Donald Trump’s announcement that he will not run in the Republican presidential primaries after all is great news for the Republican Party and for the country. The only thing more frightening than Trump’s running for president would be Trump’s getting elected president. From a party perspective, while losing an election is bad, winning one with the wrong candidate for the party and for the country is worse. I know something about this: I come from Italy, a country that has elected as prime minister the Trumplike Silvio Berlusconi.
Trump and Berlusconi are remarkably alike. They are both billionaire businessmen who claim that the government should be run like a business. They are both gifted salesmen, able to appeal to the emotions of their fellow citizens. They are both obsessed with their looks, with their hair (or what remains of it), and with sexy women. Their gross manners make them popular, perhaps because people think that if these guys could become billionaires, anyone could. Most important is that both Trump and Berlusconi made their initial fortunes in real estate, an industry where connections and corruption often matter as much as, or more than, talent and hard work. Indeed, while both pretend to stand for free markets, what they really believe in is what most of us would label crony capitalism.
Berlusconi’s policies have been devastating to Italy. He has been prime minister for eight of the last ten years, during which time the Italian per-capita GDP has dropped 4 percent, the debt-to-GDP ratio has increased from 109 percent to 120 percent, and taxes have increased from 41.2 percent to 43.4 percent. Italy’s score in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom has dropped from 63 to 60.3, and in the World Economic Forum Index of Competitiveness from 4.9 to 4.37. Berlusconi’s tenure has also been devastating for free-market ideas, which now are identified with corruption.
How can such a pro-business prime minister wreak havoc on the economy and on the idea of free markets? Because “pro-business” doesn’t necessarily mean “pro-market.” While the two agendas sometimes coincide—as in the case of protecting property rights—they’re often at odds. Market competition threatens established firms, which often use their political muscle to restrict new entries into their industry, strengthening their positions but putting customers at a disadvantage. A pro-market strategy, by contrast, aims to encourage the best business conditions for everyone. That’s in fact the opposite of what a real-estate tycoon wants: to keep competitors out and enhance the value of his own properties. By capturing (or more precisely, purchasing) the free-market flag in the same way one might acquire a business brand, Berlusconi likely has destroyed the appeal of the free-market ideal in Italy for a generation.
How, then, did Berlusconi get elected and reelected? He created an unlikely coalition between the business elite, which supports him for fear of the alternative, and the poor, who identify with him because he appeals to their aspirations. In a country where corruption and lack of meritocracy has all but killed the hope of intra-generational mobility, citizens chose to escape from reality and find consolation in dreams. Berlusconi adeptly fosters the illusion that he can turn everyone else into billionaires. His political career is something like Trump’s Apprentice program, only on a national scale.
Unfortunately, some of the same factors that sparked Berlusconi’s success in Italy have begun to show up in the United States. Social mobility has dropped. Income for 95 percent of the population has stagnated. The financial crisis has uncovered a dangerous connection between government and the financial establishment. Losing hope that they can rise from rags to riches the old-fashioned way, Americans are taking refuge in fantasy, from American Idol to The Apprentice. In such a climate, Donald Trump, whose own career has exemplified crony capitalism—from government subsidies for his developments to abuse of eminent domain—could have potentially won not just the GOP nomination, but even the presidency. That would have been a catastrophe for the Republican Party, for free-market capitalism, and for America.