A notable difference between Trump and Berlusconi is that the latter has lost elections without incident. Still, there are elements of Berlusconi’s long tenure that Trump could seek to emulate, not least his ability to stage multiple political comebacks (his latest, as a lawmaker in the European Parliament).
But perhaps Berlusconi’s greatest success has been in his ability to retain his base of loyal supporters—a personality cult that continues to see him as akin to a god. This is one outcome Trump can likely rely on: Even in the aftermath of last month’s deadly insurrection on Capitol Hill, Republican voters still approve of the former president in overwhelming numbers, as do many of the Republican state parties across the country.
To understand the importance that a loyal base can play, look no further than Peronism. The populist movement, which dates back to the rise of former Argentine President Juan Perón in the 1940s, continues to be the preeminent political force in the country, more than four decades after its namesake’s death. This has to do largely with how Perón came to power and, crucially, how he lost it.
Like most populist figures, Perón cast himself as an advocate of ordinary citizens, and, in many ways, he was: In addition to advancing workers’ rights, he oversaw the enfranchisement of women in Argentina. But, like other populists, Perón became more and more authoritarian over the course of his rule, jailing his political opponents, vilifying the media, and restricting constitutional rights. By 1955, after nearly a decade in power, Perón was deposed in a coup and sent into exile in Spain; his party was banned.
His supporters continued to be extremely loyal to him, though—so much so that by the time Argentina’s constitutional democracy was restored nearly two decades later, Perón won reelection by a landslide.
Part of Perón’s enduring appeal had to do with the circumstances under which he lost power: His forced exile created a narrative of victimization, which “can really actually help to solidify political identities,” James Loxton, an expert in authoritarian regimes, democratization, and political parties in Latin America, told me. A similar sense of grievance seems to be taking over Trump supporters. An overwhelming majority of Republicans have subscribed to the former president’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Early polls show him to be the favorite of the 2024 Republican contenders. “This idea that he didn’t really lose and that everybody is out to get him,” Loxton said, “add[s] up to this actually quite compelling martyrdom story.”
Irrespective of whether Trump runs again, Trumpism as a movement is all but certain to be on the ballot. Indeed, a number of Trump acolytes—among them Republican Senator Josh Hawley, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—are already jockeying to succeed the former president. Should they be recognized as the “Trumpist” candidates, the movement could take on a Perónist quality: one that is highly mobilizing, highly polarizing, and highly durable.