While many of Donald Trump’s supporters concede that he is crude and dangerous, they justify voting for him because they believe he could “shake up” Washington. Trump, they claim, would not act like a typical corrupt politician because he is too rich to be owned by anyone. He would transcend the present political dysfunction and set the system straight.
But even if one accepts Trump’s “shake up” capabilities, what evidence is there that he would shake things up in the public interest? Trump’s wealth and the self-promoting way he pursues it even as he seeks public office raise red flags about his ability to separate the public good from the good of Trump. His frequent bending of the system to benefit his empire and his past payoffs to politicians show how much he disdains the idea of a transparent democracy accountable to average citizens. Shaking up the system in the Trump manner would just as likely lead to a shake down: further corruption in the system to reward himself and those he favors.
For an ugly example of this syndrome in practice, it might be useful to recall another self-promoter in the Trump mold: the brash and egotistical Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. Berlusconi, a media mogul, presented himself as a solution to his country’s dysfunctional political system at one of its vulnerable moments. On the basis of showmanship and demagoguery, he rose to power and ruled Italy on and off for ten years between 1994 and 2011. The consequences were not pretty.
Indeed, rather than rescuing Italy from its troubles, Berlusconi used the country as a stepping stone to his own aggrandizement. When coming to power, he backpedaled on the promises he had made to insulate his media empire from politics. On the contrary, Berlusconi expanded it to the point where he was able to sideline most of his competitors and control the free flow of information. Members of the national press who refused to go along he attacked with all the powers of the state apparatus.
Idolized by the distressed masses whose anti-establishment anger he helped to fuel, Berlusconi went on to play the role of clownish cynic rather than reformer. As he amused his followers with his ridicule of political norms, he used his power to enhance his business interests, even to the point of crafting specific legislation to shelter his corporation, Mediaset. No lover of democratic checks and balances, he waged a war of attrition against judges and the court system to help his enterprises avoid prosecution. In the meantime, he neglected the country’s economic woes and its increasing debt. He left office in disgrace in 2011 under pressure from the European Union as Italy struggled to avert disaster.
Unbelievably, history could well repeat itself in the case of Donald Trump. Like Berlusconi, Trump is used to seeing the world in terms of his own personal and economic interests (political convictions, by contrast, play a strikingly subdued role in his Weltanshauung). If anything, his narcissistic tendencies towards self-promotion go even further than Berlusconi’s, as he pushes his hotels and golf courses in lock-step with his campaign for public office. Given his fierce protectiveness of the “Trump” brand, his promises of creating a blind trust if elected is surely as implausible as Berlusconi’s.
Aside from devotion to his own cause, Trump shares Berlusconi’s psychological insecurity and intolerance of criticism. Such qualities augur poorly for a leader’s capacity to shepherd a democracy and safeguard its freedoms. His threat to sue newspapers over “unfair” reporting, his vow to put pressure on a judge he doesn’t like, and his threat to “pay back” enemies reflect an inability to distinguish between personal and public exercises of power. It also reflects a sad misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
What is perhaps most disheartening in Italy’s case was the inability of voters to hold Berlusconi accountable for his corrupt actions. Normally in democracies, when elected leaders show themselves more devoted to padding their own nests than holding to their promises, the citizenry reacts by dumping them. Italy’s electorate apparently was so jaded that it was willing to tolerate repetitions of the same treatment. It re-elected Berlusconi three times in spite of uninterrupted scandals.
One critic surmises that Italy’s voters were willing to forgive Berlusconi because, in spite of his failure to deliver, he “sanctified” their prejudices. Could it be that Trump might get away with the same trick?