Italy’s Beppe Grillo: Meet the Rogue Comedian Turned Kingmaker

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Francesco Zizola / NOOR for TIME

Beppe Grillo

Before sitting down to an interview with TIME, Beppe Grillo, the comedian who has upended Italian politics, stops to give his wife a goodbye kiss. “Ciao,” she tells him. “For goodness sake. Don’t create too much chaos.” When Italy’s elections resulted in a hung Parliament, with no party pulling in enough support to form a government, Grillo came out as the biggest winner. His Five Star Movement fielded a group of political novices on a platform of political renovation and took 8.7 million votes, more than any other party. But while his opponents have scrambled to try to build governing coalitions, Grillo, who didn’t stand for office himself, has refused to bargain with the old guard he considers the root of Italy’s problems. From his house on the Tuscan seashore, Grillo rails against his country’s political parties, marvels about the Internet and jokes about the papacy.

To what do you credit your success?
It’s the Internet. The Internet creates transparency, creates a change of mentality, brings people together. The Pope resigned, partly because of his health, but also because he started tweeting … The sheep wanted to talk with the shepherd. Centuries of tradition crumbled there. He understood it was no longer possible to continue.

You say you want to tear down Italy’s political parties. With what do you want to replace them?
With citizens, informed, honest, transparent citizens, who do their job with passion. Two terms and then they go home. There’s no money and no careers in this movement.

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What do you like less, the political parties or the media?
The worst is the media. Maybe the regional papers are O.K. But those that shape public opinion, seven television stations and three newspapers, they’re inside the system.

Why don’t you cooperate with the political parties?
They do this display of being against each other, but underneath, they’re the same thing. Left and right in Italy, they’ve always pretended to fight. Now, the agreements they’ve been doing in the shadows for 20 years, they need to do in the light. And if they do it, they’re dead. Politically dead. And so they need to unload their political unhappiness, their political disintegration, on me, saying it’s me that doesn’t create the government, that creates instability. But I can’t discuss with them.

Millions of Italians voted for you so that you would pass laws tackling corruption and the costs of politics, measures the Democratic Party — run by Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the center-left who is trying to build a government coalition — is willing to work with you to accomplish. Why not accept their offer?
They talk about the transparency of parties. We talk about dissolution of parties. It’s different. Wellington and Napoleon can’t find a way to cooperate. We’re something different.

The county is divided in two. Those who voted for [the other parties], they’re people who don’t want to change things. Because they have high pensions. With the crisis, the prices are low. Maybe they have two houses, and you take away their housing tax. We have 18 million pensioners, 4 million state employees, that’s 22 million people. Not all of them, but a big part, don’t want change because they’re surviving. The state is their employer.

But the discussion will change, because soon there won’t be public salaries or pensions. No money. The big industry is gone. From computing, mechanical, chemical, there’s nothing left in this country. The small and medium enterprises were holding on, but they’re closing by the thousands. How do we go forward? Finance? The state?

(MORE: Italy’s Elections: Split Vote Yields No Clear Winner and an ‘Unholy Mess’)

What does Italy need to relaunch?
A strong signal. Send them all home: close the parties, take away their money, immediately. An emergency launch of a guaranteed minimum income. Two or three operations, laws against corruption, conflicts of interest, separate the financial firms from the banks.

People here have always voted in exchange for something. You give me a vote. I’ll give you a job. Why did we become the biggest party in Sicily? Not because of me. Because there’s no more money. There are no more votes of exchange. Take the money out of politics, and politics takes another dimension. We need to suck away their money.

Many of your most reported upon proposals — the nationalization of the banks, the referendum on the euro, defaulting on Italian debt — are not in your party’s actual platform. Why not?
We still need to discuss it. And then we’ll write in the program. Give us time. I propose a basic idea. It’s not a political plan. It’s a view of the world. It’s not substituting one political class with another. We want 100% of Parliament, not 20% or 25% or 30%. When the movement gets to 100% when the citizens become the state, the movement will no longer need to exist. The goal is to extinguish ourselves.

Are you surprised that bankers, like Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs, have spoken positively about you?
I have to admit, it makes me feel … They’ve understood the winds of change. If there’s no work, if there’s desperation, companies closing, what are banks supposed to do? Keep speculating? There’s nothing to speculate on.

Do you have relations with groups like the indignados protest movement in Spain?
I went to meet the indignados. The two things were identical: get rid of the parties, put citizens in, limits of two terms, get the corrupted out of Parliament. But they were just in piazza. We went into the piazza too, but we gathered 350,000 signatures. We got in line with a table and our identity cards and gathered signatures. You guys stopped with piazzas, and then fought with police, with citizens like you. We’ve surpassed that. It’s not me coming to learn from you. You need to understand that with the Internet, you can do like us.

(MORE: How Berlusconi Upends the Italian Elections)

Are you afraid that if you don’t succeed, the same energy that pushed you up could push up darker forces?
I channel all this rage into this movement of people, who then go and govern. They should be thanking us one by one. If we fail, [Italy] is headed for violence in the streets. But if we crumble, then they come. Everything started in Italy. Fascism was born here. The banks were born here. We invented debt. The mafia, us too. Everything started here. If violence doesn’t start here, it’s because of the movement. If we fail, we’re headed for violence in the street. Half the population can’t take it anymore.

Do you think Italy should leave the euro?
I’ve never said I want to be in or out of the euro. I said I want correct information. I want a Plan B for survival for the next 10 years. And then, with a referendum we decide. The costs and benefits, let’s know what are they are. But first you need to inform.

If you just hint that you want to leave the euro, you’re crazy. There’s no dialogue. Just hint, and you’re a demagogue, you’re crazy, you want to drag Italy to default, you’re irresponsible. Just because you say, let’s think about this, what would really happen?

Did you learn anything about the use of the Internet from Barack Obama?
Obama, if he’s able to do 5% of what he says, is great. But he’s also imprisoned in a system. The art of the compromise, which was the art of politics, is no longer valid. Compromise needs to be between citizens, not between Republicans and Democrats.

From the Americans, I took the meet-up platform, from Howard Dean. He used it to gather money. I use it to gather information, to gather forums, not money. This we copied from the United States, the use of the Internet.

Many in Italy have accused you of being undemocratic, of making choices without consultation for your newly elected parliamentarians. What gives you the authority to negotiate or not with the Democratic Party?
There’s a rule in our movement. We don’t make agreements with parties. Whoever joined our movement signed on to this. If you enter into a movement like this, it’s a rule you agreed to. There’s nothing to decide. If you go play soccer, do you say you want to score goal with your hand? No, it’s only with your foot. Accept the rules.

What do you see your role being in a year?
In a year, I’ll be doing a global tour. I’ll do shows. And I’ll be the way I am.

Do you still consider yourself a comedian?
An extraordinary one.

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