Opinion | The Brotherhood of the Philandering Oligarchs
June 15, 2023
By Frank Bruni
Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
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.
For the Love of Sentences
Color me green with envy: Lindsay Zoladz just saw Joni Mitchell’s triumphant return — in her late 70s, after a near-fatal brain aneurysm — to the concert stage. But also color me grateful, because Lindsay made the heartfelt most of it in her review in The Times. “To hear Mitchell hit certain notes again in that inimitable voice was like glimpsing, in the wild, a magnificent bird long feared to have gone extinct,” she wrote. May Mitchell, who has flown as high as any singer-songwriter of our time, keep flying. (Thanks to Alan Stamm of Birmingham, Mich., and Chip Pearsall of Greenville, N.C., among many others, for nominating this.)
Also in The Times, James Poniewozik paid tribute to “The X-Files” in describing a onetime cable news star’s continued post-cable paranoia: “The lo-fi ‘Tucker on Twitter’ finds the former prime-time host at the intersection of Fox News and Fox Mulder.” (Jonathan Swiller, Highland Mills, N.Y., and Ted Rodriguez-Bell, Berkeley, Calif. )
Desiree Cooper pondered her grandson’s fierce attachment to her daughter: “Born breech, he had never intended to leave his mother. His love for her was umbilical.” (Julie E. Fox, Wilmette, Ill., and Hilary Koreeda, Fairfield, Conn., among others)
Tim Sultan reviewed the book “Last Call at Coogan’s,” by Jon Michaud, about a storied haunt in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan: “We may learn that so-and-so met his spouse at Coogan’s, or such and such political disagreement was brokered over corned beef, but we never learn what makes one person tick, and another a ticking time bomb — the principal social reasons to spend time in a bar.” (Pete Browne, Kansas City, Mo.)
And Bret Stephens cringed at the cowardice of Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley & Co.: “You get the sense that most of these Republican Lilliputians are running to be Trump’s veep pick or his pet rock. Or they’re trying to ingratiate themselves with Trump’s base and to present themselves as a slightly more responsible version of the 45th president, which is like trying to sell a fentanyl addict on the merits of pot gummies.” (Paul Kirschenfeld, Hilton Head, S.C., and Bob Jacobson, Mt. Juliet, Tenn., among many others)
And what of all those boxes in a Mar-a-Lago bathroom? In The Washington Post, Geraldine DeRuiter grappled with the loo’s loopily luxe décor: “The chandelier hanging in Trump’s toilet was his dynasty in a microcosm: something opulent and gaudy, a caricature of wealth that screamed for our attention, while hoping we would not notice any potentially dirty deeds happening below.” (Bob Meadow, Los Angeles, and Rudy Brynolfson, Minneapolis)
Finally, in Salon, Melanie McFarland reflected on the futility of Christ Licht’s attempts, during his short-lived stint at the helm of CNN, to get Republican politicians and viewers to return to the network: “You might as well summon Voyager 1 back from deep space by pointing your TV remote at the sky and pressing any downward-pointing arrow.” (Carolyn Krouse, Manhattan)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.
What I’m Listening to, Reading and Writing
The recent “Lesbian Seagulls With Lulu Miller” episode of the podcast “You’re Wrong About” is total mind candy — a perfect mix of erudition (I learned lots about homosexuality and bisexuality in nature), banter and trivia, with a sprinkling of sweetness on top. Like many “Wrong About” episodes, it’s, well, unhurried, and it meanders some, but you can do just the first 40-ish minutes and still get to the gay penguins, the horny rams, St. Thomas Aquinas and more. And Lulu Miller, a science reporter for NPR, is exhilaratingly articulate.
Earlier in this newsletter, I noted the many parallels between Trump and Berlusconi. There are many as well between Trump and Boris Johnson, whose latest exit from the political stage and legacy were deftly and vividly captured in this scorched-earth column by Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian.
Much of the coverage of Trump’s, um, document storage system at Mar-a-Lago has cast him as the Keystone Kop of classified materials or as someone engaged in a kind of ego-fluffing prank. “Remember those guys in high school — it was almost always boys — who got a buzz from smashing windows, or sending firecrackers down flushing toilets, or throwing rocks at dogs and cats, and shoplifting for the pure rush of it?” Jack Shafer wrote in Politico. “Former President Donald Trump is that guy, six decades older, but still that guy. He thrill-seeks.” But Fintan O’Toole, writing in The New York Review of Books, makes the different, chilling case that Trump probably had lucrative and treasonous plans for those secrets. Too cynical? I’m not sure, but I do know that O’Toole is as eloquent as ever. (Tip: If you’re not a subscriber, you can still read the article by registering for a free trial month.)
The Opinion section of The Times has been publishing scorecards on the strengths, weaknesses and significance of the various candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, and my thoughts are included in the recent ones for Mike Pence, Chris Christie and Donald Trump.
On a Personal Note
Please go easy on me. Be kind. I’m about to confess my pop-culture ignorance. But I’m betting that you could make similar confessions of your own.
I recently began watching the new Apple TV+ series “The Crowded Room,” and I couldn’t figure out how and why this Tom Holland person — this actor I’d never heard of — was getting top billing over Amanda Seyfried, who also stars in the show. So I did a Google search and discovered, with great shame, that he’s Spider-Man. Well, the newest live-action Spider-Man. His Wikipedia entry includes this: “Some publications have called him one of the most popular actors of his generation.”
Most popular. Of his generation. And I’d never heard of him — because I haven’t been keeping up with my Spider-Man movies, because I have huge Marvel superhero blind spots and because, though I read voraciously, I also read selectively, and I guess I was checking in on Tom Cotton instead of Tom Holland. There’s only so much time, and I have only so much brain.
But the limits of that organ aren’t my point. The crazy abundance and variety of our media and culture is. The technological revolution — the internet, cable, streaming, all our devices — has so enlarged and fractured what’s out there that our common ground is smaller and our shared points of reference fewer than before.
A quarter-century ago we spoke of “water cooler shows,” meaning television programs so broadly viewed that they’d be subjects of conversation around the office water cooler. That phrase is kaput, and not just because the water cooler is. Because that kind of critical-mass cultural convergence belongs for the most part to a bygone era.
Another obsolete phrase, though people keep using it: “household name.” Whose household? Households are as varied as the movies, television shows and music available to them. An article in The Times late last year asserted that “TikTok turned Olivia Rodrigo into a household name.” Although I’d apparently heard her music, I for one didn’t know her name. And like many people over 50, I spend limited time on TikTok, which challenges the idea that it can make anyone universally known.
A true story: About a decade ago — which was well into our post-water-cooler, post-household-name age — I was at a memorial of sorts, chatting with three women much older than I, when a handsome, bedraggled young man entered the room we were in and stood alone about a dozen feet from us. The women, thinking him a lonely stray, invited him over.
They asked him what kind of work he did. He mentioned a Broadway production he’d recently been involved with. They asked which. “Death of a Salesman,” he answered. They asked what he’d done for the show — and I could tell they meant lighting, prop management, maybe the ticket booth. He said he had acted in it. He’d had a role. The women, confused, fell silent for about 10 seconds, and he took advantage of that pause to wander away.
“That was Andrew Garfield,” I told them. I’d recognized him right away.
They stared at me blankly.
“Spider-Man!” I said. Back then, he was, and I just happened to know it.
Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter. Instagram •@FrankBruni • Facebook