ROME – When Pope Francis meets Donald Trump on Wednesday, he’ll naturally bring his background as an Argentine to his perceptions of the American president. Yet Francis is also now living in Italy, and he’s of Italian ancestry himself, so the mood about Trump in il bel paese may shape the pontiff’s outlook too.
Perhaps surprisingly for many Americans, Trump may have his problems at home, but he’s actually gaining ground here.
While only 26 percent of Italians were happy about his election at the beginning of Trump’s mandate, that number has risen to 32 percent after his first 100 days. Moreover, a study by the Italian Swg research center found that even if 44 percent of respondents fear what the U.S. president might do in the future, 42 percent of Italians don’t mind his political style.
Italy is preparing for the first visit by Trump as president, as he will be going the southern island of Sicily for the G7 before his meeting with the pope.
What mostly draws Italians to the rambunctious U.S. president is his lack of political correctness, which is often taken as a sign of his sincerity.
“Giving up insulting and offensive remarks seems to have become not only a hassle, but also a sign of weakness and an inability to communicate,” writes Enzo Risso, executive director of Swg, on the pages of Italian left-wing paper l’Unità.
“Resorting to the politically incorrect has started to breach every aspect of our society,” he said.
Risso points out that thirty- and forty-year-old Italian men seem to share this view more than young people and women.
The ‘macho’ aspect of Trump’s personality, and his political charisma, also seems to have some weight. The study showed that 41 percent of respondents answered favorably to the question of whether Italy needs a “strong man” like Trump.
“Europeans tend to analyze and filter American politics through a European lens, often not understanding that the U.S. is something completely different compared to Europe,” Stefano Graziosi, a freelance journalist for several news outlets in Italy and a U.S. policy expert, told Crux in an interview.
But a quick look at the country’s recent history shows that in many ways, Italy has “been there, done that” in terms of the Trump phenomenon.
The Berlusconi Effect
Comparisons between himself and President Trump are “obvious,” former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in November 2016.
The conservative Berlusconi was Italy’s Prime Minister from 1994-1995, 2001-2006, and 2008-2011 – nine years in total, making him Italy’s longest-serving leader after World War II.
Similarities between the two became apparent early on in Trump’s campaign, and go far beyond their common penchant for tanning and love of statement-making hair.
Berlusconi and Trump are both real estate entrepreneurs and billionaires. The American tycoon has a net worth of $3.7 billion according to Forbes, which also values the Berlusconi family at $5.9 billion.
Beyond sharing a strong anti-establishment agenda and being riddled with conflicts of interest, the two men also have in common a reputation as womanizers (though, in all honesty, Berlusconi’s comments on women make Trump seem like more of a gentleman.)
The two businessmen-turned-politicians, both often despised and admired in equal measure, are united in their distaste for the politically correct.
“The fact that Trump made political ‘incorrectness’ his battle horse, it became his winning horse both in the American electorate and, as pointed out by the survey, in a pocket of the Italian electorate,” Graziosi said.
Berlusconi, who got along famously with former U.S. President George W. Bush, credited Trump’s victory to the “mistake typical of all the left around the world” of upholding political correctness as a way to cater to people’s needs.
Berlusconi’s penchant for utterly un-PC soundbites is the stuff of legend. The Italian prime minister got in trouble back in 2008, for instance, for describing President Barack Obama as “young, handsome, and tanned.”
But in the 2016 interview, Berlusconi also pointed out some differences between the two. Trump was born to a wealthy family, for example, while Berlusconi views himself as a self-made-man, a champion of the middle class.
Also, Berlusconi skipped Trump’s “war on media” by simply owning the major media outlets in Italy. An astute politician, Berlusconi realized that there is no ‘fake news’ if there is only one news.
Despite the similarities, support for the overseas president has dropped in Berlusconi’s own political party Forza Italia, from 57 percent to 45 percent, the Swg study shows.
The Mussolini legacy
Another comparison has been made between Donald Trump and Benito Mussolini, the fascist Italian dictator from 1924 to 1943, due in part to a tweet by the president.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2016
Back in February, Trump retweeted a post by a parody account that said: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” The account is named il duce (meaning ‘leader’) which is how Italians referred to Mussolini.
The quote was attributed to the Italian fascist dictator, and public opinion railed against the president. In a press conference, Trump simply said that “it’s a very good quote,” and that he does not want to be associated with Mussolini.
“Comparing Trump to Mussolini is, in my opinion, absurd,” Graziosi told Crux.
Trump is not a fascist, and does not adhere to a one-party state ideology. The two do, however, share an authoritative predisposition and a charismatic presence.
It seems as if Trump got the final laugh concerning the tweet. The quote was actually coined by soldier and sculptor Ignazio Pisciotta in order to rally troops, and not by Mussolini.
“Hey, it got your attention, didn’t it?” Trump said about the tweet during the press conference.
For Italians who sometimes grow weary of the dysfunction of their bureaucracies and recurrent breakdowns in governance, there can be a bit of nostalgia for an era in which there was a strong hand on the rudder. Quando c’era lui, meaning “when he was here,” referring to Mussolini, is a frequent opening line in Italy to rants about whatever the political meltdown of the day may be.
Trump may tap into that sentiment for some Italians, which may also be part of his appeal.
Some of the greatest enthusiasts following Donald Trump’s victory were the populist parties on the Old Continent. After being a side note in European elections for decades, Trump’s victory validated them as a force to be reckoned with.
“‘Trumpians in Europe tend to make a connection between Trump and Italian candidates that are theoretically similar: Grillo in Italy, Le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary and so on,” Graziosi said.
In Italy, the Alt-right political party Lega Nord has been furiously taking notes on Trump’s strategies in hope to repeat some of his success. Starting out with a strong approval rating among the party’s members for the newly elected American president at 60 percent, that number has grown to 78 percent after three months.
What interests Lega Nord the most is the migrant crisis, which has been plaguing the European borders since 2013 and causing a wide-scale sovereignty crisis.
Italians are not really into walls, such as the one proposed by Trump for the U.S./Mexico border. According to the Sgw survey, only one quarter of Italians think it’s a good idea.
That might be because Italy is full of ancient walls, covered in moss and ivy, a crumbling testament to a now-vanished empire’s desire to protect its cities and borders. Spoiler alert: They got in anyway.
As a side note, having the pope condemning walls every other day in Rome’s back yard also helps shape opinion.
The fact that Italians don’t generally like walls, however, does not mean that they are welcoming toward migrants. Nearly 50 percent of Italians are favorable to closing borders entirely, surveys show.
That number becomes 63 percent among members of Italy’s left-wing populist Five Star Movement, led by former comedian, Beppe Grillo. Support for Trump in the party is over 40 percent.
Ultimately, what really matters to Italians when it comes to United States’ presidents is the effect that their policies will have on their country’s economy.
Italy’s growth for the next two years is estimated at a glacial 1.9 percent, according to recent forecasts by the European Commission. A study by Italy’s statistical institute (Istat) found that seven out of ten people under 35 still live with their parents, confirming the reputation of Italian men being “mamma’s boys.”
The same study found that 3.5 million families in Italy have no income from work.
Given those realities, it comes as no surprise then that when Italians were asked in the survey whether they agree with Trump’s proposal to tax companies that transfer production to foreign countries, more than 60 percent of respondents answered yes.
Another point of interest is tourism, nearing 10 percent of Italy’s GDP. There are few things Italian shopkeepers love more than American tourists, and Trump’s policies regarding security and terrorism will certainly have an impact.
But Trump’s policy of “America first” might become a cause for concern and take a toll on Italy’s exports to the U.S., the second largest in Europe. Fortunately for Italians, Trump seems to have his eye set on China, and European businesses might get a chance to take a breath.
Though Trump claimed to “adore Italy” in a quick remark to the Italian daily Sole 24 Ore, he has made very few investments in the country and may disappoint those who believe his policies might have a positive effect on the Italian economy.