1 August 2016

The Godfather of American politics makes an offer he can’t refute


Perhaps that was it: the moment when Donald Trump triggered the fatal flaw in his bid to become President. We always knew that Trump could (and perhaps would) implode. Trump has always had the capacity to destroy his own candidacy. Any man capable of shooting so free and easily from the lip has the chance of putting one shot though his own foot. Trump’s flaw has always been Donald J Trump and the particularly high regard that The Donald has for the man.

Trump’s relationship to Trump stands above Trump’s relationship with his country. Last Wednesday he proved as much by admitting, for purely selfish reasons, that he hoped that the Russian state had access to sensitive information that could bring down his rival.

‘Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our Press.’

It doesn’t apparently matter what else might be included in those missing emails. He didn’t give one thought to agents and soldiers in the field, details about America’s relationships with other nations, and the minutiae of diplomacy which actually carry so much weight in government circles. American interests matter so much less to Trump than the fact that Hillary Clinton now stands between himself and the White House.

It is often suggested that Trump has all the characteristics of a psychopath but that merely explains the man rather than the phenomenon of his success. The brutal nature of Trump’s self-interest goes some way to explaining just that. Thursday’s admission was no moment of hilarity, as Trump’s supporters now want to suggest. There was nothing tongue-in-cheek about the way Trump turned to the camera to address the hackers. Outside the context of this crazy election, Trump’s plea to the Russians sounded like mere sedition. Later in the day, he turned his attention to America’s allies in NATO, telling them that other members would soon have to start paying more into the NATO pot to ensure American protection. ‘I want to keep NATO, but I want them to pay,’ he admitted. ‘Now if they live up to their obligations, as they should – and by the way if they do that, they’ll have more spirit in a certain way. But they have to pay.’

You’d be excused for thinking you’d just witnessed an old style protection racket at work. But that, perhaps, is why some Americans love Trump and why his promises feel so reassuring and familiar. They know Trump’s story so well. They’ve seen it all before in The Godfather.

America is a nation that thinks in terms of its own myths. It’s why so many its leaders try to portray themselves as the cowboy, the sheriff, the last law and order in the West. America also has its super-heroes and super-villains. It has the rebels without a cause and the tragic screen queens. It has its reclusive writers and atomic engineers with their wild hair. Stereotypes are important in America. It helps Americans understand reality or, at least, believe that they understand reality.

The stereotype might be the key to Trump’s success that we’ve been searching for all these long months. Because despite all the threats, insults, and bluster, Trump is essentially the taciturn wise guy. He narrows his eyes, purses his lips, and nods his head like some aging mafia chief secure in the knowledge that he has all the power. Consider the symbolism of The Apprentice and of Trump sitting in the high backed leather seat. Publicity photos often show him leaning forward so as to emerge from deep shadows. He wears his coat long and black, in a way that you know some stooge is careful to take it from him as soon as he enters a room. You could even imagine the young Trump sitting in his father Fred’s orange garden (and, yes, I realise how Donald would blend in) as Fred lectures his son in Brandoesque whisper:

‘I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That’s my life, I don’t apologize for that. But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Trump, Governor Trump, something…’

Need we be reminded that The Godfather is essentially a family drama? Trump’s campaign has been framed by his family in a way like no other campaign since, perhaps, John F. Kennedy’s of 1960. If we accept that Trump is Don Trump, the twist in this remake is that Michael, the second oldest but brightest, would be Trump’s second oldest and brightest, Ivanka, leaving Donald Jnr the role of Sonny and Eric as Fredo. The parts snap so easily together.

The great tragedy of The Godfather is, of course, that Michael Corleone can never escape his destiny. ‘Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in’ he cried in the better-than-remembered Godfather: Part III. Trump has recently started to resemble the aging Michael, incapable of escaping the role he’s made for himself. Trump worked the Republican nomination process so well and it looked for a long time like it was a clever strategy that would lead him, like the true businessman, to adapting his sales pitch to the American electorate. We thought he was the young Michael, temporarily wearing the dark suit but promising that one day the family’s business would be legitimate. That legitimacy, for Trump, was to have been moderation and his eschewing the rhetoric of the hard right. He was going to emerge as the centrist conservative.

Yet it seems that the archetype is too strong. Too many Americans have already bought into the myth of The Don(ald), the old school tough guy who promises to make everything alright but never actually explains how he’ll do these deals. On Wednesday, we had something closer to the truth from his own lips when he encouraged Russian hackers to release Hillary’s emails. He might as well have been asking them to leave a horse’s head in her bed. In any other reality, his appeal to the hackers would be enough to bring in the FBI, except to do so here would expose the Bureau’s perceived leniency in pursuing prosecutions about Hillary Clinton’s email server. That might be Trump’s only solace and the reason the Clinton campaign might not push his latest transgression too far. Yet if they do choose to push this point, it’s because Trump’s mistake last week might be their best and last chance to bring him down. It might literally be the offer they can’t refuse.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.