Told You So

Told You So

In the ancient Greek story, Cassandra could see into the future. She saw and prophesied doom for Troy but the Trojans called her an alarmist and no believed her, because after all who likes doom in their future? What if, we might ask, Cassandra had been prophesying Troy’s eventual victory? They still would not have believed her, because she was a woman and therefore prone to naïveté and sentimental optimism.

The truth is that Cassandra, neither a doomsayer nor a simpleton, was a student of history. She knew that much as they feared looking forward most people feared that less than looking backward.

It’s time to crow a little. Not a lot, definitely not a lot, because the entire tower of blocks could crash any second. And not the kind of crowing that delights in anyone’s—even one’s adversaries’—misery. No, rather the type of crowing that’s proud of having read and lived enough history to dare prophecy an early analysis, whether or not anyone else believed it.

Two and a half years ago on April 10, 2017, I titled my post on this blog “The Don,” a reference to both gangster bosses and to Donald Trump. Some people thought I was going too far with that. At the time, no one was thinking of Trump in mobster terms. He had just sent tomahawk missiles at Syria, strutting about his bravery in doing so, even after it turned out he had bombed one airfield. Pundits actually were saying maybe he’s changed, maybe he’s growing into the job and becoming “presidential”; others stuck with he’s a clown and a lawbreaker sure, corrupt and corrupting sure, mentally/emotionally damaged certainly, but lets not get excessive—not seriously a gangster. Still, poets are suckers for simile and metaphor, so I was glad I had risked it.

I’m even gladder now, on the cusp of 2020. Below are excerpts—with a few contemporary interjections in brackets—from that 2017 analogy and prophecy. They bear repeating. They could bear a motto, too: Do your homework, but then trust your insight, trust yourself.

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 falls into place.

It’s virtually impossible to be in the real-estate business in New York City—indeed most 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?)

Vladimir 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 [like Ukraine, perhaps?—although in 2017 we had yet to encounter Lev and Igor] 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. [Torshin’s name is currently resurfacing in a major way during current Congressional Impeachment investigations.] 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. . . . 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. [except for Miller they all are under indictment, at trial, in exile, or behind bars serving time]. It fits with his threats, bullying, and hyperbolic sales hype (“Make ’em an offer they can’t refuse”; “Hunnert percent”). 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, an insatiable greed to be accepted, to belong [“Cosa Nostra” means literally Our Thing, the Thing that is Ours]. And does that 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—or due to witness intimidation [Coppola’s Godfather II was even cited during 2019 Congressional committee hearings on this last point]. But however it comes about, in the not-very-distant future newspaper front pages will display photos of Trump “made men” being led away in handcuffs.

Trump knows that, too. He lives in terror of being found out, famished for rispetto (respect), 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 even the dignity of the Corleones.

Told you so.