Berlusconi, Trump and the Covfefe paradox

For most citizens of the world, a lot of what’s happening right now with Donald Trump’s presidency is unprecedented and new, but if you grew up in Italy, the feeling is closer to one of intense deja vu.

Silvio Berlusconi has been cited as Trump’s most famous precursor, and the similarities between the two go deep. Comparing the two is a good way to understand how political communication has changed in the last few decades.

Italy, back in 1994, was coming out of the most traumatic political scandal in the history of the young democracy, known as “Tangentopoli”. A large chunk of the establishment of the time, including former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, was found guilty of accepting bribes while in office. The general image of the whole political class was shattered by the scandal. Silvio Berlusconi, who relied on his relationship with Craxi as a businessman, decided to run as president, presenting himself as an outsider, a new way for Italian politics: a liberal, pro-business politician, breaking away from decades of socialist goverments, and directly in opposition to the communist threat (Italy’s Communist Party used to be the largest in Europe, but in the early 90’, after the fall of the USSR, it was actually trying to find a new indentity).

His candidacy seemed absurd to many: he held no credibility as a politician, and his adversaries, and many news outlets, made sure to remind the general public of that. But Berlusconi owned half of the most viewed Italian television channels when he decided to form a political party. He also owned a large number of magazines and newspapers, radio stations, and, of course, a number of businesses. His media reach was gigantic, disproportionate compared to his adversaries. And as a business man, he understood marketing in a way that no one of his opponents did. The logo and the name of his party were directly connected to Italy’s biggest passion, football; and his party had merchandising (bages, pins, flags) and a theme song.

Forza Italia’s theme song, 1994.

Berlusconi understood more than any of his contemporaries that reputation was not as important as reach. And he knew he had the money, the resources and the influence to directly connect with the large majority of Italians. For his adversaries to match his level of media exposure, they would have had to spend a gigantic amount of money.

Shocking a large number of experts, Berlusconi won the 1994 political elections. To this day, he is one of the most important political players in the country; in many ways, he’s the most important political figure of the last thirty years of Italian history.

If there was a lesson to be learned here, is that media exposure was the most important factor for someone to win an election, so much so that it could make up for a total lack of political experience: and investing in media was a surefire way to flood the attention of the voters.

Donald Trump, the underdog billionaire

Cut to 22 years later: Donald Trump is running for president. Like Berlusconi, he’s well known and wealthy. But the differences between the two are not irrelevant: Trump is rich, but his media presence is extremely limited compared to Berlusconi’s; he didn’t own any newspapers or magazines. In fact, most of the established media was openly against him, on both sides of the political spectrum: he was often attacked by conservative media during the primaries, and he was savaged by liberal leaning media basically from the moment he decided to enter politics. Berlusconi controlled a large chunk of mainstream media during his run. Trump had basically all of mainstream media opposing him, and a considerably smaller budget than most of his opponents in every stretch of the Presidential race.

But the same media who was opposing Trump could not get enough of him. Trump was a completely different breed of politician for the States, and his speeches were crafted specifically to include moments that would make it irresistible for media outlets not to cover them. Obsessively. As soon as Trump saw that the rating starved news networks were very open to broadcast his ideas, he leaned in being an aggressive orator; and, working on a lesson he learned a long time ago, he thrived on the belief that any kind of media attention, good or bad, was going to help him.

Trump became the talk of the town, and by town I mean pretty much the whole planet. But since the way he was being talked about was mostly negative, his adversaries failed to see him as a real threat: after giant scandals like the Billy Bush tape, his profile seemed too damaged to be saved at all.

And on the other side, the Clinton campaign was spending a gigantic amount of money to get their message out, and it was supported by the vast majority of the media establishment: she had all the best loved celebrities at her side, even prominent conservative newspapers ended up endorsing her. for most people, the race was closed months before the election happened.

And then Trump won. Some external factors helped him out, and he still lost the popular vote, but that doesn’t make his victory necessarily less astounding. He started as an underdog, everyone in politics fought him, he had a relatively small campaign budget, but he still won.

Maybe money was not a factor as it used to be with Berlusconi in the way we can influence media. To try and understand of what changed and why he won, let’s bring the attention to Covfefe.

The Covfefe paradox

The 31 of May, 2017 Trump wrote a tweet that contained a clear typo:

Despite the clear mistake, the tweet stayed on Trump’s timeline for hours; and given that Trump’s Twitter feed is the most popular in the world right now, it immediately started to spread like wildfire. The word Covfefe became the number one trending topic worldwide, and became a huge topic of conversation. It made actual news, it overshadowed actual world defining events. Googling Covfefe currently directs to more than 16 million results.

Covfefe is a perfect encapsulation of what Trump is for a lot of people: he’s the main common topic we can all riff around, in a world where most of us follow very specific interests and very few things become universal.

Comedians race at finding the best joke to “burn” Trump every time he says something of note. There is literally a business built around asnwering Trump’s tweets as quickly as possible. This gives him a giant advantage in terms of media coverage. He doesn’t really need to make news — he is the news.

His adversaries find catharsis in attacking him in droves, in making fun of him. But there is a danger to this. If some people spent the day of May 31 riffing around Covfefe and relishing in the idea that they found yet another way to show how incompetent the president is, what happened might be the single most impressive show of media power ever expressed by a single person.

Trump showed that he could dominate the news with a typo. And, as shown by his next tweet, he realised the power of that. He probably loved it: it was undeniable proof of the fact the world was indeed obsessed by him. His critics failed to realised that they were feeding the beast they were trying to rally against.

The Covfefe Paradox: Insulting Trump only makes him stronger.

And in this case, Trump is just an example, but this applies to anyone whose main communication strategy is to try and catch people’s attention with outrageous, aggressive and generally loud statements.

This highlights a huge difference between 1994 and 2016: when Berlusconi came to power, the places where people spent their time were few, well categorised (Print, Television, Radio), and access to them was governed primarily by money. Millions of people got their news from a small set of sources. The most followed of those sources had incredible influence and authority.

Today, on the other hand, the time of most people is spent on a platform — the internet — where publishing to the whole world is free, and where everything competes on a level field. Now information is very much a peer to peer system. Even if we still have many big publications that have large relevance in our information system, since everything we consume is accessed through the same devices (phones, tablets, computers), a tweet from a friend can be a news source the same way the New York Times is.

This is a gigantic change in the way we see news. A large organisation like the New York Times doesn’t necessarily have more reach than a YouTube pundit, because people reaches their content in the same exact way.

So money is not the largest factor. Time is.

Time, and the dangers of Schadenfreude

The importance of time as currency is a key factor to understand the future of the way we think of politics, and really of anything else in our lives. Obsessevely sharing someone’s tweets and videos is a way to empower them, even if the intention is to criticise them.

When Berlusconi came to power, many of his opponents warned that his influence could greatly harm Italian democracy, and that his authoritarian tendencies could bring the country back to the ghost of the early 20th century. That didn’t really happen, partially because Italy is not a presidential democracy, and Berlusconi’s executive powers, as such, was very limited.

But Berlusconi’s years did hurt Italy in a wholly different way. As he became one of the biggest topics of conversations in the country, his opponents decided to base their political platform in not being Berlusconi. The “Anti-Berlusconi” movement was a huge part of the political scene in Italy in the 90’s and 00’s. The left, instead of trying to find a way to transition away from its communist roots and find a convincing new identity, presented itself as an opposition force first of all. And while Berlusconi didn’t govern for most of the past three decades, his presence stunted the political development of the country to this day.

A similar phenomenon seems to be happening in the US right now. We hear a lot about resisting Trump, but democracy is about proposing alternatives, first and foremost. And even if we are still far from the next presidential election, it’s slightly worrying that the higest profile presidential candidate for the future of the US might be Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (and even this might read as a jab, I actually think that that option might work out. I will write about how entertainment and politics have never been a separate entity another time).

Understanding ime as a limited, fundamental resource is how we can start getting over this. Each of us has a limited time bandwidth to work with every day. To clog it with Covfefe-like distraction takes away from empowering initiatives that can create the basis to build a credible alternative. Spending time on something that makes us angry directly drains our energy. Spending time gloating on someone else’s mistakes can become a gigantic distraction — or, as the brilliant Nerdwriter1 puts it: “check your Shadenfreude”.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should stop paying attention to the president of the United States or to other people who gain popularity with aggressive tactics. The trick is to distinguish noise from action: to resist from the conversation about words, and really trying to focus on the facts, on what people are doing; and spend as much time we can to work on ways to build platforms that can actually make for a better alternative, for as many people as possible.

Emilio Bellu, Go Think Initiative Vice-Chairman.

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