A light-hearted piece from the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago - Italy’s sausage-fuelled comic is an election sizzler (£):
To Beppe Grillo, the rented Fiat camper van from which he is waging his general election campaign in Italy is “a revolutionary cell” that is about to overthrow much of the country’s corrupt political class.
“You want to come to bed with me?” joked Grillo, as he emerged from a cramped bedroom at the back of the van after an early afternoon siesta.
The bearded 64-year-old is a former stand-up comedian, whose maverick grassroots movement has become the country’s third political force.
In an interview with The Sunday Times in the car park of a bed-and-breakfast near Padua, northeastern Italy, he predicted that the Five-Star Movement he founded in 2009 will win the February 24 election.
He was exaggerating his optimism, perhaps, but an opinion poll late last week credited him with 14% of the vote, behind the centre-left frontrunner Pier Luigi Bersani on 37% and the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on 30%.
Pollsters said Italy’s undecided voters — about 25% of the electorate — were rallying behind Grillo amid widespread anger at austerity, unemployment and political corruption. His movement could win 100 seats or more in the 630-seat lower house of parliament....
“People give us ham, sausages, oranges. We sleep at their homes, or we spend €30 on a B&B. I’m the only candidate who is against the system. I don’t take public money, we’re funding ourselves with donations,” said Grillo, who been married twice and has eight children.
Despite his modest resources, Grillo has built up an army of supporters on the web — 800,000 followers on Twitter and more than 1m on Facebook. His blog has 250,000 hits a day. “Something’s going to happen — people want to kick them out,” said Grillo, who drew tens of thousands nationally with his V-Day demonstrations — the “V” standing for the Italian for f*** off.
By “them”, he means the political classes. He calls them “zombies”. Berlusconi is “psycho dwarf” and Mario Monti, the outgoing prime minister, “rigor Montis”.
Now, after the Italian election, Grillo [BBC profile] is centre stage, having won 25% of the vote. Coverage here in the UK seems largely to follow the line taken in that Sunday Times piece: some bemusement, but generally positive. Here's Jamie Bartlett at CiF:
What accounts for this meteoric rise? Two weeks ago, Demos released a report based on a survey of almost 2,000 Facebook fans of Grillo and his Movimento 5 Stelle [M5S] movement. The answer is a fascinating and powerful mix of anti-establishment rhetoric, new technology and old-fashioned rallies and local action. Head on the internet, and feet on the ground, as Grillo himself puts it.
His message is a simple one – that Italian politics is corrupt, elitist, and closed – and it is striking a chord. His supporters come from across the spectrum; they are neither clearly left nor right. They are all, however, angry about the state of democracy in Italy and Europe. Our survey showed only 2% trust parliament and only 11% trust the press.
Grillo appears to be an authentic, straight-talking alternative....
Other parties will try to replicate his success. In some ways, they will struggle. I can't see Ed Miliband holding a "fuck off" day aimed at the establishment, or Nick Clegg calling David Cameron a "psycho dwarf" any time soon. But the appetite for anti-establishment parties is growing.
Grillo's message has resonated in a country where faith in government, parliament and the media is low and falling. According to recent surveys, the UK public feels much the same: while 88% of Italians don't trust political parties, 80% of Brits feel the same way. Social media politics as pioneered by Grillo – citizen-led, brazen, open, democratic – is what happens when politicians appear too distant, too elite, too different from the people they represent. The established parties need to take note.
Not everyone, though, shares the general enthusiasm. Here's a piece at American Thinker, which suggests that dear old Beppe may be something of an anti-Semite:
'I would never trust somebody with a hooked nose and I will send him to make a long walk to Gaza with a Jew skullcap on his head...''
That always gets a big laugh.
It gets even murkier:
Beppe tells the world that "Everything I know about the Middle East I learned from my father-in-law!"
After marrying his Iranian wife, by some miracle, Beppe suddenly got a lot richer. His public career took off, and from being a comedian he became a politician. Or maybe just an idealistic truth-teller to a corrupt Italian state.
Beppe bought his motor yacht and his Ferrari, then purchased three separate villas.
Dad-in-law runs a giant construction business in Iran, where he has to lie in bed with the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards every day of his life.
So Beppe learns everything about the Middle East from his dad-in-law, who maybe gets it straight from the Ayatollah himself. (Who heard it directly from Allah.)
A couple more pieces have appeared at American Thinker since, by the same authors - here and here. And here's today's article, where the theme is continued: Grillo is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist who may possibly be getting funds from Iran.
I have no idea of the truth of these accusations. I don't speak Italian, so I can't judge for myself. American Thinker is a conservative online magazine, sometimes referred to as "neocon". It's not, I have to say, one of my regular reads. Rush Limbaugh can be quoted approvingly - never a good sign. And the idea that Iran may be funding Grillo's campaign seems to be heading into that same conspiracy-theory territory they so decry in the man himself. On the other hand I have no difficulty in believing the anti-Semitic charge. (In fact I have no difficulty in believing all kinds of nasty stuff about this kind of populist demagogue.) Though, if true, it's at least slightly curious that no one else seems to have picked up on it.
I guess we'll find out more soon enough.