He's a political outsider whose angry words have come to dominate public discourse. He's a gifted communicator whose power to hold a crowd has been magnified by new social media. He's a doomsayer who cares little for rational argument because his opinions tap a deeper truth, and who promises to banish the fear and anger that he himself has stoked in his audience.
He is, of course, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), the mid-level Dominican friar who exploded from obscurity in the 1490s to ignite the original Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence, Italy. Florence was home to Michelangelo, Machiavelli and the Medici, and was the heart of Renaissance Europe--its populace famously liberal, cultured and educated. But with public sermons and printed pamphlets, Savonarola bound together those Florentines who felt left behind, economically or culturally. His daily sermons laid blame upon leaders who had gone morally soft, set bad policies and made stupid deals with foreign powers. He and his zealous supporters, though a small minority, seized control of the city's councils and swept away the 'crooked' establishment. From there, Savonarola launched an ugly campaign of public purification, radicalized laws against homosexuality, and attacked artists and intellectuals with acts of intimidation (like his historic Bonfire). He also rolled back political correctness. In his sermons, Savonarola renamed the city he ruled the 'Christian and Religious Republic of Florence'.
His success was equally the failure of the pope, the Medici and other established leaders to help the populace cope with the anxieties of the times--many of which were well-founded. Ottoman Turks loomed like a dark cloud on the horizon: they had cut off Asia, occupied Greece and now terrorized Italian shores. The Medici patriarch Lorenzo 'the Magnificent', Florence's de facto ruler and a symbol of the city's splendor, fell ill and died in 1492. His unimpressive heir, Piero 'the Unfortunate', inspired no confidence. In 1494, the people's doubts were proven well-founded, when Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and carried away a good deal of Florentine wealth in the deal Piero struck to buy peace. In a general way, Savonarola had called it all: if the people did not wash away the weakness that was corrupting their institutions and its leaders, then God would send a new Flood to do it for them.
But the same populist pandering that put Savonarola into power also led to his downfall. The danger with winning people's trust by peddling false solutions to the wrong problems is that reality will eventually break that trust. The illusion of prophecy inevitably shatters, the ugly truth is revealed, and popular support abruptly melts. Enemies are quick to seize their chance.
The year after Savonarola lit his triumphant Bonfire, he himself was hanged and burned in the very same square.
This post draws on a new book, Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna. Published in North America by St Martin's Press and in the rest of the world by Bloomsbury.