Television comedian-cum-populist Beppe Grillo is the hottest thing in Italian politics. But is his new opposition party funny or dangerous?
A friend of mine, the proud owner of three fancy restaurants in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, has no doubt about which way he's going to vote in the upcoming elections. "Voto Grillo," he tells me. "I'll vote for Grillo." My cousin, a highbrow math teacher, will also vote for Grillo. "Basta ladri," he tells me. "I'm fed up with thieves." Ride a bus, catch a plane, or join a line at a soccer stadium anywhere in Italy these days, and you're likely to hear someone call out, "I'm for Grillo." In the general election ballot now scheduled for February, following the surprising call by Prime Minister Mario Monti that he will step down, at least 20 percent of voters are expected to cast their ballot for Beppe Grillo, making this former television comedian one of Italy's next kingmakers.
So who is this guy? Savior of the country or hapless populist? Robin Hood-cum-Garibaldi or cult leader? And just how did this tubby, gray-bearded ranter burst onto Italy's political scene?
In the 1970s and 1980s, Grillo rose to fame as a comedian on Italy's main TV networks, best known for hosting the show Festival di Sanremo -- a popular musical contest that was something of a grandfather of modern hits like The X Factor and The Voice. His off-color gags and rants against Bettino Craxi, then the country's prime minister, delighted audiences and critics. After accusing Rai (the public television network) of censoring his scripts, he quit and took his act to theaters and rallies and eventually attached himself to a variety of political causes. He has also gone digital with a blog that is consistently ranked among the 10 most popular in the world. In 2008, frustrated in his efforts to promote direct democracy, Grillo joined forces with Gianroberto Casaleggio, a businessman and new-media guru, to launch his own political party, 5 Stelle, or 5 Star, representing the movement's main five issues: "clean water supply, public transportation, development, broadband digital network access, and the environment." Grillo's knack for channeling the political zeitgeist and Casaleggio's mastery of modern data-driven campaign techniques were a perfect match, and a powerful couple was born.
Discounted at first by experts, 5 Star scored a big win in Sicily's local elections this October, coming out of nowhere. Nationwide polls now show it as the country's second-largest party, behind the ruling Democratic Party (PD). The liberal-leftist PD is now predicted to score 30 percent in the national elections, scheduled for February following last week's dramatic resignation of Prime Minister Monti. This may grant the party a majority in Parliament. The conservative Party of Liberty (PDL), led by the returning Silvio Berlusconi, likely won't garner more than 15 percent; smaller centrist parties could muster about 8 percent. This would leave Grillo and Casaleggio, the comedian and the low-key media geek, controlling somewhere between 100 and 120 congressmen out of a total 630. And thanks to a shoddy electoral law, concocted in 2005 by Berlusconi's cronies, Grillo and Casaleggio will be able to personally select the new representatives.
All of a sudden, Grillo and Casaleggio are political power brokers and media stars. Established columnists have started paying homage in their normally staid op eds. Intellectuals have flocked to gather under the 5 Star flag. Traditional newspapers and websites now host Grillo's blog, which has become the most popular in the country. International correspondents -- fed up with covering corruption, economic malaise, and bunga bunga -- swoon celebrating "Beppe." A 2008 profile in the New Yorker set the tone, praising the "distinctly Italian combination of Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert … [who] not only denounces political wrongdoing but runs something of a parallel government, complete with a cabinet of volunteer policy advisers, including the architect Renzo Piano, the actor and playwright Dario Fo, and the economist Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote the preface to a book Grillo recently published online about Italian labor law." The article's author, Tom Mueller, seemed positively enraptured as Grillo "picked up a guitar and sang, in a sultry Ray Charles baritone, a song he called 'The Sardinia Blues.'"
And now, even U.S. President Barack Obama's political heavyweights are getting on the bandwagon. When Michael Slaby, chief integration and innovation officer for the Obama campaign, toured Italy after this year's U.S. election, the only politician he met with personally was Casaleggio. After the meeting, Slaby, unsurprisingly, denied that it implied Obama was endorsing Grillo. "I was traveling as a private citizen," he said. But it's telling that he was even asked.
It's now conventional wisdom in the Italian media these days that come the Ides of March, Beppe Grillo will be a fixture in the Eternal City. But there's a populist dark side to Grillo's rising star.
Establishment political commentators are often shocked by the glowing public response to Grillo's most outrageous remarks. He has called for "public trials" for "guilty politicians" -- not in front of established judges under the law but in public squares. He has advocated arresting 10,000 politicians and corralling them in a soccer stadium until they repay "the booty they have looted from us taxpayers." He warned dissidents in his own party that if they don't like him or Casaleggio, they can get lost. He recently enforced this diktat against Federica Salsi, a councilwoman in Bologna, and Giovanni Favia, a state congressman in Emilia, who had complained about lack of political debate inside 5 Star. On Dec. 12, Grillo expelled them from the party with just a few lines on his blog: "Starting today you cannot use our logo anymore. Good luck."
"Grillo is a new Mussolini, a new Berlusconi," was one of the online reactions, but the leader did not flinch.
So far, Grillo has been protected by his reputation as a showman. While addressing the crowds, live or online, he mimics rage and channels outrage, rambles and cries, hurls insults, and threatens his rivals with the kind of passion and venom no other politician can offer. But he escapes wrath, coyly, covering his radical statements in a comedian's mask.
Media studies departments will be dissecting Grillo's style for years. He has translated old-media clout into social media "klout," blending together Rush Limbaugh's dyspeptic rants with Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's smart-aleck irony, plus a healthy dollop of the disheveled everyman persona (and physique) of Michael Moore. Better than anyone else, he has been able to channel the sheer disgust Italians feel for their politicians' corruption and moral decadence, widespread in the Berlusconi era and the economic malaise that has followed it.
Grillo calculated perfectly in choosing the issue to launch his career in politics 10 years ago: a campaign against genetically modified food, anathema in a country that worships fresh pasta, local tomatoes, and good wine. Distaste for genetically altered food is a common thread in Italy, linking both conservative parents and their progressive kids. The older generation mourns the fresh bread and fruit lost to American-style supermarkets; the younger crowd despises fast food and biotech companies. His second campaign challenged high-speed train construction, championing a slower lifestyle amid the incursion of Europe's brutal post-industrial world.
Ironically for a new-media superstar, much of Grillo's shtick is built on a mistrust of technology. Before he joined hands with Casaleggio, Grillo's best-known stage gig involved smashing computers with gusto, like an aging rock star splintering his Fender guitar. Another classic gag, still popular on YouTube, sees Grillo complaining about the old gadgets in the house, displaced by menacing electronic devices.
Grillo appeals to a deep nostalgia Italians feel for their recent past, when the country's economy was booming in the postwar period and when a sense of community and identity was not yet lost to globalization, immigration, and the euro. This feeling transcends right and left. Roberto D'Alimonte, one of Italy's best political analysts, recently traced ballots for 5 Star in local elections to members of all the Italian parties. Disgruntled voters from Berlusconi's coalition, former communists and radicals, and even centrist Catholics have flocked to Grillo's populist message. But despite the agrarian nostalgia, his acolytes aren't laid-back flower children. Their main slogan is vaffanculo (which translates as "fuck off"), and "Vaffa Day" events have been organized all over the country. Vaff the polical leaders, vaff business people, vaff journalists, vaff everybody but the grillini -- 5 Star's most ardent militants.
But if Grillo has acutely tapped a particular nerve among the Italian electorate, he's also a master of media manipulation. One reporter for a major newspaper was recently caught red-handed covering Grillo's speeches that he himself had ghostwritten. (He gave himself a nice review.) And since enjoying his run in the polls, Grillo has elected to talk only to friendly media. His cadres and supporters are prohibited from giving interviews. Break the diktat and you're out of the party.
And there's a dark side as well to the Grillo base. Supporters often point out that 5 Star eschews the racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric common to European populist parties like Hungary's Jobbik or Greece's Golden Dawn. But there are some worrying signs in the leader's rhetoric. Grillo claims all 5 Star candidates for office must be "Italian citizens" -- with no criminal records. But as all candidates must already be Italian citizens by law, the fact that he bothered to specify this can be seen as a wink to the racist right. He also opposes a U.S.-style law proposed by the Italian left that would grant citizenship to any baby born in the country.
As for the clean criminal record pledge, that would disqualify Grillo himself. In 1983, he was convicted for manslaughter after the Chevrolet Blazer he was driving slipped off an icy road on the Col de Tende mountain pass, killing two of his close friends and their 9-year-old child, as well as maiming a fourth passenger. The verdict stated Grillo should not have used the road, which was closed to the public, at any speed.
It's also surprising that Grillo's foreign-policy views haven't raised more eyebrows in the international press. In an interview with Menachem Gantz, correspondent for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Grillo, whose wife and father-in-law are Iranian, praised the Islamic Republic as being progressive on women's rights and argued that its judicial system is fairer than America's. He also claimed that Osama bin Laden had been the victim of "poor translations" and blamed the war in Syria on anti-Assad "infiltrators."
Enrico Sassoon, a respected businessman and Casaleggio's former partner, wrote a letter to Corriere della Sera, the Italian daily last September, formally breaking all business and personal links with Casaleggio and Grillo after reading anti-Semitic posts on 5 Star blogs. Supporters had linked Sassoon, who is Jewish, to the Mossad and various other conspiracies, and no one from the party leadership spoke up on his behalf.
Is Grillo a racist or a founder of some sort of nasty cult? No. He might have a naive view of global affairs and certainly lets too many crazies post unmonitored on his website, but 5 Star is no Golden Dawn. He has become a catchall for protest against the state, and if he's to be faulted for anything at this point, it's for being more of a showman than a politician. Nobody pays attention to 5 Star's ugly underbelly because the vast majority of the voters flocking to Grillo are motivated only by their hatred of corruption, political patronage, fat cats, and bureaucrats enjoying perks -- while 36 percent of young Italians are looking for a job. Meanwhile, Grillo's colorful publicity stunts (like swimming from the mainland to Sicily to promote his campaign) are a pleasant diversion from the moribund economy.
In the end, 5 Star will be a vote of protest. The party's official platform is a boilerplate of platitudes like "ending the cozy links in Italian capitalism," "creating jobs with a digital green economy," "reducing expenses and taxes," and "curbing the big corporations." When confronted with the poverty of analysis or the erratic behavior of its leaders, 5 Star militants shrug: "Vogliamo mandare a casa tutti, capisci." ("We just want to send the crooks home; then we will see.")
It's an experiment the whole of Europe will soon get to see. German Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed Monti early in December and asked Berlusconi, who recently pulled his party's support from the coalition that backed the government, not to join "populist forces" -- read: Grillo. So far, it's not working. Protest is one thing, but 5 Star's dangerous platform should have European leaders worried. Grillo's shock troops in Parliament will call for Italy's exit from the euro and will try to block the budget agreements and economic reforms passed by Monti. And while praising the power of the web, 5 Star may oppose international investment to bridge the digital divide between Italy's rich and poor and projects needed to modernize the country's decrepit infrastructure.
After the last decade, it's understandable that Italians are looking for a way to throw the bums out. But they might want to take a closer look at whom they're voting in.