It’s quarantine day I-don’t-even-know-anymore here in Milan, and the situation is (apparently) slowly improving, i.e. the government tells us that things are improving. And we have to pretend it’s true because we are in quarantine at home with no means of investigating the actual situation outside. There are still hundreds of deaths every day, but as I said before these numbers don’t mean anything. We’ve reached the point where we’re so distant from reality that increasingly we’re feeling the need to fashion ourselves another world. Be it an island on Animal Crossing, fantasies about future travels when this thing will be over, or just pondering the secret inner life of those who are now leading us in this nightmare.
Personally, after some weeks spent obsessively listening to the same 3-hours long medley of Maoist music on YouTube (in part due to, I suspect, its splendid graphics of Mao Zedong as the Hypnotoad from Futurama), last week I started studying Chinese after work, thinking it would be an excellent way to add some meaning to this boring lockdown time. I learned like 20 characters, learned to say “hello”, “how are you?” and “I’m fine.” I gave up after three days because my mind is exhausted from working and from the prolonged isolation; I’m like those astronauts gearing up for living on Mars by spending weeks alone cultivating vegetables in a tent in the desert. And also because lately I’ve found another, way lighter occupation that requires less dedication but offers the same mysterious depths of inquiry.
That is, pondering the secret inner life of those who are now leading us in this nightmare. In particular I’ve found myself absorbed in the question of how this is going for our Prime Minister, Mr. “Giuseppy” Conte, as Trump calls him, who, according to Trump, “was very very happy” when Trump promised to send medical help to Italy almost 20 days ago. (Did this help arrive in the end? I don’t know. I don’t see any evidence of it). In any case Conte shouldn’t be there, leading the country in the worst crisis since WWII. He did not sign up for this at all.
Two years ago, Giuseppe Conte was teaching law at the LUISS University in Rome, with no plans of entering politics. He was basically a lawyer and a mid-level bureaucrat in the State machinery, with an 18-page-long resumé full of holes and possible falsifications (NYU, for example, denied his claim to have studied there).
Conte was utterly unknown to the general public. He was so undistinguished that when his name started to circulate as a possible new PM, articles appeared titled “Who is Giuseppe Conte, the possible new PM.” And he was not unknown as in, “a grey eminence avoiding the spotlight while influencing politics.” No. While the two major parties were trying to reach a compromise on his name as PM for the new government, he was busy doing job interviews because he did not believe he would ever enter Palazzo Chigi.
Fast-forward two years, mostly spent making jokes about him. And now here he is, the former professor with a not-completely-honest resume, still PM, with a career in politics that, although very short, has been a mechanical bull he has proved surprisingly able to ride. This in itself is remarkable, really, especially in a country with a strong record of quickly destroying almost anyone who touches politics; I wish I could go back in time and make a fortune betting on him. And now, in the coronavirus crisis, this mechanical bull has started bucking at maximum speed.
Since the start of the pandemic, Conte has managed to avoid any political fallout. The two parties supporting his government grow weaker by the day, but popular support for him is soaring. Under the spotlight, he’s taken on a new role as a kind of paternal figure for all the country, and he’s discovering that he likes it a lot. So he started addressing the nation every week or so via Facebook Live—often late at night, after having kept us waiting for half an our or longer—to talk about the evolution of the crisis, to explain what he’s doing and what more still needs to be done.
And for some weird reason possibly linked to the fact that everyone is homebound since February, he’s become a kind of sex symbol. Not joking, no, there are kawaii memes of him, and a new phenomenon called “Le Bimbe di Giuseppe Conte” (Babes for Giuseppe Conte). His Facebook page swells with comments after every live-stream: One can now find girls posting pictures of themselves getting all dressed up and in high heels to watch him talk. They say, only half-joking, that they’re “wet” for him, that they “stan” him, and quote de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince to excuse him being late: “For instance, if you come at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three”.
Why is this happening? Is it just because, as I said, we have been homebound for so long that everyone is so horny they will fuck everything that moves including this mediocre professor turned savior of Italy? Or does the strongman’s appeal come automatically with being the man in charge in difficult times? Conte is clearly trying to cultivate this image for the simple reason that, when all of this is over, he doesn’t want to turn—Cinderella-like—into the mediocre professor again? Is it because of the total political inertia we live in right now?
I’m constantly reminded of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and his description of Louis Napoleon’s rise to the top of French politics: he was a “grotesque mediocrity” who played a hero’s part, not for his merits or even because he wanted to, but due solely to the objective situation in which he found himself. Is this the Eighteenth of Brumaire of Giuseppe Conte? And is it something uniquely Italian, or a phenomenon that will shape politics around the world in the near future? I hope it’s the first, but I regret to inform you that “Las Ninas de Pedro Sánchez” (Babes for Pedro Sánchez) was recently launched in Spain.