At the weekend, Silvio Burlosconi chose the occasion of holocaust memorial day to celebrate Benito Mussolini’s leadership of Italy. Though he took care to recognise the anti-semetic nature of Mussolini’s government on holocaust memorial day his words have horrified many. In his speech at an event in Milan to honour holocaust victims he claimed “The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did well.”
Silvio Berlusconi is so much a caricature of himself that he must be doing it on purpose. It seems at times as if he is playing an elaborate game of chicken with the Italian people who lose each time they re-elect him. This latest statement, for example, is part of Berlusconi’s persistent campaign to rehabilitate Italy’s fascist past, including giving not only the direct heirs of Mussolini’s fascist officials but also Mussolini’s granddaughter government jobs. While professing to preside over a free democracy, he controls many of Italy’s media outlets. Accusations of mafia connections have refused to go away throughout his political career. Not even a fresh conviction for tax fraud and an impending trial for underage prostitution can completely kill the Italian people’s enthusiasm for Berlusconi. The prostitution charge in particular is still more likely to be greeted with a wink and a nod than the condemnation that such sleazy behaviour merits. Berlusconi presided over the longest government in Italian post-war history and has been elected three times. Now he may very well be elected again when Italy goes to the polls later this year, though he is reportedly banned by his party from the Prime Minister job this time. At times it is a struggle to believe he is real.
And yet Italy is not the only country to elect an incredibly wealthy, gaffe-prone man who is constantly in trouble with woman, who makes populist policies with very little intention to keep them and whose affable, bumbling exterior hides intelligence, incisive political savvy and hardline right wing politics. Current mayor of London Boris Johnson is little better than Berlusconi-lite – a version somewhat sanitised for the British electorate.
These men typify the way that politics relies on the media and the cult of personality that surrounds those that strive for political acclaim. Manipulation of the media has been the making of these men and it is easy to be caught up in the web they weave. The key to the success of both Boris and Berlusconi has been to persuade their respective electorates, without a shred of evidence, that they are eccentric but ultimately harmless, and somewhat rebellious, genuinely likeable everymen. The truth is, however, that they are not – they just play one on TV.
Boris Johnson’s media image has persuaded hundreds of students and young people who would usually reject Conservative establishment politicians, to vote for him. Crowds bayed their approval in Hyde Park when he called out Mitt Romney over his less than enthusiastic support for the London Olympics. Yet though he wrote an article in support of Obama in 2008, ideologically and personally he is much closer to Mitt Romney especially when referring to his £250,000 salary from the Telegraph as “chicken feed” and denying climate change. Boris is seen as a rebel for daring to criticise his Tory masters but his politics prove him little more than an anti-European Tory of the old school. He regards closer financial integration with Europe as ‘morally wrong’. His London Mayoral office runs as an informal old boys club with Andrew Gilligan recently appointed Cycling Tsar. He is anti-tax, anti-benefits, and pro-big business. He rejected the mansion tax, heralded the confusing and problematic reform of Child Benefits and remains a close friend of Rupert Murdoch despite the criticisms of his part in phone hacking.
Part of Boris’ endearingly bumbling persona comes from his constant scrambling to cover up his ‘slip ups’ such as claiming gay marriage was akin to a man marrying a dog. Though these days he fervently denies racism and homophobia by appearing in Gay Pride parades and embracing Islam as a religion of peace, it is important to keep in mind that the BNP directed their supporters to give their second votes to Boris in the 2008 mayoral elections.
Every television appearance, no matter how strange and apparently gaffe-filled, is part of a media campaign and we must never forget that. When powerful, intelligent men choose to put themselves on show for our entertainment, hackles should rise as the chances are good that they have something to hide.
Boris and Berlusconi, enabled by television and print alike, do not present themselves in the guise of traditional politicians and that dulls our natural scepticism of people in power. Superficially, they are easy to like which is a breath of fresh air in politics. People instinctively want to vote for people they like so they make excuses not to lift the curtain. This instinct should be a warning sign. When you find yourself shying away from further investigation, that is when it is imperative to look beyond the show to the political machinations behind the scenes. Only then you will begin to get a true picture of the men in power.
Reactions to Berlusconi’s Defense of Mussolini + Bonus Boris Johnson Article Defending Berlusconi:
- Silvio Berlusconi Defends Benito Mussolini On Holocaust Remembrance Day (infiniteunknown.net)
- Berlusconi praises Fascist dictator Mussolini on Holocaust Remembrance Day (rawstory.com)
- Berlusconi has his faults, but dullness isn’t one of them (telegraph.co.uk):
“… there is something about the Italian leader that makes me warm to him; and it would be sad if he were to lose next month in the Italian elections to one as spine-crackingly worthy as Romano Prodi.”