There was no landslide winner in the 2020 vote for the Italian of the Year, proving that despite it being a year where there was very little to celebrate, there were people doing incredible things all over the country. But no one stood out quite like the man who may be the most unlikely leader in the most extraordinary time, Giuseppe Conte.
At the beginning of 2020, many of us might have been hard-pressed to know or indeed think much at all of the Prime Minister. We would have remembered the government of change that lasted less time than it took for the ink on its most controversial measures to dry, and the somewhat unenviable position he found himself in after resigning from one coalition only to be rehired by another. It would have been a Herculean task for even the most seasoned politician; for the man who had never previously served in government, it seemed downright Sisyphean.
And then along came the Virus.
If you didn’t know who Giuseppe Conte was, what he looked or sounded like, by March you would have been intimately familiar with him. And in those first days, when it seemed that the world had stopped turning before our very eyes, it was to that voice that most of us turned. Conte was at his best when he was mostly outside of the mould of what we’ve come to expect from world leaders. He comforted us with quotes from Norbert Elias and Socrates, more pedagogic than polemical; his anger when he “named names” was the same we might all feel when the schoolyard antics become too much. He knew what it felt like to want to take to the streets and admitted frankly that were he not tasked with making laws, he might also be protesting against them.
When he stumbled, when he looked tired and weak and out of his depth, it was most often when he was tasked with being what we didn’t want him to be: a politician. His independence has been both an asset and a liability, sometimes within the course of the same news cycle. A pugnacious opposition and a coalition that can seem even more duplicitous has made an impossible task even worse, and when Conte feels lackluster it stings. Perhaps it is because he has become a foil for those figures we have come to recognize in all of their naked ambition, and we don’t want to see him turn into a caricature of what a leader should, and indeed could be. Perhaps, despite our very best efforts and in the very worst of times, we started to believe in him.
Belief is a powerful thing. It’s why we often reserve it for intangibles like religion or the tooth fairy: if it takes the form of a person it’s too liable to be put to task and ultimately disappointed. Believing in a political leader is an even riskier gambit because it places us in the vulnerable position of having to hope that the individual who has the power to change our lives will do so for our good, that he or she will not take this power for granted. Belief is not a thing that comes easily, nor will save any of us from an uncertain future. Giuseppe Conte’s future may be just as uncertain but for as long as it lasts, he made us believe. When we think back on the year that changed us all, we will no doubt think about the man who changed along with us.
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