We Asked Actual Mafia Experts If Trump Is Really Acting Like a 'Mob Boss'
Comparing the president to a Mafia leader is almost a cliché at this point. Is it just a joke, or something more?
Donald Corleone. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Well after his presidency comes to an end, we're going to be talking about Donald Trump and the Mafia. The past two years have made that virtually inevitable. Critics have taken note of Trump appearing to support omertà—the Cosa Nostra's signature code of silence—and how his behavior recalled Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, the mob associate who brought down John Gotti. In his book A Higher Loyalty, fired FBI director James Comey went so far as to suggest Trump's demand for personal fealty, which the president has denied making, was like "Sammy the Bull's Cosa Nostra induction ceremony." Later, in his first interview after wrapping up a 17-year prison sentence for drug dealing, Gravano himself responded to Comey, giving Trump a stamp of approval: "The country doesn't need a bookworm as president," he said. "It needs a mob boss."
The analogy has been made so many times since Trump's inauguration that you get the sense Americans just can't help themselves—as if they were viewing, on loop, a Joe Pesci character ascend to the highest, most legitimate arenas of power. But that leaves the deeper question: Does Trump actually behave like a real-world mob boss, or is he just some cartoonish version of one?
The Trump-as-mob-boss trope isn't just the work of Mafia junkies who can't get enough of The Sopranos—it's rooted, at least in part, in the president's official conduct. The omertà moment amounted to Trump decrying that one of his associates, ex-fixer Michael Cohen, actually cooperated with federal investigators exploring hush-money payments to women who said they had affairs with Trump. Last week, the New York Times published a lengthy article addressing Trump's attempts to derail the investigations swirling around him—how he's battled probes "with the same tactics he once used in his business empire: demanding fierce loyalty from employees, applying pressure tactics to keep people in line and protecting the brand—himself—at all costs." Andrew McCabe, the since-fired deputy FBI director who briefly replaced Comey, recently gave an interview while on tour for his own new book in which he likened Trump's leadership style to a mafioso's: "that kind of overwhelming or overriding focus on loyalty and sorting everybody out immediately—like you're either with us or you're against us."
Of course, Americans have long had a deep fascination with the Sicilian Mafia, even if its power has dwindled over the years. And there are Trump and his family's actual connections to—and tolerance of—organized crime in proximity to their real estate deals to consider. There's the fact, as well, of his tax-cheated inheritance, his suspect business practices, and, yes, his brash strong-arming and demands for loyalty above all else, especially as obstruction of justice rumors keep cropping up.
Trump, which the Times noted had "adopted the language of Mafia bosses" by referring to people like Cohen as "rats," has been offered as an example of an antihero, and his actions—often odious and potentially deadly, like those of mobsters—are folkloric. The American public speaks about him in whispers, about how they knew this thing or that thing long before anybody else. Obviously, too, there's his propensity for nicknames. His former presidential rival, Hillary Clinton: "Crooked Hillary." Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea: "Little Rocket Man." Adam Schiff, a California congressman: "Adam Schitt." He's like the roving camera in Goodfellas as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) walks into a bar, and, in a voiceover, introduces all the made men and their monikers to the audience: Fat Andy, Frankie the Wop, Freddie No Nose, Pete the Killer, Nicky Eyes, Jimmy Two Times. They might not be as good as Martin Scorsese's, but, nonetheless, Trump's nicknames do seem to stick.
In a broader sense, a key part of why it's so appealing to see Trump through the Mafia lens is just that—his use of language. Last August, the Times published yet another piece analyzing his diction, tracing it back to the Brooklyn political machine he was surrounded by growing up. The paper cited his comfortability with shady businessmen and mob-backed public officials ("raffish types with their unscrupulous methods," like his McCarthyite mob lawyer Roy Cohn), and called attention to the time he defended Paul Manafort by referencing Al Capone.
That surface-level wise-guy mentality, even if Trump is unlikely to have ever been in a physical altercation of any consequence, does fit the in-real-life mobster mold—at least to a point.
"Using words like 'flip' or 'rat,' it's a defensive move from somebody who generally has guilt to bear," Christian Cipollini, who has written numerous books on the mob and runs the website Gangland Legends, told me over the phone. "But I will say this, too: Anyone who built things in the 1980s in New York, they were going to deal with the mob whether they wanted to or not. So, however conscious it is, if you're sitting on the Hill and saying those words, to everyone you've fired or who you think has betrayed you, you're something of a mob boss."
How cognizant Trump is of his approach, or if the streets of New York City have subconsciously rubbed off on him, is impossible to say. Also impossible to picture is Trump leaning over to Jared Kushner, after a meeting, say, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and scolding him: "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again." He is not that composed, nor that calculated. He is not reminiscent of the Old World, of the brutal, silent figures of old-school Naples, or code-abiding Don Vito Corleone, or those guys who we never heard about on purpose, like Tino Fiumara, the New Jersey hotshot who was so sneaky the FBI didn't initially believe he was dead. Trump is a showman.
"I see many more differences than similarities," Diego Gambetta, a professor of social theory and an expert on mafias at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, told me of the Trump–mob boss comparison. "[Mob bosses] do not talk much at all. They measure their words with great care. They do not gesticulate or pull faces. They do not boast. They do not, except in the most exceptional circumstances, display their visceral feelings. The little information they pass to one another tends to be accurate, and they certainly do not cheaply resort to insulting and offending people, or issuing crass threats. They are professional in intimidation. They are not cardboard gangsters."
In short, the Mafia is so woven into the pop-cultural fabric of American society that we tend to forget mobsters still have actual influence across the globe. Trump does seem to satisfy some Americans' taste for bombast, their innate desire to watch someone ridiculous and cartoonish on-stage. But mafiosos who are good at what they do, to the extent that is possible, aren't necessarily loudmouths who leave paper trails, as Trump clearly did in his Cohen dealings.
"When it comes to politics, [gangsters are] not in the mainstream, in the way that they are in other regions of the world," Danilo Mandić, a lecturer of sociology at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming Gangsters and Other Statesmen, told me over the phone. "You have places where talking about gangsters and politics is not a metaphor. Rather, it's a very real thing. You think about West Africa, or the Middle East, or the Balkans, or the Caucuses—there, you quite literally have a kind of revolving door between organized crime, where the major narco traffickers, the major racketeers, the major extortionists take on public office, and then, once they leave public office, go back to organized crime."
In the United States, though, there are two broad conceptions of what exactly a mobster is, especially on the screen: There's the obnoxious, free-wheeling, wise-guy type (Paulie Walnuts answering his cell during a manicure); and there's the type who demands respect through his actions and adherence to the rules (Frank Tieri, the "Old Man," was a Genovese boss with a reputation for diplomacy). Currently, the former is probably the most pervasive, though they're both so embedded into Hollywood that there are literally college courses on the films and TV series inspired by them. Now, too, we've reached the reality television iteration: Growing Up Gotti, Mob Wives, and, thankfully, Made in Staten Island. It's an intricate and interconnected web—reality TV, politics, the underworld.
"We have this sort of epistemic blockage between what gangsters are like and who they actually are in Western society," Mandić said. "A better way to think about all this is that it's not so much about the personalities, and if anything is useful about this metaphor it's drawing attention to this underlying dynamics of power—that politics has always been about coercion. Dividing people between us and them is the bedrock of politics. But Trump didn't invent any of this—he's just putting it on display in a more salient way."
In other words, he's an incredibly potent avatar of how many of us have long suspected the system works. We've reached the funhouse era of American history; we're looking at mirrors reflecting upon mirrors and we don't remember, any longer, where one thing begins and the other thing ends. We can debate if Tony Soprano would have been a MAGA guy, and watch Sammy the Bull's daughter raise her children on VH1.
Meanwhile, the superstructure some like to call the "Republic" might be in more trouble than ever.
"Are we just so stunned right now," Cipollini asked me, rhetorically, "that we're finally seeing what's been in front of our faces?"
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