It’s the year 2020: Trump screwed the entire world
Here’s what we should have done in 2017
Berlusconi and Trump have a lot in common, as I have argued. In fact, so far, Trump 2016 looks very much like a remake of the Italian classic Berlusconi 1994. It’s not a pretty movie — it’s pretty much an apocalyptic movie.
In 2011, The Economist ran an in-depth Special Report about Italy: the assessment of Berlusconi was The man who screwed an entire country. In GDP growth, only Zimbabwe and Haiti did worse than Italy in the period under Berlusconi. Productivity dropped five percent (in the same period it rose 20% in the U.S.)
Besides the economic disaster, Italy under Berlusconi essentially renounced its role as one of the historical flagships of moral, economic, technological progress — and retreated to collective parochialism.
Is Trump now going to similarly screw up the entire U.S.?
Given the role of the U.S. on the global stage, given its historical lantern of liberal-democracy, it’s not quite an exaggeration to say that if the U.S. falls in darkness today, there’s a danger clouding human history itself. It’s frightening to say the least. Trump can screw up the world, not just the United States. Forget about those plans to relocate in Canada.
But there’s still quite a bit we can do about it, even with Trump in the White House. If this is at least in part a remake of Berlusconi 1994, there’s a few obvious things that the opposition needs to focus on.
Damage Control: leverage on Trump’s volatility
There is little to salvage about the Berlusconi experience. And yet, it could have been much worse. The Italian institutions survived Berlusconi. This survival wasn’t to be taken for granted in 1994, when Berlusconi first got elected. Frankly, the man never did anything to hide his sympathy for Mussolini, the ally of Hitler and the Italian dictator in the years 1922–1945.
Berlusconi made very public efforts to control all the Italian press, replace unsympathetic journalists, subjugate the Judiciary to his will, reform the institutions so he could “run the country like a CEO”.
With a popularity among his fellow countrymen that was at times stellar, it was plausible that Berlusconi’s instincts would verge on the dictatorial. His loudly voiced impatience with the slow rituals of democracy seemed to prelude to a full fledged authorianism.
That didn’t happen: in the end, Berlusconi was ousted democratically from power. How did the Italian institutions survive Berlusconi?
The reasons are useful lesson in the 2016 remake we are living: Trump — The President.
Some reasons are contingent to the Italian history, and the US can’t benefit from them. As a member of the European Union, Italy has to follow some economical, administrative and political rules — a force for good, which limited to some extent Berlusconi’s power in critical times.
The US has no comparable extra-roof on its head. Additionally, the Italian Prime Minister Office is constitutionally more limited compared to the US Presidency in its modern interpretation. (Even when his party had solid majorities in the Parliament, Berlusconi was never in a position to control the Italian Supreme Court, Corte Costituzionale. That would be different in the US, since Trump can nominate a critical member of the Supreme Court. )
One additional thing, however, crucially helped protect the Italian Democracy: Berlusconi himself has a short, volatile, opportunistic attention span; just like Trump by most accounts. It is perhaps typical of such outlandishly extrovert personality types.
They micromanage an obsession for some time, then they move on when they smell another opportunity. And when they are not in the micromanagement mode on any given topic, they can be very flexible, almost indifferent with the details. Add to this the fact that they don’t have a strong framework of reference values, and it becomes clear that many policy topics can literally go in opposite directions, depending on the people that happen to surround the boss at any given time.
More than in any other instance, I expect Trump’s policies to depend on whoever has access to his ear at any given time.
If one could choose, that’s certainly not the commander-in-chief you want. But here we are: in damage-control mode — and I’d be happy if Trump doesn’t earn the 2020 cover as The man who screwed up humanity.
In the present situation, and in damage-control mode, Trump’s superficial volatility can be used to the world’s advantage.
For instance, he infamously said that climate change is a Chinese hoax, but I bet that if you get close to his ear and whisper the right way, he may be able to change his opinion in twenty minutes. That’s the nature of the man, based on the accounts of those who worked with him, on his public record, and the guide of Berlusconi’s precedents.
He can surprise everyone by announcing he’s now going to save the world by doing three times better than the Paris agreement. Of course, in the process, he will also claim that he had always been “a big environmentalist”, and that he invented solar panels in his backyard, as a kid.
But that’s ok — that’s a modest price to pay to avoid the entire world getting screwed.
Oppose him on what matters, but offer prompt support whenever he’ll be doing something good
Given what above, what’s the best role of the political and social opposition?
An opportunistic personality, tends to follow the path of least resistance.
We should never, ever, oppose him on things that are good, even if they are good for all the possible worst reasons. The opposition should work to create paths of least resistance.
In Italy, the opposition chose at times instead to go frontal on just about anything against Berlusconi: that was understandable, but it was also a grave mistake; it exacerbated the damage, and prolonged Berlusconi’s tenure. They were hoping that one day the half of Italy who voted for him would wake up and realize they had bought a lemon, and show Berlusconi the door. That didn’t happen, for a generation.
Sorry everyone, we can’t risk to screw the world the same way Italy was screwed: better be pragmatic, swallow as much as can be digested, and never miss an opportunity to help Trump when he’s doing a right thing. And yes, he will do some right things- if nothing else because he has a tendency to do everything and the contrary of everything.
The balancing act will be supremely difficult, for the Democrats and in general for all the people who see Trump as a con-man but also understand that this business is bigger than him, and bigger than our pride, and bigger than anyone’s party interest.
Roughly speaking, Trump’s presidential actions will need to be categorized as follows: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.
When he will do good things, that needs to be recognized promptly, and supported. The opposition needs to swallow the tribal lines.
When he does bad things, treat him as a President that you oppose, not as the evil incarnate.
But any attempt to silence the media, any messing with the constitutional legal tradition, anything that undermines the foundations of the liberal democracy, anything really Ugly— he and his team should know that if he goes there, the opposition and the society is ready to take the gloves off. And the society should be ready to do so.
You can’t take your gloves off if you have already taken them off for ‘normal things’ — and nobody will take you seriously if you have already spent your credibility and political capital to oppose ‘simply bad’ things.
For instance — downsizing Planned Parenthood? That’s seriously bad and will do lasting damage, but it’s not an attack to the foundations of democracy. It deserves opposition, but not in the same way as an attack to the State.
If the opposition starts attacking him in the same way whenever he does Good Things, Bad Things, and Ugly Things — then we are all toast. That’s a free pass for the most radical people around him to take the lead, and we really, really, really don’t want to go there. Ugly things will be normalized.
Making this distinction very clear is not only the best thing to do in the dispassionate interest of America and of the world. It’s also the best thing to do tactically — if you want his support to drop.
That is because of the special nature and psychology of Trump’s support.
People who have bought from a con-man, are rarely happy to admit it. If you scream “Idiots, you voted for him, you didn’t see he’s a con-man!”, you will not get back those people for a very, very long time. This is essentially what kept Berlusconi in power for a generation.
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