I’m 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 I can’t rub out of my memory. I did it mostly because of all the repeated references to Trump and associates as a “crime family.”
Is that comparison fair—to either clan?
Truth 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 my baseline for understanding a real mafia family is The Sopranos. So here’s what I know. It is first of all a business, always protecting markets and seeking new ones. It jousts with federal law enforcement like Fortune 500 accountants sneaking profits overseas. And like any good business, it’s obsessed with “productivity” and weeding out the losers—although the syndicate skips right past pink slips and goes directly to whacks.
But this sort of business-to-business comparison is about as intriguing as the balance sheet of Proctor and Gamble. Who cares? It’s only when actual characters are mixed in that we’re tempted to look up from our phones. So, let’s do that.
Tony Soprano and Donald Trump are both overweight louts, ruling their respective families through naked force. Also, each learned his wayward craft from a criminal and emotionally brutish father. In effect, each inherited the family business.
More compelling still are their leadership styles. They share three common traits. The first is the raw exercise of power. In one iconic scene, Tony is sitting around a table with his henchmen, but senses a growing belief among them that maybe he’s losing his grip--getting softer as he gets older. So he stands and confronts a young member, less than half his age but with more than twice his muscle mass. By custom, the young kid can not “raise his hand” to the boss, so Tony bludgeons him to a bloody mass on the floor. The others are clearly thinking, “what the hell was that all about?! He’s as crazy and dangerous as ever!” Mission accomplished.
Trump is far too cowardly to ever challenge another person physically. His weapons of choice are bluster and law suit. 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 CAN’T! He would stomp on that thing and just move on…with the name “Hillary” floating serenely across his mind.
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 suddenly inherited a couple million dollars from a deceased aunt…and has decided to move his wife and 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!”
Donald, on the other hand, will let you “retire”—but only when he decides it. When this self-styled prince of persuasion somehow fails to work his magic, 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, 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 what was clearly recorded on tape. America collectively was left slack-jawed. But no matter; the price of disloyalty was demonstrated.
Next, let’s look past their criminal familie to their biological ones. That’s where manhood is proven. Tony’s family is vexing. His kids talk back throughout their teens. His wife finally has enough of his philandering, so she decides to jump off her priveleged material pedestal and kicks him out. A chagrinednTony remains steadfast, delivering her support payments in cash. He will show up unannounced to lounge by the pool. And he’ll walk into the kitchen to grab some orange juice—taking slugs directly from the container, of course. He’s out…but he’s never really gone.
Donald works this differently. If he’s got problems with his family, he just buys a new one. By now, Ivanna and Marla have faded into the mists of legend, silently secured behind walls of lavish settlements and non-disclosure agreements. It’s almost like they never existed—except that some of their kids are definitely still around. Trump’s hench-people are his offspring: Don Jr., Eric, Ivanka, and her dashing and vacuous beau, Jared Kushner. These are the poster kids for the college cheating scandal; intellectually stunted and brazenly entitled. They’ve had the world handed to them. The only thing they’ve earned is the scorn of a resentful nation.
What a group this is. It’s like the Three Stooges had a sister.
However, make no mistake. In some ways, Tony and the Donald are very much not alike. Their differences far outweigh their similarities. 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 went from being, “an honest, honorable lawyer” to a “pathological liar.” Trump himself said he, “…always liked the respected him”—until Cohen testified, at which point Trump Twitter-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 heated arguments among his own capos…or with neighboring family bosses. His first instinct is always to seek a negotiated settlement. In any circumstance, his initial concern is, “how do we make this right?” Sure, if he doesn’t like the answer, he’ll storm out with eyes flaring. But that’s his fallback, not his impulse.
Trump, from all accounts, absolutely tingles with glee at the sight of two people arguing with each other 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 even that is secondary. At core, he’s perpetually on the attack; he never concedes or steps back. Barack Obama will forever remain in his crosshairs. Metaphorically, he drives a gold-plated Bentley with no reverse gear.
And finally, we come to the issue of self-awareness.
The novel twist of The Sopranos is that Tony, from beginning to end, seeks 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 never accept from anyone else. No other woman would be allowed to puncture his shell of toughness and control. It’s his ultimate turf war…battling 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. Exit, stage right—without paying.
I’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 own imagination, I envision a group scene where Tony, the boss of New Jersey, squares off against Donald, the master of Manhattan. Inevitably, the scene ends in violence. Only one walks out alive.
Left sprawled on the floor, in a puddle of seeping ego and melting hair spray, is the Donald. Gunned down not by Tony’s men—but by his own. His greed and disregard have finally done him in..
“Honor among thieves” only goes so far. Even made guys have standards.
# # #