Remember when President John F. Kennedy paid a visit to his ancestral Ireland? Or when New York’s Mayor (Wilhelm) De Blasio walked the streets of his ancestral village in Italy? It was all cheers, tears, and nostalgia.
President Donald Trump has set a new (lower) standard for ancestral nostalgia. German on his father’s side, Scottish on his mother’s, Trump seems to have little room for love of the old countries in his capacity as President of the United States. Some would assume he’s more Russian than either German or Scottish judging by his inverse treatment of the three nations.
Trump has monetized ethnicity. To him, every nation is rated by its trade balances with the U.S. Germany is a big target – just check out all the BMWs, Mercedes, and Volkswagens in your neighborhood. Last year Germans had the advantage of us by $63 billion (Russia had us for only $10 billion, mostly energy supplies)
To their disadvantage, German leaders can’t cozy up to Trump over a beer, nor can Scots with their national beverage – he doesn’t drink . Trump has yet to visit his grandfather’s old neighborhood in Kallstadt, Germany, perhaps because many town folk there wouldn’t welcome a visit, according to a recent New York Times story. Scottish leaders refused to greet him last week because he supports Brexit, which they do not. So much for Auld Lang Syne!
So what does President Trump think of Italy? He has nice things to say about Italy’s new center-right government and its new policy to stop illegal immigration. But, using the Trump Scale, Italy should be on his hit list – Italy cost the U.S. $31.5 billion in trade deficits last year. That sounds like a lot of wine and pasta but you’d be surprised by Italy’s bigger exports. Food products are at the bottom of the list. Here it is:
- Machinery including computers: (19.7% of total exports)
- Vehicles – cars, motorcycles, scooters: (8.6%)
- Electrical equipment: (6%)
- Pharmaceuticals: (5.1%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: (4.1%)
- Articles of iron or steel: (3.5%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: (3.4%)
- Furniture, bedding, lighting, signs, prefab buildings: (2.7%)
- Bulk iron, steel: (2.6%)
- Clothing, fashion accessories (2.5%)
- Food, wine, oil, cheese: (under 1%)
Most U.S. presidents have a sentimental attachment to Italy. George W. Bush had a bromance with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (as did Vladimir Putin) when the two held office. Bush ate well while on state visits to Italy and experienced a bit of la dolce vita under Berlusconi’s libertine guidance.
Italy rarely defies American foreign policy, although it was very much against the European-American overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 that upset the whole Mediterranean applecart which, in turn, opened the floodgates to illegal immigration from Africa. And Italians are less interested in spreading “democracy” to the Arab world, a region they have coexisted with (and profited from) for centuries. But, unlike France Italy shies away from any egocentric rivalry with the Anglo-Saxon nations, happily working behind the scenes around the globe for its own quiet advantage.
If President Trump has a soft spot for Italy it may have something to do with his trust in Italian American confidants. Both Mike Pompeo, his Secretary of State, and Rudy Giuliani, his private attorney, seem to possess that personal loyalty factor that Italic people are noted for. Trump also sees Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini as a protégé who has publicly expressed admiration for Trump’s tell-it-like-it-is brand of politics. Like Trump, the right-wing Salvini has flipped around politically, for many years denigrating southern Italians, now patronizing them for support in an “Italy First” campaign.
But the clearest Trump link to Italy is his uncanny resemblance to former Prime Minister and entrepreneur Silvio Berlusconi. If anyone foreshadowed Trump it was Berlusconi – the use of private wealth and media savvy to access political power, the flamboyant anti-establishment bravado, and the womanizing scandals. But it works both ways.
I believe Trump’s aggressive style has inspired the new Italian leaders to speak up more within the European Union. Italy, as well as Trump, is challenging the status quo in Europe, not necessarily a bad thing. -JLM