The Italy I have long adored is better than this.
But then so is the America I knew.
Italy Has Dumped America. For Russia.
ROME — When I lived, worked and ate criminal quantities of pasta here just a decade and a half ago, Italians loved America. Not uniformly, of course, and not unconditionally. Like all relationships, ours had issues. Italians found America arrogant, because it is. America rolled its eyes at the sloppy soap opera of Italian politics, because who wouldn’t?
But still I thought that we were in it for the long haul — for better, for worse, for McDonald’s, for mozzarella. Turns out that we weren’t in it for Donald Trump, for Vladimir Putin or for the swelling of nationalist sentiments that put old ways and old alliances up for grabs.
“It’s a different Europe from when you were here in 2004,” Maurizio Molinari, the editor in chief of the Italian newspaper La Stampa, told me a few days ago. “It’s a world apart.”
It’s an Italy apart — that’s for sure. The big victors in the elections here one week ago were the relatively new, ideologically vague, anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which got the most votes by a wide margin, and the far-right, ferociously anti-immigrant League, which exponentially improved its standing from just a few years ago.
That outcome was characterized as the triumph of populism. But it was a triumph for Putin, too: proof that many Italians have jilted and replaced us — with Russia. We’re a confounding and consequently diminished suitor, here and elsewhere. Under Trump, we’re letting alliances that we once held dear slip through our fingers, and we’re cavalierly throwing others away.
“Nobody ever took this poll,” Molinari said, “but I believe that if you were asking all Italians today who is the most popular foreign leader in all of Italy, Putin would win.”
Although the stewards of the Five Star Movement sometimes quibble with characterizations of them and their nascent party as pro-Russia, there are reasons aplenty to see them that way. They have excused Russia’s incursions into Ukraine by putting the blame on the European Union and even the United States. They have advocated an end to the European Union’s sanctions against Russia. They have expressed skepticism about NATO, to which Russia of course does not belong.
All of that is music to Moscow’s ears, as were party leaders’ statements last year when they finally articulated their foreign policy. The Times’s Jason Horowitz wrote that they “depicted Russia as a strategic partner that had been unfairly punished, and the United States as an abusive ally whose 70-year relationship with Italy had run its course.”
Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, has also called for an end to sanctions and taken pains to establish ties to Putin. He repeatedly visited Moscow, posed for pictures with him, signed a cooperation agreement with his Russia United party and lavished praise on him.
To be clear, neither the Five Star Movement’s nor the League’s appeal to Italian voters hinged on its stance toward Russia. “How many Italians are really positive about Russia?” asked Roberto D’Alimonte, a prominent Italian political scientist. “I haven’t seen any data, and I have my doubts.”
What’s more, there’s a strictly practical reason for Italian politicians to take a gentle, friendly tone toward Russia: The sanctions have cut off the Russian market from Italian manufacturers and farmers who could profit mightily from it.
There’s also precedent for an Italy-Russia affinity. Italy was once home to the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union, and the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who still leads the center-right Forza Italia party, has long seemed to feel about Putin the way I do about prosciutto.
Their bromance spans decades. It includes a public appearance by the happy couple in his-and-his fur hats. For Putin’s most recent birthday, Berlusconi gave him a duvet cover emblazoned with an image of the two of them shaking hands. This way, I guess, Putin can fall asleep under a reminder of their union, which can then work its way into his sweet dreams.
But what’s going on now is different — in its particulars, its context and its implications.
For starters, it’s encouraged by Europeans’ general bafflement and discomfort with Trump. “I think the majority opinion is that Trump is crazy,” D’Alimonte said, speaking specifically about Italians.
Trump has certainly sent the message that he cares a whole lot less than his predecessors did about what longtime European allies like Italy want. He himself has heaped scorn on NATO. He has questioned the fairness of traditional trade pacts to the point of signing a measure for tariffs on imported steel on Thursday. He has signaled his intent to pull out of the Paris climate accord.
“Even those Italians who have always been pro-America are anti-Trump,” Giancarlo Loquenzi, the host of a radio talk show in Italy, told me. “They don’t believe that America is as reliable as it once was.”
And when they look toward Trump, what do they see? An American president who praises and sometimes seems intent on emulating the autocrats of the world, starting with Putin. Trump isn’t promoting the values — free markets, open borders, humanitarian aid — that bound the United States and Western Europe. He’s playing Putin’s chest-thumping, nativist game, albeit with less practice, less polish and his shirt on.
“The lighthouse of all the sentiments that Italy and the United States once shared is not making light anymore,” Loquenzi said, referring to the American government. “Now the light is Putin saying: ‘Protect our boundaries. Protect our country.’”
The Five Star Movement and the League drew the support of Italians who, like Trump’s voters in the United States, felt shortchanged by policies that had enriched elites. They had soured on the status quo, which was an outward-oriented America in partnership with an empowered European Union. They craved something else.
“This country is going through a crisis of the representative system,” Molinari said. “They don’t trust the usual institutions. And if you don’t trust those institutions, you tend to trust the alternative. The alternative is President Putin.”
He didn’t mean Russia’s leader so much as the nationalist ethic with which he governs. He meant the skepticism of outside influences and zealous protection of one’s own tribe. But he didn’t address one of the biggest issues that Italians and other Europeans who are newly receptive to Russia seem not to have grappled with: Can they look to Moscow for guidance and inspiration without ending up under that country’s thumb?
Whatever the answer, Molinari wasn’t happy with the change in Italy, which he sees as an abandonment of important liberal values. Neither am I. The Italy I have long adored is better than this. But then so is the America I knew.