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Alexander Stille on Italy and the US: Why Trump and Salvini Win (Helped by Media)

Interview with the well-known journalist, author, professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, on Italian and American politics and the role of the media

Alexander Stille.

As a great expert in journalism and of the dynamics of mass communication, Professor Stille believes that, in the era of populism, the media should draw their inspiration from the principle recently expressed by Martin Baron, director of "The Washington Post”: “We are not at war, we are at work.” “It means not considering the press as a weapon of war against Trump, but, as journalists, devoting ourselves to our own work conscientiously."

His articles and books help to explain Italy to Italians and foreigners. Alexander Stille, a journalist who have worked for the most prestigious newspapers in the world—from “The New York Times” and “The New Yorker” to the Italian “La Repubblica”— and teaches International Journalism at the renowned Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is an indefatigable observer of Italian and international political vicissitudes.

We met at a café a few steps away from the iconic statue of Thomas Jefferson that stands in front of the School of Journalism and welcomes students and visitors. Only a few days have passed since the European Elections, in which the “sovereigntist” and nationalist parties grew while failing to gain the majority in the European Parliament, and the green parties won large consensus all around the continent; someone has referred to a “Greta Thunberg effect”.

Italy, instead, rewarded one of the two parties in the coalition government, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League, and brought the other signatory of the contract of government, the Five Stars Movement, to the verge of collapse. According to Professor Stille, this “strange marriage” resulted in a foreseen and foreseeable electoral outcome. We are dealing with “two parties very different from each other when it comes to their political orientations: The League has a solid experience in politics, while the Five Stars Movement is a social movement that very quickly grew the party, without having a comparable political experience,” the journalist explains. As a result, the League gobbled up the Five Stars Movement.

What was shocking the rest of the world, actually increased Salvini’s popularity among the Italian electorate

It is no coincidence that we have been witnessing Mr. Salvini “behaving as if he was Prime Minister instead of a Vice PM and a Minister of Interior” for months now. The outcome was that Italians ended up seeing Mr. Salvini ten times more often than the actual Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte.”

Moreover, Salvini took advantage of his “crystal-clear, harsh, even rough stances on immigration.” “What was shocking the rest of the world, actually increased his popularity among the Italian electorate.” On the other hand, the Five Stars Movement “gathers support among the people who used to vote for the left, the center, and the moderate right. Because of this, it was incapable of conducting a clear migration policy.” As a result, “the Five Stars Movement appeared to be much less experienced and self-confident” compared to its political partner.

Mr. Salvini’s “political masterpiece” brought him to 34% of the vote, a huge boost over his 6% support in 2014. “His greatest intuition,” Professor Stille underlines, “has been to break out of his party’s formerly narrow regional limits. Umberto Bossi [the founder and former political leader of the North League] was a pretty short-sighted politician, obsessed with regional autonomy and the separatism of Northern Italy.” Mr. Salvini, on the other hand, “understood that, if the League wanted to ‘escape the regional box’, it needed to embrace nationalism, or ‘sovereignism’, as they usually define it.”

A political rally in Pontida, 2013, when the Northern League’s slogan was: ‘Northern Italy First’.

Salvini took advantages of two social contingencies: Italians’ sense of frustration over the 2008-9 economic crisis, from which Italy has not fully recovered yet, and the migration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea

Therefore, the leader of the League “put away the sweatshirts shouting ‘Thieving Rome’ and ‘Padania’ that he used to wear, and put on new ones marked ‘Rome’, ‘Sicily’, ‘Marche’, ‘Abruzzo’ and so on. Basically, he started campaigning in Southern Italy. Sometimes, he also flirted with far-right movements. The idea itself to hold a huge sovereigntist demonstration in Rome, in light of the “Northern past” of his party, was something new. What’s more, he did it together with some members of far-right parties, such as Casapound and Forza Nuova.”

The “political flipflop” from regionalism to hard-core nationalism was highly appreciated by the electorate. Can we say that what is happening now is in some respects similar to the Berlusconi era? According to Professor Stille, “Berlusconi had a different appeal. He entered the political scene by filling the void left by the then 5-party-government coalition, that had been brought down by the “Mani Pulite” investigation. He attracted a moderate, conservative electorate, that had been left without representation.”

“He dabbled in some demagogic and anti-immigration propaganda, but all things considered he was more moderate than Salvini.” According to Stille, the leader of the League took advantage of two social contingencies. First of all, “the 2008-9 economic crisis, from which Italy has not fully recovered yet. In the early ‘90s, Italy used to have the same GDP as the UK. Now, it is 36% lower.”

That is sufficient explanation for many Italians’ sense of frustration over not only the lack of economic growth but also “the erosion of their purchasing power and their wealth.” “And the fact that Italy remained below the pre-crisis levels in 2017-18 has offered a great political opportunity to Salvini. The average voter definitely refused to vote for all the parties that had governed Italy in the last years.”

“That kind of discontent has been complemented by the huge and non-regulated migration flows from Africa. The number of migrants that yearly disembarked in Italy grew from 40.000 to over 179.000 within the space of one or two years. The TV news programs were always covering immigration, and that contributed to the picture of a ‘barbaric invasion’. And in this context, Salvini’s unambiguous rhetoric succeeded in engaging many of the Italians who were witnessing their sons leaving Italy looking for a job, while other people’s sons were arriving from Africa.”

The Italian left has lost the ability to make people dream. Their dream has been replaced by the populist one

And what about the left? When the then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, fresh from his huge success at the 2014 European Elections, visited New York, Mr. Stille published a prophetic article in “The New Yorker”, asking: “In New York, Renzi Mania or Renzi Remorse?”. Actually, Mr. Renzi’s popularity deflated pretty quickly, ending up leaving the field open to populists. Where did the left go wrong? “In some ways, the problem is that the Italian center-left comes from the old Communist Party.” In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, their more urgent concern “was to convince the economic and financial system that they were not anti-capitalist.” “From a workers’ party representing labor against finance, they turned into the opposite end of the political spectrum, losing the worker class’ support.”

That was a common fate for the majority of the left-wing parties of the 1990s, whose main representatives were Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Their attempt to dampen the most brutal aspects of neo-capitalism, without trying to radically change the socio-economic system as a whole, didn’t satisfy the electorate, who didn’t forgive them for embracing Thatcher and Reagan’s paradigm.

It was not only that. The left, Stille claims, “has lost the ability to make people dream, something that is not secondary to the political project itself. Berlusconi, who was a charlatan and a mendacious politician, made Italy dream by promising extraordinary economic growth. It was a huge lie, but, for a few years, it worked.”

Professor Stille welcomes the fact that some American politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are no longer embarrassed in proposing government solutions in order to address major economic and social issues. But there is a risk…

The left-wing dream has been replaced by the populist one, which promises to make Italy (or America) great again for their citizens. Nevertheless, in the United States, there are those, like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who still seem to be able to revitalize that vision. “The major difference between the US and Italy is that the American economy is much stronger. It is easier to be ambitious when you have the appropriate economic resources,” Professor Stille notes. He welcomes the fact that some American politicians “are no longer embarrassed in proposing government solutions in order to address major economic and social issues. For almost 40 years, the US lived under Reagan’s paradigm, in which it was difficult to support government programs without embarrassment. You didn’t ask yourself if not having healthcare for all was acceptable, or why we didn’t have an affordable higher education.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (06-03-2018, JenniferMason, Queens Pride Parade).

That did not mean, the author says, that all the economic programs promoted by the Democratic candidates “are achievable or desirable.” However, it is to be welcomed that today we are asking ourselves why “We always find the money to subsidize drastic tax cuts for the wealthy, but then claim that we don’t have enough money to address climate change, or to grant a national minimum wage.” This political agenda, sponsored by politicians like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, successfully steered the Democratic Party’s debate towards issues that have become unavoidable for its members.

Indeed, one risk is that the Democratic presidential candidates will go too far towards the leftist positions and ultimately find themselves too vulnerable in the battle against Donald Trump. “The Democratic Party is much more heterogeneous, compared to the Republican Party. The Democrats represent Democratic-Socialists, Moderates and former Republicans who don’t like Trump. One way or another they need to find common ground, form an alliance. A super-charismatic candidate like Obama would help but unfortunately, such a candidate does not seem to exist right now, and the Democrats are going to have a little trouble.”

We don’t have to consider the press as a weapon of war against Trump, but, as journalists, devoting ourselves to our own work conscientiously

As a great expert in journalism and of the dynamics of mass communication, Professor Stille believes that, in the era of populism, the media should draw their inspiration from the principle recently expressed by Martin Baron, director of “The Washington Post”: “We are not at war, we are at work.” “It means not considering the press as a weapon of war against Trump, but, as journalists, devoting ourselves to our own work conscientiously.” One mistake, according to him, has been made by the media: “I think it’s wrong to go after every provocation created by Donald Trump. I didn’t agree with ‘The New York Times’ publishing a story about all the President’s insults against his Democratic opponents.” In some ways, “it strengthens the propaganda of people like Trump. The awful truth is that even reacting to provocations, you are ending up perpetuating them, in some ways. That is, in my opinion, the big mistake made by the media.”

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin (http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56048).

Another important issue related to journalism is the role of social networks. Only a few days ago, an altered video of Nancy Pelosi—which made her appear drunk—disseminated by the networks hit the headlines. It was also retweeted by the President himself. “Facebook decided not to take it down and justified its decision claiming that it had already fact-checked the video as false, but also defending the users’ right to decide for themselves. However, the appalling thing is that, even if you know that the video was altered, your brain memorizes it anyway, and the damage is done.” According to Professor Stille, this is “the awful truth of asymmetric warfare, between those who try to respect the roles of adequate information and those who don’t care, and use deceitful methods in order to score some points.”

Social networks have proved to be a total disaster. They produced the Trump and Bolsonaro phenomenon, and promote the hardest and the harshest stances, at the expense of more moderate arguments

How can we solve this? “Honestly, I don’t know. Social media have finally accepted to take some responsibility for the contents they disseminate, but they are still reluctant to be recognized as media outlets. I think that the next step will be requiring them to adopt the same standards as for journalists.”

But if Facebook starts systematically exercising control over contents, won’t we risk seeing this control turning into censorship? “It is a risk, but social networks are starting to use some form of external fact-checking, which is a good thing.” On the other hand, according to Professor Stille, we definitely need some form of regularization. “Facebook was founded in 2004, Twitter in 2006, and the initial assessment, in my opinion, is extremely negative: Social networks have proved to be a total disaster. The benefits seemed to be much bigger than they have turned out to be. Everyone used to glorify Facebook and Twitter during the Arab Spring, calling them a means in the hands of the weak against the powerful. But by now social networks have turned into an instrument of control for authoritarian governments. They are a surveillance tool that George Orwell could have imagined in his 1984. They produced the Trump and Bolsonaro phenomenon, they promote the hardest and the harshest stances, at the expense of more moderate arguments.” Think about “Facebook’s role in the Rohingya persecution in Burma,” or about the 2016 presidential elections, “in which bots, fake accounts, fake news have been used, also by foreign governments.” “Indeed, Facebook, now has 2.2 billion users: Don’t tell me it doesn’t have the resources to remove the most deplorable contents.”

Julian Assange (Flickr.com).

Speaking about Assange being indicted under Espionage Act—a case that raises profound First Amendment issues— Professor Stille explains: “I don’t like Assange, I consider him an irresponsible man, who mis-used his position and acted for political reasons that have nothing to do with the right to information. On the other hand,” he concedes, “the Trump administration’s move comes very close to the possibility of punishing those who publish classified documents or information leaked by whistleblowers.”

In other words, the danger of an attack against press freedom exists and is worrying. Especially in a world in which the press is called upon to defuse fraudulent propaganda and disinformation, that, as we are seeing, are capable of diverting the course of the most robust democracies in the world. “We are not at war; we are at work.”  It is true. And as this conversation has shown, journalism is actually an increasingly necessary tool in order to secure democracy itself. That’s why we need to protect it against any kind of attack and threat.

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