Italy might be in the middle of a high-profile showdown with the European Union over its proposed budget for next year, but last week the country was captivated by a different drama: Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s breakup, which played out over social media.
“It’s not what we have given each other that I miss, but what we still had to give to each other,” his girlfriend of three years, television presenter Elisa Isoardi, wrote on Instagram announcing their breakup. “With immense respect for the true love that was, thank you, Matteo.” The poetic caption came below an intimate selfie of the two in bed, featuring a shirtless Salvini kissing her cheek. The photo quickly made the rounds on Italian media before taking on a life of its own.
Later that day, Salvini, who is also leader of Italy’s far-right, anti-immigration League party, addressed the breakup on his Facebook and Instagram pages. With a photo of himself smiling, arms wide open, he wrote that the Italian people “don’t care” about his personal life but that he still felt the need to address the situation. “I loved, I forgave, I surely also made mistakes, but I believed in it all the way,” he wrote. “Too bad someone had other priorities.” And that night, he posted a selfie on Instagram with a bouquet of pink flowers, again making reference to his and Isoardi’s split: “I go to bed certainly sad but content,” he wrote.
Most politicians wouldn’t take to social media to lament their breakups—or discuss the ravioli they ate for dinner or the TV show they watched the night before, for that matter. But Salvini, 45, is a different kind of pol. One minute, he’s broadcasting a meeting at the Interior Ministry or promoting links to negative coverage of migrants trying to reach Italy; the next, he’s posting the kind of status update or selfie one might expect from a glued-to-his-smartphone teen.
“He can make a livestream from the Ministry of the Interior just saying that he’s working hard on laws and for the Italian people, and after a couple of hours he can post a picture where he’s eating ham and mozzarella and he asks the users, ‘Do you like it or not?’ and thousands of people say, ‘Oh yes, I do,’ ‘I do, too,’ ‘Oh, you’re great,’” Eleonora Bianchini, a journalist with Milan’s Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper, who has written extensively about the League, told me. “And after that, he can go back and … be extremely outraged because an immigrant violated the law.”
This blend of the personal and the political bolsters Salvini’s brand as a man of the people, helping soften his rhetorical hard edges and make him more relatable. It engages the party’s fired-up base and has helped him with more skeptical voters, too. According to a Demos poll published this month, he’s the most popular leader in the government, with an approval rating of 60 percent.