Berlusconi had Italy and its culture under control since the 1980s, long before his political career could take off, as the owner of a commercial empire that included three top private TV channels, a newspaper, publishing firm, theater, and the illustrious A.C. Milan football club.
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The media environment of Italy was completely transformed by Silvio’s Mediaset channels, which provided competition to the nation’s state-owned RAI broadcaster. Glossy, garish, and gossipy, they introduced American soap operas to the Italian public – Dynasty being the most well-known – and were dominated by lowbrow conversation and entertainment programs, such as Striscia la notizia, hosted by scarcely dressed showgirls (commonly known as velina).
The vocabulary was coarser, the clothing was less rigid, and the degradation of key public customs had a significant impact on how the country was perceived, altering the structure of national TV networks as well as the ambitions and even the language of an average Italian.
Berlusconi has launched a postmodern media revolution, which has two interpretations. One says that he has made society free: people can really say what they want, what they aspire to, what they like. It is a liberation from the cultural closure of the 1970s and 1980s Italian 20th century. The post-war period, as far as culture was concerned, was full of hatred and arrogance from both the left and the right
– describes Francesca Sforza, chief editor of Lo Specchio, in an interview with me. The years of lead, he suggests, had their impact on culture as well.
And Berlusconi was not a conservative. His way of thinking is expressed by the slogan: ‘Let us leave the leftists with their sad lives, with their constant struggles and problems, the nightmare of responsibility and poverty. Let us just take up the slack!”. And so, he did! The Italians responded: “Why not?
In the 1990s and afterwards, his own television network Mediaset aired programs with the slogan, “Take it easy.” The most crucial factors of life success, according to Mediaset? Having a lovely woman, making a good living, and having a cozy place to rest in the evening. All broadcasted daily and widely accepted.
Here we might refer to Rupert Murdoch FoxNews and Donald Trump’s style of media appearance, which come with all with neo-conservative sprinkles. In the end, Berlusconi would marry his media goals to his political aspirations, founding what became known as Berlusconism or il Berlusconismo. Silvio blurred the lines between politics and entertainment, ultimately reducing politics to being a part of the latter. Berlusconi treated his voters as consumers, the show was prolonged to the lines of parliaments and his state visits as the prime minister, with tons of showy gaffs thanks to which Berlusconi’s figure will be remembered by millions of YouTube viewers.
This marked the beginning of a new, kitschy political style that had previously been foreign to Italy’s formal political elite. Even his first party’s name, Forza Italia, loosely translated as “Onwards, Italy” or “Go Italy!” was taken directly from the language of football fans. It could have been shouted – and is being shouted – in the stadium.
His attitude, his preference for lowest common denominator content, and the fact that his networks frequently helped to advance his political goals turned off many Italians, too. He was troubled by several shady incidents, such as the scandalous “Bunga Bunga” parties, involving a minor. However, as his power base developed, his connections with leaders from all political parties became increasingly important. Even though he had a tumultuous relationship with public service broadcasting, he managed the election of a member of his own political party to the position of Chairperson of RAI in 2002.
While Berlusconi guided Mediaset through the years as he climbed the political food chain, it never shied away from controversy like its owner. As politics and media collided, several attempts were made to shut its channels, and there were countless selloffs and restructurings.
However, when it comes to politics his strategy was later taken by other actors. There is no doubt that Beppe Grillo or Matteo Renzi, to mention just two, are descendants of Silvio Berlusconi in terms of both their communication skills and their perception of power. This is also shown by a certain anti-parliamentarism that many of the leaders of the past 25 years share. The last figure to take his steps was Salvini – but his lack of political instinct proves that the era of Berlusconismo in politics is over.
Downfall of the Cavaliere
2009 marked the beginning of the political demise. Onna, a community decimated by the earthquake that shook the L’Aquila region twenty days earlier, was where Berlusconi celebrated the April 25 of that year. He was participating in the 25 April celebrations for the first time, and several portions in his address, such the one about how resistance is the “founding value of the nation,” caught people off guard. After all Berlusconi’s liberal conservatism was never pro-resistance, which was affiliated with purely left-wing values. For many a new political era may begin.
But a few days later, the media discovered Berlusconi at an underage girl’s party in Casoria, close to Naples. Noemi Letizia was barely 18 years old, and no one knew who she was or what her connection to Berlusconi was at the time. But it eventually became known that she secretly nicknamed him “papi.”
This quickly shadowed his latest achievements and possible new opening in his career. His wife quickly responded to this story saying that: “I can’t be with a man who hangs around underage girls”.
Then she added: “What emerges from the newspapers is shameless junk, all in the name of power: figures of virgins offering themselves to the dragon.”
Then word spread that certain meals had been planned at the Prime Minister’s homes. It was said that these were “elegant dinners,” but they made headlines for the alleged bunga bunga, in which several females, among them underaged, participated. Karima el Mahroug was one of them. She was just 17 then, and to save the day, she pretended to be Hosni Mubarak’s niece.
The fourth and last one fell on the evening of November 12, Berlusconi traveled to the Quirinale to reassign his mandate to the head of state. On the streets of downtown Rome that evening, there were crowds celebrating the news.
After a protracted tax fraud trial involving Mediaset, Berlusconi was found guilty and sentenced to a two-year suspension from public office; however, his four-year sentence was exempt due to his advanced age. In the end, he was exonerated of all allegations pertaining to the Bunga Bunga parties.
Successione alla Italiana
After years of political banishment, The Brothers of Italy, a coalition formed by Giorgia Meloni’s party, helped Berlusconi’s party retake power in general elections in October 2022. Berlusconi earned a seat in the European Parliament in 2019. Additionally, Berlusconi won a seat in the Senate. However, his influence over the politics of bel paese was marginal.
Apart from his comments on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which were, putting it diplomatically, very russophile, and newspaper pulp stories about his life, Berlusconi was absent when it comes to the center of Italian politics. His last big achievement was actually creating this government, which took place, according to Italian media, in his villa in Rome.
The very question of succession on the right, whether it comes to Forza Italia or his media empire, was absent, as Silvio portrayed himself as immortal. In his first marriage, Berlusconi had two children; in the second, second, he had three. The media tycoon created an empire from nothing, and they will all inherit it. Five children who have grown up in the shadow of their cruel, wealthy, and powerful father who has hypnotized the whole nation with his media empire and controlled its politics. Five children who have grown up feeling proud of the name they bear but who have been plagued by the same issue their whole lives: who will be deserving of their father and who will succeed them?
When it comes to his family business we have to check the developments in the upcoming months. However one thing is clear: when it comes to politics it’s Giorgia Meloni who takes it all. Meloni was able to flip roles after her autumn election victory as leader of the Brothers of Italy party, when Forza Italia joined her extreme right cabinet with Matteo Salvini’s League. Berlusconi’s death now allows her to colonize the more moderate political ground he leaves behind.
It is questionable whether Forza Italia can survive without him after serving mostly as a personal vehicle for his objectives rather than as a traditional political party. The movement’s electoral base has already shifted toward Ms Meloni, who has developed a more moderate and predictable image during her first months in office. Now however she is playing for much bigger stakes.
Meloni’s successful takeover of Italy’s center-right would complete the process of normalization begun by Berlusconi in the 90s. It would also solidify Meloni’s position as Western Europe’s most powerful ultra-nationalist leader, with Law and Justice and Orban’s Fidesz accompanying her in Central Europe, at a time when fellow far-right populists are making substantial electoral progress abroad.
In Spain’s snap elections, the extreme right Vox party has a solid chance of emerging as a power broker with a role in the future administration. In Germany, an unsettling recent surveys place pro-imperial, or even sometimes pro-Nazi legacy Alternative für Deutschland second, ahead of the ruling Social Democrats, with Scholz seen as unable to navigate Germany in the times of crisis.
Giorgia Meloni aspires to build a single agenda in Brussels that unites a draconian response to migration, skepticism against the pace of the green transition, and animosity toward diversity. In the upcoming year we will see if the “Margaret Thatcher from Garbatella” can make her political dreams true.