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Thug charm: exploring the mass appeal of Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio

Italy’s two vice-prime ministers, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, are not exceptional in any way, save for one: the popularity they have been able to maintain despite achieving close to nothing in the nearly five months of the government’s formation. While the two men’s individual brands of rhetoric playing on fear and victimhood are both attractive at the current time, there is more to their overall image that explains their support, and partly, in order to understand the present, one must look back at the past and examine the notable individuals that came before.

At a time when history seems to be repeating itself and restarting cycles and phenomena that seemed obsolete and irrelevant relative to the issues currently facing Europe and the world, Europe is seeing a return of the strongman or the self-proclaimed “people’s candidate”. Here it is tempting to interject that the strongman really never left Europe, as Putin and Lukanshenko would suggest. However, here I’m referring to the EU member states, and seeing as this article concerns Italy, one of the Union’s founders at that. But under the surface, one can begin to pull apart the strands to this narrative and get an idea as to why these two men are so popular, and why this not just an Italian problem, but one that many other European countries could risk having to deal with very soon. So what makes people like Salvini and Di Maio “the people’s candidates?”

What came before

Naturally, we cannot look at why this sort of demagoguery and fundamental mediocrity works so well without understanding what sort of communication Italians received from prior leaders. And of course, we could never discuss this without discussing Silvio Berlusconi, arguably the father of modern Italian political communication. While recent years have seen continued comparisons between Berlusconi and Trump, Berlusconi really did project an attractive image. After all, he was the self-made tycoon, and despite his frequently mortifying behaviour, he had a lot of things that average Italian men, and specifically men wanted: a lavish lifestyle, a suspicious number of beautiful women around at all times for being a married man, a football team, and frequent disregard for the rules. More importantly, his control of media channels and surprising political longevity has meant that for over 20 years, Italians have had this image of success and leadership projected onto them. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the new contenders for Mr. popular.

Di Maio

Looking first at Luigi Di Maio, perhaps his appeal is rather hard to determine at first glance. His repeated claims that he is unbendingly honest, echoed by the Five-Star Movement in general, keep being compromised by frequent lies, and he is, quite frankly, exceedingly dim. Yet despite constantly going back on a large part of his electoral promises, he remains popular and is consistently held up as a people’s champion. Ironically and perhaps paradoxically, his lack of intelligence plays into this appeal. In fact, a large part of the Five-Star Movement’s political strategy has been the demonisation of the more technocratic and educated leadership of the past as part of the dishonest and out-of-touch elites that have supposedly ruled Italy up to this point. By extension, he has highlighted a dangerous perception that mediocrity and lack of intelligence equate to honesty and closeness to the common citizen. Most recently, his decision to forgive certain irregularities regarding taxation and permits for properties and businesses (the “condono”) is another example of his absolute dishonesty and disregard for the rules, especially as it directly benefited his family property, yet it has not damaged him. In this case there are two reasons for this. Firstly, Di Maio, in common with his newfound far-right chums in government, has embraced conspiracy theories painting Italy as the victim of a shady international cabal – think Soros, the Rothschilds, etc, bent on making Italy and Italians suffer for no particular reason. Of course, none of this is substantiated, but it need not be. The economic stagnation strangling Italy has lasted at least two generations, so many will jump onto narratives that portray them as victims who have allegedly been denied the success and happiness that citizens of other countries apparently enjoy as a matter of course, therefore the press calling out the Five-Star Movement’s constant reneging of electoral promises is spun into their defence of Italy from these invisible powers who want to specifically ruin the Five-Star Movement’s reputation – because admitting to their own dishonesty and incompetence would be too principled for their leaders and base. Ironically, he is using this to retain power and avoid exactly what the Five-Star Movement initially had as one of its main objectives: direct accountability for elected officials. To make matters even worse, the official Five-Star Movement media channels are now sharing this disinformation, effectively making it the Italian government’s official line.

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Luigi Di Maio at a Five Star Movement rally

A second and perhaps more controversial explanation for Di Maio’s ongoing popular appeal is that his actions are a reflection of many Italians’ hypocrisy: they may demand honest governance yet are prepared to cheat when it offers clear opportunities to serve their own interests and secure large material gains. In this vein, his “condono” is almost a reinforcement of this, a way of saying “before it was the elite doing this, and it was wrong. This time around, it’s not so bad, because it’s a common Italian doing this”. It’s essentially a wink to certain voters, a reassurance that the “little” shortcuts which are still against the law in most cases, won’t be punished, adding to the idea for many that “he’s one of us”. The fact that a change in individual conduct and the need to not abuse the system is a fundamental first step in changing a corrupt and self-serving political culture seems entirely lost on them.

Salvini

With Salvini, one can immediately see that he is a savvier political operator, and his communication is as effective as it is uncomplicated. Although perhaps one of Salvini’s most attractive traits is indeed his fundamental mediocrity, and in more basic ways than perhaps one is tempted to consider. Like many demagoguery-oriented politicians, Salvini spends a lot of his time on social media, and he puts considerable thought into the posts he publishes in order to score maximum reach and positive reactions. Most of all, they serve to communicate one message more than others: I’m the average Italian, I’m one of you. More importantly, he is aware of the need to do this in several ways, so as to strike as many collective chords as possible. For example, a frequent feature of his are topless selfies at the beach. It goes without saying, this may appear strange from a man like Salvini. He is not in good shape, and along with a pot belly one can clearly note slack arms and spindly legs. Yet this is precisely why it is so powerful. This is not an attempt at body positivity, seeing as Salvini has frequently insulted others based on their appearance. This is his way of saying “I’m mediocre, my physique is abysmal, but then again so are you: don’t bother to aim higher, it’s all good, we can all be mediocre and go far nonetheless, and it’ll be someone else’s fault if we don’t get what we want”. To add to this, his violent rhetoric coupled with this distinctly shabby physique, also sends another message: it’s okay to “resolve” perceived issues with the threat of violence, because you don’t need to back it up its your individual capabilities. Do the cowardly thing, get some vigilante buddies to do it, gang up on who’s weaker than you. Better yet, get support from inside the police and military by reiterating your support for them, posing in a police uniform – which the police uniform did release a statement condemning in all fairness – and aiming to expand their powers with the security decree.

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Salvini mixing it with the best…

Of course this doesn’t stop Salvini having a snowflake moment when the police investigated his party’s wrongdoing, i.e. his party’s embezzlement of funds, transferred to bank accounts in Switzerland, among others or his own. Salvini’s machismo is a perfect way to attract disaffected Italian men who have so far felt unable to progress in life and as a result feel inadequate. Naturally, none of this will really give them clear progression, but it gives them a sense of validation in this behaviour, and of course a scapegoat on which to exert a feeling of strength that is otherwise missing in their lives.

Germs of resistance?

Needless to say, the appeal of these two is far from universal. The Five-Star Movement is seeing considerable internal opposition to the nationwide policies it has supported with the Lega party, both from its national parliamentarians and at the local level. Added to this, their deeply selective interpretation of their much-feted “direct democracy”, their leaderships’s intolerance of opinions divergent from their own, and continued lies are leading to frequent defections away from the party. In Matteo Salvini’s case, the much-promised flat tax for businesses is yet to materialise, and his promises on mass deportations are logistically and financially unworkable, as are his promises for generous funding for parents to have more children to halt Italy’s demographic decline. Furthermore, his extreme cynicism is starting to draw opposition from outside the usual circles, with rappers Gemitiaz and Salmo taking a clear stand against his policies and the latter, a particularly outspoken person in general, telling his fans that if they support Salvini and his policies, and subscribe to his racist worldview, that they should “burn my merchandise, stop listening to my music, and go f**k themselves”. This doesn’t yet amount to much, but it’s clear that in some quarters this government’s novelty is starting to wear off. However, their appeal remains high, with both scoring around 30% in the polls, and no credible opposition in sight. For now, Di Maio and Salvin’s brands of mediocrity and mass appeal are still holding. Whether Italians can still convince themselves that it’s possible to do better remains to be soon. Hope dies last, so maybe a positive change can come, at this rate it needs to and fast.

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