Italy, famous for changing governments almost as frequently as Chelsea FC changes managers, went to the polls last weekend. In a time of economic decline, fiscal difficulty and precarity of employment, nearly half of the Italian electorate saw fit to give their vote to a controversial comedian and a convicted tax evader. The comedian is Beppe Grillo, hardly known outside Italy. The tax evader is Silvio Berlusconi, of global notoriety.
Exasperation about the success of this unlikely double-header could be felt in world stock markets, which tanked on Monday, and in comments by politicians, most blatantly by Peer Steinbrück, the leader of the German Social Democrats who is expected to run for chancellor later this year. A day before a dinner with the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who was in Germany on a state visit, Steinbrück professed to be "horrified that two clowns won the election".
Manifesting the party-political impartiality that his office demands, Napolitano promptly canceled the dinner. At the same time, and this is just an aside, he also demonstrated the fallacy of Wikileaks. Words of truth are rarely imperative in international politics or its shadowy backyard, diplomacy. You don't restrain a tyrant by calling him a bloody murderer, and you don't engage your partners in difficulty by mocking them. Steinbrück doesn't get this; he has shown his diplomatic ineptitude many times before and is just as much a clown for it as the two Italians.
On the other hand, I'm not sure the dinner was actually called off. Maybe after communicating his displeasure to the press, Napolitano was taken by Steinbrück to Il Casolare in Kreuzberg to have great pizza and converse, anonymously and without the burdens of office, on a topic of much agreement. The clown comments were nearly spot on, after all.
Grillo is a comedian in his day job who freelances as a black hole for the protest vote. Berlusconi is full of buffoonery as well, bunga bunga and Obama's tan and sexual harassment on camera. But for either one, clown is probably too weak a term. In the latest Spectator, Grillo is likened, rather luridly, to Mussolini. For Berlusconi anything short of locking him up is a dangerous trivialization not only of the menace he presents for Italy and Europe but also of his moral depravity and criminal energy.
Berlusconi is a catastrophe, and even though his political obituary was published the New Yorker two years ago he's back in the game. It is not clear who votes for him. My Italian friends, uncountable on two hands, groan with pain when his name is mentioned. His appeal is incompatible with clear thinking – or any thinking at all. His sexual incontinence might attract middle aged men with unfulfilled fantasies. But are they a sufficiently abundant demographic to decide national elections?
The Economist, to complete a triumvirate of magazines quoted for this post, has a proud history, going back to 2001, of abhorrence of Berlusconi, which is gleefully summarized in the slideshow of front covers below. Legendary is the wonderfully ambiguous tag line "The man who screwed an entire country".
Clearly there's no love lost between Berlusconi and the Economist. This week's issue does nothing to remedy that. From the cover grin "the clowns" that have now entered political parlance, annotated with pithy statements illustrating their perceived unfitness for the task of running and rescuing the economy. The accompanying leader paints a dire picture of the country's future.
While the cover is brilliant piece of media mockery (which doesn't acknowledge Steinbrück but can't possibly have arisen independently), I don't see the consequences with quite such pessimistic eyes. Things will turn out all right because they always do. And Italy will always be beautiful and delicious and lovely and sunny and warm.