga bunga” parties as “legitimate” forms of entertainment, blaming judges for violating the private lives of “citizens” like him. This was perhaps his most destructive legacy: he contributed to eroding Italians’ trust in the justice system.
While xenophobic rhetoric was not common in his first years in power, in 2002 his governing coalition passed a draconian anti-immigration law, which criminalised undocumented migrants and militarised Mediterranean sea routes. This agenda was driven by his right-wing allies – the post-fascists of National Alliance, which had Meloni in their ranks, and Northern League, the predecessor of Salvini’s League.
In 2008, Berlusconi struck a deal with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi under which Italy accepted to pay reparations for its colonial past in Libya. In exchange, Gaddafi brutally suppressed people on the move who were trying to make it to Europe through Libyan territory. This was the beginning of what later became a staple of European Union policy: paying off other countries with dubious human rights track records to stop migration to Europe.
Berlusconi also kept close relations with other autocrats. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been his personal friend since the early 2000s and the Italian politician continued to speak highly of him even after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“Berlusconism” was remarkably effective in keeping its creator in power. In the past three decades, he was prime minister four times and a governing coalition partner three times. He remained in the upper echelons of power until his last breath, as a minority ally of the current right-wing populist government.
As populism swept through the West, political strategists and politicians certainly paid attention to Berlusconi’s successful tactics. It is not a coincidence that there are more than a few similarities between his profile and that of Trump.
In Italy, Berlusconi is succeeded by his “right-wing children” Meloni and Salvini, but also by populist Beppe Grillo who led a new wave of populist, anti-establishment politics in Italy with his Five Star Movement in the 2010s.
Berlusconi paved the way for some of the most reactionary trends eroding democracy and human rights today. It will take Italy and the West many years to get over Berlusconism.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.