I just finished re-watching The Sopranos—all six seasons. Not just because this is the show’s 20th anniversary, or that it’s frequently identified as the best thing the TV medium has ever produced. And not just because it brought to life characters that will never be rubbed out of my memory.
I did it mostly because of all the repeated references to Trump’s cast of misfits as a “crime family.”
Is that comparison fair—to either clan?
ruth be told, I am not now nor have I ever been a member of la Cosa Nostra. I did see all three Godfather movies more than once, but I’m no expert; my baseline for a real mafia family is The Sopranos.
First of all, it’s a business, a lot like other ones: always protecting current markets and seeking new ones. It jousts with federal law enforcement like a team of Fortune 500 accountants sneaking profits overseas. And like any good business, it’s obsessed with “productivity”, although it skips right past pink slips and goes directly to whacks.
But I know, this sort of business-to-business comparison is about as intriguing as scanning the balance sheet of Proctor and Gamble. Who cares? It’s only when the lead characters come to life that we’re tempted to look up from our phones. So, let’s do that.
ony Soprano and Donald Trump are both overweight louts, bigger than life and bigger than their waistbands. They rule by naked force. And each learned his wayward craft from a criminal and emotionally brutish father; in turn, each inherited the family business.
More compelling are their shared leadership styles. They’re identical in at least three ways. The first is that raw exercise of power. In one iconic scene, Tony sits around a table with his henchmen, but senses a growing belief among them that maybe he’s losing his grip--getting soft in his old age. So he stands, screams at and physically abuses a young recruit, one less than half his age--but more than twice his muscle mass. By custom, the young kid cannot “raise his hand” to the boss, so Tony bludgeons him into a bloody pulp. It’s pointless. But the others clearly think, “what the hell was that all about?! He’s just as crazy as ever!” Mission accomplished.
Trump is far too cowardly to ever challenge another person physically. (Bone spurs could flare up at any time, you know.) His weapons of choice are bluster and lawsuit. He is so averse to actual physical confrontation that you could imagine him walking through a park…discovering an injured bird at his feet…reaching down to comfort…—NO--NO YOU COULDN’T! He would stomp that thing and just move on…with the name “Hillary” floating serenely across his mind.
Neither is averse to violence. If attacking enemies is required, Tony is perfectly capable of doling out the punishment himself. The Donald, on the other hand, just calls his Attorney General.
The second similarity is an unending, non-negotiable demand for loyalty. In all situations, at all times. At one point, another junior member of Tony’s team tells him confidentially that he’s surprisingly inherited a couple million dollars from a deceased aunt, and has decided to move his family down to Florida. Tony’s eyes flash with anger: “what are you, a hockey player? You took an oath! There’s no retiring from this thing!” The guy stays.
Donald, on the other hand, will let you “retire”—exactly when he tells you to. When this self-styled prince of persuasion somehow fails to convince you to do exactly what he demands, your exit won’t take long. He told Jim Comey, “I hope you can see your way past this”—meaning, drop the investigation of Michael Flynn. Comey could not see that. So, as Trump told Lester Holt on camera, he fired Comey for disobedience. Until, of course, that boast didn’t fit his narrative anymore…at which point Trump blithely claimed he never said it. Fake tapes? Collectively, America was left slack-jawed. But no matter; the price of disloyalty was demonstrated.
Next, let’s review not their criminal families—but their biological ones. After all, family comes first. Tony’s is vexing. His kids talk back throughout their teens. His wife finally has enough of his philandering, so she decides to risk her material rewards and kicks him out. But a chagrined Tony remains steadfast, hand delivering her support payments in cash. At times he shows up unannounced to just lounge by the pool. He’ll walk right into the kitchen and take a couple swigs of orange juice directly from the container. He’s gone…but he never really is. He’s there for his family.
Donald works this a little differently. If he’s got problems with his family, he just buys a new one. By now, Ivanna and Marla have faded into legend, silently secured behind walls of lavish settlements and non-disclosure agreements. It’s almost like they never existed—except that some of the kids are definitely still around. In fact, Trump’s key hench-people are his offspring: Don Jr., Eric, and Ivanka, plus her dashing and vacuous beau, Jared “Dead Eyes” Kushner. These are the poster kids for the college cheating scandal; intellectually stunted and brazenly entitled. They’ve had the world handed to them, and they’ve fully earned all the scorn and resentment the world has heaped upon them. What a group--it’s like the Three Stooges had a sister.
owever, make no mistake. Tony and the Donald are also very differeent. In fact, their dissimilarities outweigh what makes them alike. Tony Soprano, a fictional character, demonstrates a vast ocean of nuance and depth when compared to the real-life Donald Trump, who’s as one-dimensional as Scrooge McDuck. His presidency is a cartoon drawing.
The first key difference returns us to the concept of loyalty. Both demand it; but only Tony returns it. To Trump, non-family underlings are as disposable as toilet paper. Speaking through his idiot mouthpiece, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal fixer Michael Cohen quickly went from being, “an honest, honorable lawyer” to a “pathological liar.” At first, Trump said he, “…always liked the respected him”. That lasted until Cohen testified, at which point Captain Tweet screamed to Congressional questioners, “Your heads will spin…he’s totally discredited!” The revolving door at the White House is greased with perceived disloyalties. You either lie for the man, or you lie in the gutter.
On the other hand, Tony responds to loyalty with loyalty. Someone gets beat up on the job? Tony pays the hospital bill. One of his guys gets offed by a rival mobster? Tony not only picks up the tab for the funeral, he repays the ambush in kind. He’s that kind of stand-up guy.
Which leads to the second point of difference. Tony tries to rule evenhandedly. He’s repeatedly placed in the middle of imminent violence among his own capos…or while meeting tensely with a neighboring family boss. His first instinct is always to seek a negotiated settlement. In the middle of a fistfight or a portentous “sit down”, his initial question is, “how do we make this thing right?” Sure, if he doesn’t like the answer, he’ll storm out and violence will soon follow. But that’s his fallback, not his impulse.
Trump, from all accounts, absolutely tingles with glee at the sight of two people shouting at each other in front of him in the Oval Office. It’s blood sport--a source of arousal. Sort of like watching Fox and Friends still in his pajamas. Seeing others suffer is his serenity. But for him, just sitting in the audience is a temporary distraction. At core, he’s always on the attack, always seeking the battle, always the leading man--so long as no actual courage is required. His soldiers are lawyers and fixers. Metaphorically, he drives a gold-plated Bentley with no reverse gear.
Finally, we come to the issue of self-awareness.
The novel twist of the Sopranos is that Tony, from beginning to end, seeks out the counsel of a female psychiatrist. He goes in first because of panic attacks. He stays through a drug regimen and exploration of what it meant to be raised by a non-loving mother. The therapist bickers and challenges in ways Tony would accept from no one else. Certainly, no other woman would be allowed to puncture his shell of toughness and control. It’s his ultimate turf war; wrestling with himself.
Now, can you imagine Donald Trump talking to a female therapist? He would spend the first half hour explaining how he dominates the world. Then five minutes making a pass. Then the rest of the hour explaining why she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Finally, exit, stage right—without paying.
‘ll admit it. I sometimes believe that Donald Trump is so victimized by his own toxic mix of denial and narcissism that he may not even know that he’s lying. Do polygraphs even work with personality disorders? He is consumed with self-regard…but totally incapable of self-awareness. His only true friend is the mirror.
In my imagination, I envision a final group scene where Tony, the boss of New Jersey, squares off against Donald, the maestro of Manhattan. Inevitably, the scene ends in violence. Only one walks out alive.
Left sprawled on the floor in a puddle of blue blood…seeping ego and melted hair spray…is the Donald. Gunned down not by Tony’s men—but by his own. His greed and disloyalty have finally gone too far. They’ve had enough.
Thugs will be thugs .But even made guys have standards.
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