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Press: In election 2024, we can learn a lot from Italy 

Among famous poems featured in every high school literature class, one stands out: “To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church,” by Scottish poet Robert Burns. 

Burns delights telling of sitting in church behind a woman who’s sporting a fancy new hat, not realizing there’s a louse crawling all over it. How proud she is of that hat, Burns smirks, but how embarrassed she’d be — and how embarrassed any of us would be — if only we knew how silly we look to others. 

As Burns sums it up: “O’ wad some Power the giftie gie us — To see oursels as ithers see us!” 

I thought of that poem many times during five weeks I spent in Italy, trying to master Italian. It may not be the first question Italians ask. Actually, I found them very respectful of the fact that American visitors are there to study, or simply to enjoy Italy’s beauty, history, culture, language — and food! They realize the last thing Americans visiting Italy want to talk about is politics back home. 

But at least if you’re there long enough, sooner or later the question pops up. In conversations with professors, fellow students, waiters or cab drivers. And the question is always some version of this: What the hell are you thinking?  

Italians have always generally had a very high opinion of the United States. Many of them have family in the states. But there’s no doubt what they think of us now. Many of them think we’re nuts. They can’t believe we elected Donald Trump president in the first place. Now they really can’t believe we might elect him again. 

Please, they told me, learn a lesson from us. We, too, once made the big mistake of electing a wealthy, flamboyant, egomaniacal businessman. His name was Silvio Berlusconi. He served as prime minister, off and on, for a total of nine years, in four governments, between 1994 and 2011. And he was a total disaster.  

As many journalists noted in 2016, when Trump was running for the first time, Berlusconi was Trump before Trump was Trump. Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times: “Nobody who knows Berlusconi and has watched the rise of … Donald Trump can fail to be struck by the parallels.” In the Daily Beast, Barbie Latza Nadeau warned: “If Americans are wondering just what a Trump presidency would look like, they only need to look at the traumatized remains of Italy after Berlusconi had his way.” 

Indeed, the parallels between Silvio Berlusconi, who died last year, and Donald Trump are striking. Neither had any prior government experience. Both owned professional sports teams. Both routinely insulted political opponents. Both were accused of mismanaging the budget, increasing the nation’s debt, attacking the media, acting like a dictator and running for office only to enrich themselves. Both were fans of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

And both were notorious womanizers. Both were tried for sexual abuse. In June 2013, Berlusconi was even found guilty and sentenced to prison for having sex with a prostitute and using the powers of his office to cover it up. Sound familiar? 

Please, the Italians beg us. We’ve been there, done that. Don’t make the same mistake we did.  

Does it matter what others think of us? If we have any self-respect, it should. If we really love our country, we don’t want to be the laughingstock of the world. As true patriots, the question the Italians ask us is the question we should all be asking ourselves: What the hell are we thinking?  

Bill Press hosts “The Bill Press Pod.” He is the author of “From the Left: A Life in the Crossfire.” 

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