The wannabe Don
A year and a half into Donald Trump's presidency we are all searching for language to describe the changes in our national life inaugurated by the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. I think that for good or ill Trump has brought about a new de facto constitutional settlement, one in which Congress more or less voluntarily cedes most of its authority to the executive branch.
Here it is tempting to employ motifs from Roman history. The transformation of Rome from 60 B.C. to A.D. 14 is a useful analogue — and I fear her subsequent decline is more or less what awaits these United States. But a recent article in The New York Times suggests another possible Italian frame of reference, one that has the advantage of Trump's personal linguistic approbation: the mafia.
Like our attitude toward the Caesars, our collective understanding of organized crime is indebted mostly to television and film rather than to the work of historians. This does not matter. The fact that there has never been a mafia clan quite like the Corleone family does not mean that The Godfather has no lessons for observers of contemporary American politics.
My colleague Joel Mathis recently suggested that the Trump administration is "Fredos all the way down." This seems wrong to me, not because I think that most of the president's men are either loyal or competent but because it seems unfair to the middle Corleone brother. Fredo is not a cynical hanger-on like Omarosa Manigault Newman or Michael Cohen but a devoted son and brother. Fredo is tricked by Hyman Roth into betraying his brother because he lacks Michael's cunning. He dies a victim of his own sweet and childish nature. In the Trump administration there are no Fredos or Peter Clemenzas or even Frank Pentangelis. There are only Tessios, men who speak the language of loyalty without believing any of it.
Despite the significant role of the president's family in both his administration and his business dealings, I think that Goodfellas is a better illustration of how Trumpworld operates. There is nothing lush or operatic about Martin Scorsese's vision of mob life. The Church is entirely absent, as are the complicated honor politics of Sicily. In their place is a cheap, garish vision of luxury made possible by violence and deceit. Bonds and gestures mean everything until they mean nothing at all. The only real currency for his characters — most of them drawn from life — is actual currency.
Nor in Scorsese's movie is there much evidence of the calculated brutality of Michael Corleone. In Goodfellas blood is spilled constantly and almost at random. Meaningless arguments escalate into murders. When Tommy stabs Billy Batts to death for making a joke at his expense, Henry and Jimmy help to bury Batts not because they shared their partner's animus for his victim — they had, after all, been hosting a party to celebrate his release from prison — but because shifting one's loyalties in response to the changing whims of one's associates is natural in their world.
This bizarre understanding of loyalty was evinced in a recent interview with Fox News in which Trump lavished Paul Manafort with praise for pleading not guilty in his tax fraud trial; the president is already reported to be considering a pardon for his former campaign chairman. In the same interview Trump brazenly admitted that it was difficult to see why Michael Cohen would not accept a plea bargain that would reduce the length of his prison sentence in exchange for providing information about his old boss. Similar deals have been reached by the U.S. attorney in New York with David Pecker, the CEO of the National Enquirer's parent company, and with Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump organization. Their faithlessness is understandable to Trump, even though he thinks "flipping" should be "illegal."
This is why there is something lacking in the analogies from antiquity to explain the state of American politics, even if some of them could potentially offer a constitutional sweep absent from offhand references to Casino. Julius and Octavian were complicated men with principles of a kind and even honor. There is nothing of the hard spirit of the first Caesars in Trump's thoroughly postmodern character.
He is exactly what he has always appeared to be: a televisual parody of a loud-mouthed New York businessman, whose accomplishments in real estate and gambling were the result of marketing savvy more than genuine acumen and who later put these skills to better use as the host of a television program about fake businessmen running fake businesses. His personal obsession with the argot of outer-borough mafiosi circa 1960, filtered through past and present cronies such as Roy Cohn and Roger Stone, is a performance. The president has no interest in loyalty and even calls it is a meaningless principle, but he very much likes to imagine himself as the kind of TV character who might rant about it. "Rats" such as Cohen are necessary to the whole enterprise because without them there would be no occasion for theatrical denunciation of their conduct.
The new meaning of the presidency is something over which politicians and journalists will agonize long after Trump. His personal legacy, of employing pantomime mob cruelty in the pursuit of genuine wealth and power, can already be written.