Silvio Berlusconi is in trouble again. The Italian prime minister incurred the wrath of opposition MPs, Catholics, and even members of his own government after making an obscene quip involving an alternative name for his center-right party. The vulgarity of the joke suits a man who has spent his premiership mired in sexual scandal, accused of sleeping with prostitutes and even underage girls. The latest outrage came as his cabinet met to discuss the downgrading of Italy’s debt rating. Across the world, liberals are asking, “Surely this man has to go?”
And yet, for all his many failings, Silvio Berlusconi remains Italy’s longest-serving postwar prime minister. He has survived crises far worse than this, and it seems likely that he will limp on to the 2013 general election. If he does, it won’t just be because he controls so much of Italy’s media. It’ll be because a) Italians secretly admire him and b) they know that his fiscal conservatism and handling of the unions are exactly what their country needs.
Any judgment of Berlusconi should be contextualized by the fact that Italy is essentially ungovernable. It has never functioned as a single country, except when being bludgeoned by Mussolini. The collapse of the Communist Party removed the one national movement from Italian life outside the Catholic Church. Different regions have different economic needs and varying degrees of corruption. Berlusconi was first elected as an alternative to this structural chaos. In the 1990s, he formed a new party on a populist platform and pumped it full of independent, non-Mafia money. Over time this evolved into the closest thing Italy has ever had to a stable, respectable right-wing governing coalition.
Berlusconi achieved this by reinventing himself as the physical embodiment of his nation, a sort of Italian Charles de Gaulle. Scandals that would have led to the arrest of any other Western leader epitomize Berlusconi as the archetypal Italian male — chauvinist, skirt-chasing, and full of braggadocio. Last year, he brushed off criticism of his sex life by arguing that “it’s better to be passionate about beautiful women than to be gay.” His homophobia speaks to a certain distrust among Italians of the effeteness of the native Left. (The only charismatic left-wing alternative to Berlusconi is governor Nichi Vendola, an openly gay former Communist who writes poetry.)
In contrast to the Left’s vacillation and ineffectualness, Berlusconi has often governed his country through sheer will power. A good example was his response to the 2009 Aquila earthquake. In Italy, victims of natural disasters are traditionally ignored or exploited by the state. But Berlusconi promised to provide housing and relief for those made homeless by the quake, and he delivered on that promise. Contrasting this achievement with the Bush administration’s handling of the Katrina cleanup, Italians felt for a moment that their nation had bettered the United States.
Memories of the comparative chaos of the pre-Berlusconi years have convinced many voters that this is the only man who can govern Italy. The alternative is a coalition of left-wingers committed to even greater public spending and (worst of all) a tightening of its labor codes. In contrast, Berlusconi has skillfully pushed through parliament some of the most austere fiscal measures in Europe. His €60 billion package of cuts and tax hikes is roughly six times the size of Britain’s. Although the decision by Moody’s to cut the country’s credit rating was insulting, the agency did note that Italy could solve its problems by tackling its overregulation and labor militancy. Berlusconi has been pushing such a conservative agenda for ten years and although he has failed to deliver, his commanding personality has still kept his country from tipping into either default or socialism. In a sense, Moody’s criticized Berlusconi the man but validated Berlusconi the brand.
In his hour of need, the global Right should show a little more solidarity with Silvio Berlusconi. Anglo-Saxon prudes might despise his playboy lifestyle, but it is the vulgar trapping of a leadership style that has held his anarchic country together. Moreover, on economic policy he is at one with the Tea Party. Italy’s nascent anarchism has kept him from delivering on his ideals, but Berlusconi’s heart is in the right place.