Rocco Casalino, The New Kingmaker

The rise of populism has brought with it a shift in traditional power structures, even those which were previously unseen.

The rise of populism has brought with it a shift in traditional power structures, even those which were previously unseen. As the dust settles Rocco Casalino has emerged as an improbably powerful force, an antihero turned power broker. So how did he do it? 

On one of these recent heartbreakingly searing summer afternoons, we did what all good Italians did and shut ourselves inside of our house, closed all the shutters and windows, and forced the darkness in with the hopes of cooling ourselves down. Surely at some point in history, this was a time for reflection, contemplation, or sleep. These days, it’s a time for Netflix. 

In that familiar rush to find something to watch out of the endless choices, we stumbled upon a documentary called Operation Odessa, which tells the utterly bananas tale of how a Cuban spy named Tony, a Russian mobster named Tarzan, and a Miami hustler named Juan almost pulled off one of the most incredible heists in modern history. The three friends conspired to smuggle a nuclear submarine out of a newly liberated (and newly crumbling) Russia, and sell it to the Cali cartel in Colombia for their ‘operations’. I won’t ruin it for you, but I will say that if Guy Ritchie’s name had rolled in the credits, I wouldn’t have been surprised. It was ninety minutes well spent. 

However more than the actual story itself, I was astounded and enthralled by the sheer audacity of these men, their absolute lack of remorse at their own crimes as well as the apparent absence of contempt or resentment for those who were on the other side of the law. It was a game and these were likeable men; likeable because of what they’d done, not despite it. They lived in the shadows and laughed at them, making deals with devils and knowing all the while that when the time came, they’d meet again in the same dark and messy underworld. They hid in plain sight, barely even attempting to disguise their deeds under the cloak of legitimacy. And for the most part, they got away with it. 

It all got me to thinking: what is it about shadowy figures that captivate us? Why is it that we find ourselves often rooting for the antihero to come out ahead, even if it means abrogating the system that we spend the better part of our own lives upholding? And how do we reconcile the means with the end when, if our current global ontology is to be believed, the means are the end? 

Of course, almost nowhere is this anachronism more apparent than in political life, in particular in the greatest literary device come-to-life of them all, the Kingmaker. Yes, ever since the good old days of Richard Neville, political manoeuvres of all shapes and sizes have been coloured by the brush of that seemingly peripheral figure that nonetheless pulled the strings of his (or mostly his) allies and rivals alike, never assuming the throne himself yet with enough sway to determine upon whose head the crown would lay. The Kingmaker is, for those in the know, the one to know. 

In the US Democratic party, it was Chicago mayor Richard Daley who was discreetly credited with mobilizing his forced behind delegates and candidates that eventually decided the elections of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Despite the convictions of his associates for corruption and the edict (perhaps erroneously) attributed to Daley to “vote early and often,” the mayor himself was never charged with any crimes and remains a popular figure in American folklore. In India, Kamaraj was widely acknowledged and openly referred to as The Kingmaker, orchestrating the ascent of two Prime Ministers while always remaining, at least officially, as humble minister from Tamil Nadu. And who could forget Ricimer, the man that, even before the Earl of Warwick adopted the formal title, effectively ruled half of the Roman Empire without ever staking a claim to the throne. Instead, his sage political advice earned him the ears of Roman Emperors and the mastery of the army, all without ever having to answer to anyone. 

In the intervening millennia, the Kingmaker role in Italy has emerged with every new government, which is to say, often. Giorgio Napolitano transformed the quasi-ceremonial role of Italian president into power broker over decades, earning the moniker ‘Re Giorgioin perhaps the most literal interpretation of the Kingmaker. His presence at the heart of the Italian body politic made him a bastion of stability in the eyes of some while his decisive role in the governments of five prime ministers also gave some the impression that they were living under a “medieval monarchy.” Later on, one of the Prime Ministers that suffered the wrath of Napolitano, Silvio Berlusconi, would himself emerge as a Kingmaker, even after he was formally banned from holding political office. These days, however, if one utters the solemn title anywhere within the walls of Palazzo Chigi, there is only one name that echoes through the walls: Rocco. 

In many ways, Rocco Casalino is an unlikely Kingmaker: he was not brought up in the corridors of power and possesses neither the symbolic authority of Napolitano nor the financial resources of Berlusconi. Yet there he stands, seemingly untouchable, flanking the Prime Minister with many crediting him as the source of many of Giuseppe Conte’s most consequential decisions (or worse, calling Conte his “slave”). As the architect and intellectual Massimiliano Fuksas noted, “Casalino has transformed the lawyer from Foggia into a world leader. He is not a spokesperson, he is a consigliere.” So, where did he come from, and how did he get to be so influential? And how, whilst hiding in plain sight and refusing to apologize for the deviations that might have disqualified another figure, is he still there? Does he too have a decommissioned Russian submarine for sale? 

From Gieffino to Grillino and beyond 

While it may not have been a particularly auspicious beginning, Rocco Casalino’s earliest years seem to have made a profound impact on what would follow. Born in 1971 and raised in Germany to a family that had immigrated from Puglia, he faced discrimination and bullying as a result. In an interview with Fabio Fazio on Che Tempo Che Fa, Casalino recounted that he and his family were called ‘spaghettifresser’, a pejorative term for eating that refers more often to animals, or to gluttons. In his own words, he grew up in a house where violence was common, and where the eventual death of his father would be both a relief and a source of trauma. Nonetheless, Casalino excelled as a student, moving back to Puglia at 16 years old and then attending university in Bologna, where he was awarded a degree in Business Engineering. 

Of course, none of this is particularly remarkable and it would not be until 2000 that Casalino would become a household name. But just like selling decommissioned military equipment from a former Communist superpower to an international cartel, the devil is in the details and before making a deal with him it’s best to read the fine print. Casalino would learn this the hard way. 

Grande Fratello, or Big Brother, is the brainchild of a Dutch production team and operates under a simple premise: a group of people get locked in a house for a specified period of time and are barred from having any communication with the outside world. In the meantime, their every move is filmed and recorded, and they are voted out of the house until the last one standing is awarded a cash prize. If it sounds grotesque, that’s probably because it is (and for the record, very unlikely to have been George Orwell’s intention). For better or worse, the show has become a global phenomenon and in Italy, it’s one of the most popular shows on television. And it was Rocco Casalino’s infamous entry into stardom. 

Cast in its first season, Casalino quickly became one of the series’ most notorious participants, finishing in fourth place on the show and cementing a place in the lurid world of reality television. With a back story that characterized him as looking for a “donna mediterranea, calda e profumata,” having once had a squirrel as a pet, and enjoying lobster, he was the perfect blend of sinister, cunning, and sensitive, ideal for a voyeuristic villain. He would also be indelibly marked by his participation on the program and has yet to escape its spectre, in part because he willingly embraced the bad boy provocateur persona that was born in the GF hot tub. Yet as he would write in a letter addressed to Barbara d’Urso on the anniversary of Grande Fratello:

“Dear Barbara, 20 years have passed since ten strangers, almost all boys and girls not yet thirty, entered the Big Brother house for the first time. I was among them, I didn’t know what to expect. Today I am sorry to see that what for many of us was a simple experience of only three months, after all a small parenthesis in our life, is often used as a negative label that remains on us even after twenty years, despite each of us having taken paths often made up of study, commitments and sacrifice. I am continually belittled and publicly discredited simply for those three months as a competitor. But for me, in spite of everything, the GF remains a beautiful memory.” 

At the conclusion of the program, Casalino would go on to become a qualified journalist and to appear as a guest on television news programs for major networks, but the pall of Big Brother never really faded. By 2011 Casalino, the boy with big dreams and boundless ambition, would be working on the Betting Channel, a niche market dedicated to gambling and quite symbolically located at nearly the last stop on the Sky network offerings. 

However, fortune favours the brave, as they say, and in that same year Casalino was introduced to the nascent yet powerful Five Star Movement and its leader, the comedian Beppe Grillo. In many ways, the match made perfect sense: one man seemingly unqualified to enter political life because of his public persona became the rabbi to another man who, despite his best efforts, could not shake off the stigma of a reality TV show. After a failed attempt to present himself as an M5S candidate in Lombardia (where he was lambasted as a former reality show has-been who had no business in politics), he instead embraced the communications side of the party, moving closer to Gianroberto Casaleggio, the head of Casaleggio Associati and de facto dictator of the M5S public message. Casaleggio hated television and had banned any party members from appearing on chat shows, but by 2014, after having taken Casalino under his wing, the ban was lifted and the M5S started to blow up the airwaves.

Casalino, despite his protests about his own history, was in his element: his ambition led him to control all public appearances by M5S parliamentarians and effectively, the message of the entire party. Moreover, he had learned that it was perhaps more advantageous to work behind the scenes on crafting the message rather than being the one in front of the camera: after all, no one wanted to listen to the ex-Gieffino, but everyone wanted to know what the Grillini would come up with next. And when one is just smart enough, just ambitious enough, and just cunning enough, one realizes that it is words that matter, not from whose mouth they come. 

By 2018 Casalino had cemented himself as the voice, if not the ideological leader, of the M5S, and every journalistic inquiry or communication request met with the same response: “Ask Rocco. Talk to Rocco.” The party was on its way to transforming the political landscape of Italy and turning a populist movement into an institutional force, going head to head with right-wing populist parties like Salvini’s Lega and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia in a way that the more orthodox parties could not capture. The 2018 elections were the culmination of these years of work and the M5S, with former waiter Luigi di Maio at its helm, would take a surprising number of parliamentary seats. It would, however, not be enough to win a majority government and would lead to the ascent of a previously unknown and seemingly unqualified law professor to be appointed as Prime Minister. The rest, as they are wont to say, is history. 

Although the M5S intended to appoint Giuseppe Conte as their eventual Minister of Public Administration he was not a full-fledged party member. Indeed, he wasn’t a member of any party and had no political experience, yet he stood as the Prime Minister of one of the most disparate and tenuous political coalitions in recent memory. Indeed, the only thing that anyone could agree on is that they had no idea who he was and that if this was indeed to be a populist government that reflected the true will of the people, it was off to a pretty rubbish start. Conte himself, though affable and obviously educated, was clearly out of his element and likely out of his depth in his new position. Moreover, with no experience in politics also came no experience with the media, and his first months in office reflected this in cringe-inducing ways. An early video interview with Il Fatto Quotidiano makes him appear less like a statesman and more like a parody of Home Alone 3: Palazzo Chigi, and his gaffes stretched from speaking to journalists without knowing who they were, asking for permission to speak in Parliament, and using the wrong name when referring to the murdered brother of President Sergio Mattarella. Giuseppe Conte was swimming with the sharks, and he was drowning. 

Luckily, there was someone close by who knew exactly what it meant to be chum for the masses. When Rocco Casalino became the spokesperson for the Prime Minister, he took on the role of gatekeeper, protector, and spin doctor for a well-meaning but nonetheless novice political figure. And much like Pygmalion had done before him, Casalino helped transform the studious lawyer from Foggia, who perhaps had no business being there in the first place, into a world leader. 

When the stars (and likes) align Casalino

At first glance, Conte and Casalino could not be more different: one is a reserved, almost bookish professional whilst the other is frequently photographed in his bikini on a beach with different men and makes no apologies for it or anything else. But beneath the surface, there is something fascinating about the dynamic that these two men seem to share. Conte appears and indeed is according to those who know him, one of those people who impossibly still believes in the rule of law and the triumph of reason. For professors and political scientists, this is a necessary precondition; for politicians, it is a death knell. Casalino, by contrast, knows bullies and knows how to fight bullies. He has perhaps even become a bully himself. He knows that politics is theatre and that flubbing your lines elicits boos from the crowd, not sympathy. And perhaps most importantly, he knows that in today’s world, Big Brother is always watching, and never forgets. 

Perhaps it is out of this exact miasma that Casalino has become such an effective mouthpiece for Conte, elevating his public perception from lawyer to leader. Indeed, the watchful eye of reality TV was a precursor to the totalitarian gaze of social media, and Casalino has made deliberate moves to control the narrative surrounding the Prime Minister through both journalistic access and curated social media accounts, with great success. Nowhere was this more true than the onset and continuing COVID-19 crisis, and Conte’s popularity has soared thanks in large part to the transparency and accessibility of his media strategy. While Conte’s calming presence and decisive actions have won him accolades, it is the deft hand of Casalino that has made him famous. For his part, Conte is loyal to Casalino and has said repeatedly that he “chose Casalino because he’s the best” and admits that before appointing Casalino to his position, the PM didn’t even have a Facebook account. That same page now has over three million followers.  

Casalino once said: “I have developed the sensitivity to predict where public opinion is going and what will happen.” If Kings are still to be made in this day and age, this is how it happens: not with handshakes in smoky backrooms or on the tarmac between international destinations but with followers and viral videos. Whether we’ve gotten smarter or simply more aware of our own part in the panopticon, we want our heroes to tweet, tiktok, or go live and we want to be able to like it in return, in real time. Casalino, maybe even because of the neverending gaze that those three months still casts upon him, knows this so intimately that he cannot but apply its logic. He understands what balance of emotion and stoicism to strike when every camera is trained on you, looking for a weakness, looking to take you down a notch. And in crafting Giuseppe Conte’s image, he has achieved stunning results.

This is not to say that Conte has become Casalino’s puppet, or that the latter is a “slavemaster” whose feet Conte should be licking. It doesn’t help that Casalino’s salary is actually higher than Conte’s, due to a few well-crafted loopholes in the Italian system. It would be simple to reduce the relationship to that (despite the fact that Conte does not take well to being called a puppet, as Guy Verhofstedt knows all too well) but simple is rarely ever accurate. Indeed, perpetuating the notion that Rocco Casalino is some type of modern-day Rasputin, trolling the halls of Palazzo Chigi with nefarious intentions and cuckolding the poor provincial Prime Minister, carries disturbing connotations that cannot but be linked to an unabashedly gay man who has spent years bending unsuspecting marks to his will. In a country where not that long ago another Prime Minister went on record saying that “it’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay”, the insinuation is only slightly veiled. 

Moreover, it’s boring and ignores the possibility of synthesis and perhaps even symbiosis that has shaped the previous two years. Perhaps instead, this rather unlikely partnership works precisely because of the differences between the two men, both in their backgrounds as well as their characters, and deprives Casalino of some likely well deserved credit for helping pilot a novice politician through treacherous waters. Casalino has helped hone Conte into an independent yet authoritative voice during a high stakes time when it could have all gone very, very differently. And Conte in return has maybe just started Casalino on the road to redemption and legitimacy, although his legacy is still largely defined by those three months, so many years ago. However, his detractors (and there are many) have to admit that “no one has risen to the level of Casalino.” 

When Big Brother watches you, watch right back 

Remember the press conferences that we all watched during those long days of the lockdown, where journalists would be present outside of Palazzo Chigi and called to speak? You would have seen Rocco Casalino there, moderating the list and calling interlocutors up, one by one. I remember them vividly, and not because the sharp crease of Giuseppe Conte’s pocket square would reassure me that everything really would be ok. I remember Casalino, staring stone-faced in the direction of his Prime Minister, acutely aware that there was at least one camera following him instead of the man actually running the country. There would only be flashes in between questions, glimpses of his close-cropped hair and chin held just a bit too high, a purposeful signal to anyone watching that yes, he knew you were there too.

It was in those stolen moments that I realized that Rocco Casalino knows what you think of him and he doesn’t care. He’s in the shadows because you put him there, and then you reproach him for his opacity. He knows you don’t respect him, that you don’t think he should be there, and that you don’t like him for any one of a host of reasons. He knows that all you remember are those three months even if you don’t remember a moment of it, and he knows you’re just waiting for him to crack, even the slightest bit. But he won’t give you the satisfaction of seeing him crack, or of beating him at his own game, and he knows how much that infuriates you. Yet there he is, the gay migrant from the TV who should have disappeared from your mind decades ago, climbing ever higher. 

Once, when asked how he would describe himself Casalino responded, “an asshole who makes himself loved.” The first part seems to have been cemented in our collective consciousness. 

And you know what? I realized then that I liked this guy, for the same inexplicable reason that I liked Tarzan and Tony and Juan, shadowy figures occupying liminal spaces with the painful awareness of the worlds that they were allowed to inhabit. I mean, I didn’t “like” him or them, but I kind of found myself rooting for them: unrepentant figures who wear their flaws like a badge of pride and defy expectations by the sheer audacity of their refusal to crack. The sort of people who gain strength from adversity and thumb their noses at the notion that they should do the world a favour and quietly fade away. Rocco Casalino may just be one of these sorts, and if he has indeed become a kingmaker it is because he, like others before him, knows that survival is often predicated on being the guy just outside of the line of fire. But if he is a new kind, it is perhaps because he knows all too well that the only way to beat Big Brother is to stare right back at him unblinkingly, to beat him at his own game, to join the medium to the message and the means to the end. 

In a world where everyone is watching, it’s not the fall but the landing that matters. After all, the last one standing is the one who is King. 

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