'Big Men': Is Trump America's Berlusconi?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in front of a wax statue of John Wayne during a news conference at the John Wayne Museum on Jan. 19 in Winterset, Iowa. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

A wealthy businessman-turned-politician promised his countrymen a “miracle,” serving voters a cocktail of bombastic nationalist rhetoric and boasts about his business acumen.  

Prominent publications such as The New York Times branded him “a man of no particular ideology,” who “exploited vague slogans” on the campaign trail. The Economist, Roll Call's sister publication, called him “a controversial tycoon with few coherent policies,” observing that the man “acts like a businessman who has seen a market niche ... and is rushing to fill it.”  

One could be excused for believing that man is Donald Trump, the American real estate billionaire who is in the driver’s seat for the Republican presidential nomination. But the politician described above is Silvio Berlusconi in the early 1990s as he sought his first term as Italy’s prime minister. A review of major media reports from that 1994 campaign shows the Italian media mogul’s approach during his first campaign has a striking resemblance to Trump’s own controversial — and, so far, highly effective — star turn on the political stage. It sheds a light on how a charismatic, successful and shrewd business tycoon can translate his resume, the frustrations of his fellow citizens and a shrewd campaign into a political movement.  

Numerous U.S. pundits, publications and politicians have sounded a similar tone about Trump as did The Economist about Berlusconi's ideological core — or lack thereof. They often note Trump has in the past supported and given campaign cash to Democrats, but now is targeting conservative GOP voters.  

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former 2016 GOP White House hopeful, has said "The Donald" lacks any identifiable political belief system. Walter Shapiro , a Roll Call columnist who has covered nine presidential races, tweeted this last month, comparing the GOP front-runner to Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Trump has no ideology either which makes them soul-mates. Only thing in Trump's favor is he doesn't go shirt-less.”  

John Feehery, a Republican political strategist, believes Trump is “running as George Wallace” — the former Alabama governor — “but would govern like Bill Clinton.” That means, according to Feehery, that Trump could be more moderate than his language suggests should he be elected.  

Feehery pointed to the ability of both Trump and Berlusconi to exude “a personal magnetism,” saying they have “similar personalities” — right down to what he called their “exotic personal lives.”  

“The appeal is the same: big men with lots of confidence who say they can bring their business acumen to running government,” he said.  

There’s also Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, which is plastered across red, white, blue, black and camouflage caps, visors and other head wear for sale on his campaign’s official website. It’s prominently featured on signage wherever he goes, and comes quick off the lips of surrogates such as Sarah Palin and even, unexpectedly, Iowa GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley.  

The veteran lawmaker and chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee was a surprise guest at a Trump rally in Pella, Iowa, on Saturday, even dropping the candidate’s famous slogan into his remarks: “We have an opportunity once again to make America great again.”  

According to one report , Grassley offered up clues about his sudden embrace of the New York City billionaire, telling an audience: “We’ve got to keep up this energy that’s shown here today and many other places around Iowa because that is what it’s going to take for us to win back the White House in November.”  

That energy is rooted in Trump’s vows to lead America — and his frustrated, conservative blue-collar base — out of an era in which wages have stagnated, jobs have been sent overseas, domestic demographic change is happening,  and, in those voters’ collective view, the United States has lost its sway on the global stage.  

Rewind to Berlusconi’s 1993-1994 campaign to secure the parliamentary majority needed to make him prime minister, and one again finds parallels.  

The Italian businessman, who has had a controlling stake in the AC Milan soccer club since 1986, created a new center-right political party named after a popular Italian soccer chant: Forza Italia . That roughly translates into “Go Italy! Go!” Trump’s stump speech echoes that slogan — it’s largely an extended red, white and blue pep talk in which the candidate uses populist and tough talk that could be summed up this way: “Go America! Go!”  

In March 1994, the New York Times described Berlusconi as “the upstart who would be king, the millionaire tycoon of television, publishing, supermarkets and real estate who would use corporate savvy to produce what he calls ‘a new Italian miracle.’”  

The Italian press routinely called Berlusconi “Il Cavaliere (the Knight).” The New York Times ran a March 1994 piece with the headline: “Italy's Knight in Teflon: Tycoon Repulses Charges ,” describing the Italian mogul’s use of a government raid of his political organization’s headquarters to further rally support. The paper wrote that he portrayed himself as an “ogre of repression.”  

Twelve years later, the wealthy Trump is running as the knight of economically frustrated white working-class Americans. And, like the man who would go on to serve four terms as Italy’s prime minister, there is a Teflon aspect to his campaign.  

Time and again during the current GOP presidential nominating process, Trump has uttered blistering condemnations of Latino immigrants, calling them criminals, rapists and drug dealers. He also has called for a temporary ban on Muslims who want to enter the U.S., arguing they could be or become radicalized by the Islamic State to carry out attacks on Americans.  

Time and again, professional pundits predict the controversial rhetoric and proposals will sink his campaign. Yet, each time Trump only garners more support in national and early primary state polls.  

On Dec. 15, The Economist published a graphic titled “Teflon Trump ” that plots the intersection of his most bellicose statements and his rising poll numbers. An average of several prominent national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics puts Trump (36.2 percent) well ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz (19.3 percent). In a shift, most polls show he now leads the Texas Republican in Iowa in many polls and continues to have a commanding lead in New Hampshire.  

An email to Trump’s campaign had not been answered by press time.  

On Capitol Hill, some veteran Republican senators acknowledged the similarities in the two men’s personalities and campaign styles. None saw either as a red flag that could cost the GOP the White House and down-ballot races in a year in which control of the Senate is at stake.  

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., compared candidate Trump to the 33rd U.S. president.  

“I can remember back to when Harry Truman appeared,” Inhofe said in a brief interview. “They were saying some of the same things about him back then.  

“And he ended up being one of the really good presidents,” he continued. “When Trump first appeared, I thought he’d last about three days. But he’s still here. And he’s the front-runner.”  

In a surprising though perhaps inevitable development, there appears to be a thawing among Republican veterans to the idea of Trump as the party’s nominee.  

For instance, multiple media outlets last week reported that Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, a GOP elder statesman, told reporters he has "come around" on Trump. “I’m not so sure we’d lose if he’s our nominee because he’s appealing to people who a lot of the Republican candidates have not appealed to in the past,” Hatch told CNN .  

Inhofe echoed that sentiment, the latest in a growing number of so-called “establishment Republicans” to signal a willingness to back Trump.  

“He’s from the business community, so he believes the ends justify the means,” Inhofe said when asked about Trump’s controversial statements. “He really believes he can make America great again. And I’ve got to hand it to him.”  

Berlusconi’s personality and ego were, in part, blamed for a scandal-ridden tenure that ultimately helped drive him from office. Could the same happen to a potential President Trump?  

“I think if that was going to happen, it already would have, especially after the Muslim thing,” Inhofe said of Trump’s proposed ban. “So my answer is, ‘No.’”  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.