Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Ten Years After

While looking for jazz reviews tonight, I ran across a post I had written on May 12, 2006 -- that's ten-and-a-half years ago -- titled "Mobsters in Suits." At the moment it appears as though the 2016 election is ending in the ugliest way ever: with the Democratic Party nominee winning a clear plurality of the popular (democratic) vote, but the Anti-Democratic Party capturing the quintessentially Republican Electoral College, and thereby electing yet another minority president -- a rich guy with media savvy but no political experience, traits that early in the primaries reminded me of his fellow billionaire and kindred spirit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. I might as well just quote it here, and leave it to you to figure out the relevance:

Speaking about the erosion of public trust under right-wing -- dare we say Fascist? -- politicians, I was struck by a couple of quotes in Alexander Stille's New York Review of Books piece, "The Berlusconi Show" (May 25, 2006):

If Berlusconi initially entered politics to save his television and financial empire and to defend himself against criminal prosecution, then his political career can only be judged a complete success. But he has achieved much more than that: he almost single-handedly derailed the national corruption investigation known as Operation Clean Hands. He greatly weakened the war against the Mafia. He made it possible for politicians to openly mix public affairs with their private interests, and created a politically slanted television that in many ways anticipated developments in the United States and elsewhere.

It is difficult to exaggerate the degree of popular support for the investigations of public corruption that took place in 1994 when Berlusconi first "entered the playing field." The magistrates who conducted the investigations were highly trusted; and Antonio Di Pietro, the most prominent of the prosecutors, was literally the most popular person in the country -- far more so than Berlusconi himself. Similarly, between 1992 and 1995, prosecutors in Sicily and elsewhere accomplished the semingly impssible by arresting thousands of mafiosi, including the boss of bosses, and helped bring the murder rate in a country of nearly 60 million people down by 50 percent. The Mafia seemed on the verge of defeat. The entry into politics of a billionaire who owned TV stations and the country's leading soccer team and whose company was already under investigation changed the atmosphere; it had the immediate effect of making criminal justice a political issue: any further effort to prosecute Berlusconi or his associates would automatically be seen as a political attack.

[ . . . ]

Berlusconi's prolonged presence in politics has made the entirely abnormal appear normal. Some Italians have accepted that the owner of the largest media company has become prime minister without divesting himself of his interests; no one seems surprised that the parliament contains dozens of his employees, or that they pass laws that help his company. Since a businessman who was already under investigation when he entered politics could become prime minister, hardly anyone seems appalled that he should get his co-defendants and their lawyers elected to parliament so as to give them parliamentary immunity. Nor has there been any serious complaint when these lawyers in parliament write laws to help their clients escape prosecution in cases they might lose at trial.

Other sections of the article talk about how Berlusconi's media empire was able to effectively slander Di Pietro, and how Italy's economy has declined under Berlusconi's rule. In some ways this story is peculiar to Italy. No US media tycoon, despite all the corporate concentration of recent years, has a comparable degree of dominance. Moreover, in the US corporate titans still prefer to rent their politicians rather than taking on the dirty job themselves. Hence, Ken Lay was satisfied backing George Bush -- although in retrospect he might have been better off following in Berlusconi's footsteps.

Clearly, politics in the US is a calling that has lost its appeal to anyone with a sense of self-respect, much less a shred of honesty and integrity. Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone, May 18-June 1, 2006) traces this back to Richard Nixon:

In the Forties or Fifties, in the age of FDR or Ike, you grew up thinking the president was like your dad. If you grew up with Kennedy, he was a handsome young prince living in a castle. Nixon was the first to rule in an era when the president was something gross your parents whispered about at night, like ethnic neighbors or anal sex. These days, the idea of the president as a sort of hideous, power-crazed monster with a lizard brain and a ten-foot erection is almost universal. In fact, we choose our presidents now solely on the basis of their ability to survive a grueling two-year process designed to beat out of a man everything but his most nakedly criminal urges. We ritually assault his friends and family, make him perform acts that would shame a Thai whore -- and if he's still smiling at the end of it all, we pick him. Only a monster, a Nixon, is capable of that finish-line face.

We know that, and we choose him anyway. Why? Because that's who we are. We get off on that sort of thing. The fascination runs very deep. And it's far too late to do anything about it.

The piece concluded with some quotes and comments on Stephen Colbert's White House Correspondents Dinner keynote, which you can look up. As for the relevance of Berlusconi, here's what Kathleen Geier tweeted tonight:

This is an awful night, but keep it in perspective: the relevant comparison to Trump is not Hitler, but Berlusconi. Which is bad enough.

My only additional comment at this time is that while ten years ago I thought America was relatively immune to the sort of criminality that Berlusconi practiced in Italy, it is less so now. How much less remains to be seen, but we have witnessed and suffered through eight years of relentless obstruction and sabotage against Obama's presidency, with essentially no efforts to -- indeed no conception of -- constructively address the nation's myriad problems. And now it seems like the voters have handed two branches of government over to a party hell bent on destruction.

Ask a question, or send a comment.