The Don

Here we go again. Since Trump sent Tomahawk missiles at Syria on an impulse, certain pundits and some of the American public are once more re-re-re-analyzing him: maybe he’s changed? maybe this was “presidential”? maybe he’s growing into the job?

As if the man’s character had been magically altered by his having bombed an airfield. As if children slaughtered by nerve gas constitutes an atrocity but children slaughtered at Sandy Hook in the U.S. gun-violence epidemic is acceptable. As if mourning the murder of Syrians would make Trump change his vow to bar them from entering the United States. How many times must we revisit such pitiable hope before we perish from terminal naiveté?

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a thinker disguised as an economist, recently wrote about West Virginians voting overwhelmingly against their own interests. Although the state is still identified as coal country, it’s been a quarter century since coal-mining jobs accounted for as much as even 5 percent of total employment. But residents voted to preserve the story their region tells about itself, even if that story hasn’t been true for a generation or more. Their pro-Trump votes, Krugman wrote, weren’t about their own or the region’s interests, but about cultural symbolism.

That got me thinking about the Trump effect in general, and how we have someone in the White House who basically is demonstrating a tacky commercial: “I’m not a president but I play one on TV.”

Cultural symbolism: often overlooked or dismissed, always potent.

There are two mythic “manhood” avatars, cultural symbols, in this country, both of them fostered by the movies. Each gilds a squalid reality with glamor and valor, and Americans have a love-hate obsession with both. One is the cowboy, an image that worked superbly for both LBJ and Ronald Reagan. The other is trickier, so hasn’t been as successful—until now.

It’s the Boss, the Capo di capi. The Godfather. The Don.

That’s the image. Suddenly, a lot about Trump fell into place.

It’s virtually impossible to be in the real estate business in New York City—or indeed most other major or port American cities—without dealing intimately with organized crime. (Where do you think it comes from, all that concrete used as custom overshoes for any disloyal soldier who sleeps with the fishes?)

Vladamir Putin needn’t bother hiding his deliberately structured overlap of national banks and organized crime; consequently, the Russian Mafia—the Bratva, or “brotherhood” (of course it would be called that)—is now a serious tool of Russian statecraft. It’s so practical, after all, what with its hacking expertise and a skill-set able to poison or gun down Putin’s opponents anywhere in the world. Smaller countries in the former Eastern European bloc have their own wannabe syndicates. In Japan, it’s acknowledged that the Yakuza crime consortium controls the vast entertainment and hospitality industries. Drug-cartel bosses now openly run entire states in some Latin American countries, where they have established single-product (drug) economies, collect taxes, and enforce their own local laws.

But in the U.S., one must so far still try for discretion. As Michael Isikoff reported in Yahoo News, The White House abruptly canceled a scheduled February meeting between Trump and Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Bank of Russia and a close Putin ally, after a national security aide discovered Torshin had been named by Spanish police as a suspected “godfather” of an organized crime and money-laundering ring. We’ve seen numerous other instances of this six (and fewer) degrees of separation between transnational crime and Trump, plus his businesses, campaign, transition, and White House teams. More unsavory examples emerge every day, as connections get exposed linking Trump indebtedness, money washed through overseas accounts, multiple foreign “partners,” and a pattern of secrecy, denial, silencing, and cover ups.

This fits with the chronic lies Trump tells, both to himself and to the world. (The newest Quinnipiac poll shows that 61 percent of Americans, including 63 percent of women and 51 percent of men, believe Trump is a liar; 52 percent of Americans now admit they’re embarrassed by him.)

It fits with his reliance on lawyers clever at bending the law when he’s actually broken it. It fits with positioning the son-in-law as his consigliore. It fits with his team of “made men”: Bannon, Gorka, Flynn, Stone, Miller, Manifort, et al. It fits with his threats, bullying, and hyperbolic sales hype (“Make ’em an offer they can’t refuse”). It fits with his paranoia, his fixation on loyalty and secrecy (omerta, the law of silence), his placing trust (so far as he’s able to trust) only in family members. It fits with his having sucked his children into the business but having kept the wives at arms’ length as they pretend ignorance about what crimes and cruelties pay for the furs and facelifts and nannies. It fits with Trump’s permanent state of aggrievement: quick to suspect betrayal, always the victim, this is a man who is perpetually “going to the mattresses.”

A bit of context might be useful here. The Mafia—or Cosa Nostra, as Sicilians call it—has an origin myth that the group was formed as a rebel force heroically defending Palermo against the rule of the Capetian House of Anjou in 1282. By the time six centuries had passed, both flattering myth and corrupt reality were embedded into the culture. When the American Civil War and abolition of slavery left the New World in need of cheap labor, Italian immigration to the United States flooded in, bringing along the padrone (patronage and “protection”) system. Gradually, the myth shifted into a definition that a “made man” was “a somebody” possessing relative financial security, a shred of power over others, and manliness—especially crucial for poor, uneducated, immigrant men. (The word “Mafia” means “bold” or “swagger.”) But that feeling of grievance, of being the never-accepted outsider, remained no matter how wealthy a mobster might become.

And does it ever fit Trump.

Furthermore, though it’s trivial in comparison with the other similarities, it even explains the look: the expensive but ill-fitting suits, the fake-gold-painted decor, the slicked-back hair adopted by father and sons a la Corleone style, the shrugs, the squint, the hand gestures, the fifth-grade vocabulary.

In the United States, law enforcement has usually been able to nail a gangster boss because of an undercover operation, or a so-called “rat” turning state’s evidence, or due to tax evasion or tax malfeasance—perhaps another reason Trump still stonewalls about releasing his tax information. But however it comes about, those of us who lived through Watergate know perfectly well that in the not-very-distant future newspaper front pages will display photos of Trump “made men” being led away in handcuffs, each with a raincoat over his head to hide his face from flashbulbs.

Trump knows that, too. He lives in terror of being found out.

The man is famished for rispetto, respect; he’s driven by thirst for an eternally unattainable acceptance. But if legitimacy is out of reach then psychotic megalomania has to compensate, even at the price of rejecting the facade of normalcy worn by The Sopranos, even at the cost of disdaining the camaraderie of Goodfellas.

More pathetically, Trump’s culturally symbolic underworld lacks those qualities of the Corleone family that made Coppola’s film trilogy, The Godfather, an epic classic. There is no love of life, however tarnished, in Trump world; no celebration of wine, food, music, dancing; no honoring of peasant roots; no insight into one’s choices; no tragic awareness. Most damning of all, there is no regret, and no desire for forgiveness. In the end, Trump and his familia lack the dignity of the Corleones.