Donald Trump is not a joke: A warning to Americans from an Italian who survived Berlusconi

We laugh to keep from crying.
We laugh to keep from crying.
Image: AP photo
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Of course if you listen to the pundits, we weren’t expected to win too much, and now we’re winning, winning, winning the country. And soon the country’s going to start winning, winning, winning. […] We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated. ”

–Donald John Trump, Las Vegas, Feb. 23, 2016

Donald Trump is hilarious, you guys.

The Republican presidential candidate literally went from being that guy trolling the world on Twitter to being that guy trolling the Grand Old Party’s campaign. He says he’ll build a wall between the United States and Mexico and it will be huge and Mexico will pay for it and America will be great again. His sexism is nauseating, his ignorance cringe-worthy, his conduct baffling. He provides more memesgifs, jokes and video games than one could possibly have time for.

And he really is winning.

In advance of the South Carolina primary on Sunday, a joke circulated online asking women if they’d have sex with Trump, if it meant he’d drop out of the race. My answer would be “no” for at least three reasons:

  1. I am not an American citizen, and this is not the kind of thing one should even remotely consider doing for a foreign country.
  2. Even if Trump dropped out of the race, what would we do about the people who support his brand of hatred? Would they give up their claims to US citizenship, too?
  3. I’ve heard this question before.

Well, not exactly this question. As an Italian citizen, I have heard different variations on this question–with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi subbing in for the Donald.

It’s been said before that Trump is America’s Berlusconi, and the comparison is easy to see. Both are older white men with a lot of wealth of dubious provenance. Both decided to enter the public arena after promising they would run their countries the way they run their companies. Both are openly misogynistic while claiming to love women, and both share a questionable sense of humor. They appeal to what in Italy is referred to as “the belly” of the electorate—their gut reactions to the issues at hand.

Both men are populism at its worst. And their tactics work.

But perhaps the most striking similarity I can draw between Trump and Berlusconi has nothing to do with their actions. No, the thing that is most worrisome about the uncanny resemblance between these two politicians is the dangerous way the public and media have perceived their candidacies.

Donald’s showmanship is unmatched. From headlines to videos to petitions to stop him (including by his adversaries), Trump is the dominant story in politics these days. I made a similar argument before when Narendra Modi was running for prime minister in India. It’s like that trick kids play on one another: Say “milk” twenty times in a row, and when I ask you to think about a color, you’ll think “white.” Talk about Trump everywhere, all the time, and suddenly he’s the only thing people will be paying attention to.

Just check out this telling map, which shows the top-searched Republican candidate by county, shared by Google Trends ahead of Feb. 25 Republican debate:

Awash in red.
Awash in red.
Image: Quartz via Google

There is an old marketing adage that says it doesn’t matter what they say about your brand (or you) so long that they’re talking about it. The second-most asked question about Trump, according to a recent Google Trends search, was “Is there any stopping Donald Trump?” But clearly, thinking about stopping Trump is not, in fact, doing much to stop him.

When Berlusconi had his last comeback, during the 2013 elections, he was brought back as a scarecrow by his opponents. They allowed him to shape their campaign, making their platform one based on being against him rather than in favor of something. This is a mistake that unfailingly favors the adversary, with catastrophic results.

But there’s an even more troubling parallel between Berlusconi and Trump: People love to laugh at them.

Trump is very easy to laugh at–and I do mean at, rather than with. Berlusconi was too, with his terrible jokes, terrible Italian, and terrible hair. What he said wasn’t taken seriously, and he willingly played the buffoon role, all the way to the Palazzo Chigi. Remember when he called Barack Obama “tanned” (twice)? When he posed making a horn sign with his hands in a European Union leaders meeting? I remember every single one of these incidents—so hilarious to the foreign press. Trust me: it’s a lot less funny from the inside.

Like Trump, Berlusconi consistently seemed too absurd to be true. And yet he was. He won elections again, and again, and again, thriving off any and all attention. People didn’t take him or what he said seriously. Then one day we woke up to find our government overrun by criminals, our economy destroyed, and our cultural mores perverted to the extent that the objectification of women was commonplace. There was no more laughing left to do.

Don’t let Trump troll his way to the presidential candidacy. He may not even be the worst candidate on the Republican side—as far as I can tell, that’s a very, very close race—but in any case he needs to be taken seriously. What he says is worrisome and has enabled and indeed normalized some of the darkest and most racist beliefs of his base. (Nearly 20% of his supporters in South Carolina believe slavery shouldn’t have been abolished.) The time for voyeurism and condescension and exclamations of “You won’t believe what he said!” has long passed.

Because I grew up in Berlusconi’s Italy, I have worried that Trump would get the Republican nomination for quite a while now. But unlike what happened in my country, I believe Americans won’t make him their next president. That said, a word of warning to Americans and the American media: Enough with the humor and the sarcasm, what you need now is straightforward, fact-based, political confrontation. On the brink of “Super Tuesday,” your country risks becoming the butt of a joke.

And believe me, there is absolutely nothing funny about that.