TOKYO – The rise of billionaire Donald Trump in the US presidential race has been met with a mixture of horror and fascination. As his campaign, once regarded with derision, continues to rack up successes – most recently, in the Michigan and Mississippi primaries and the Hawaii caucus – pundits are scrambling for some historical or foreign analogue that can shed light on the phenomenon. While no comparison is perfect, the most apt comparison is with Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media mogul who has served three terms as his country’s prime minister. It is not a reassuring model.
Of course, Berlusconi and Trump share some superficial similarities, including multiple marriages and a generally vulgar style. But the most important – and the most worrying – qualities they share is an ability to substitute salesmanship for substance, a willingness to tell bald-faced lies in pursuit of publicity and advantage, and an eagerness to intimidate critics into silence.
Berlusconi’s policy platforms, even his fundamental ideology, have always lacked consistency. During his successful campaigns, he said whatever it took to win votes; during his three terms in office, he used the same tactic to form coalitions. His only agenda was to protect or advance his own business interests.
So far, Trump has followed much the same strategy, saying anything to grab another vote. The question is what this would mean if he were to make it to the White House. The system of checks and balances established by the US Constitution has an unmatched capacity to prevent any single branch of government from going haywire. But the manipulation of public opinion is a powerful weapon in any democracy, and it is a weapon that Trump, like Berlusconi, knows how to wield better than most.