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Anatomy of The Godfather candidate

How Donald Trump used show business to overwhelm America.

By Lee Siegel

Not long ago, Donald Trump, mindful of his upcoming criminal trial in Manhattan on charges of illegally covering up hush-money payments to a porn star, compared himself to the legendary American gangster, Al Capone. His intention was, one imagines, to elevate himself from a run-of-the-mill alleged felon to the folk-hero status often conferred on true American outlaws. A flurry of reflections followed, exploring affinities between Trump and the notorious 1920s crime figure. As colourful and provocative as some of these were, the comparison was misguided.

Capone was responsible in one degree or another for more than 200 murders. The son of impoverished Neapolitan immigrants, he dropped out of school at 14 after hitting a teacher and proceeded to slog his way up through mob ranks. Trump can be very tough, it seems, when it comes to women: he has been accused numerous times of sexual assault. And rhetorically, of course, he projects real macho force. He recently, at a rally in New Jersey, praised Hannibal Lecter, the suave, fearless, murderous cannibal who is the anti-hero in The Silence of the Lambs as “a wonderful man”. Otherwise, though, the wealthy-born, pampered, Ivy-League educated, golf-playing, pleasure-seeking, hyper-socialising, draft-evading Trump wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’d sue it instead.

The comparison is really the wrong way around. Capone didn’t become “Capone” until Paul Muni portrayed him in the 1932 film Scarface, a copy of which Capone was said to have owned and enjoyed. Today, when Americans think of Capone, they almost certainly think of Robert De Niro playing Capone in the David Mamet-written film The Untouchables (1987). When they summon up the image of a romantic American gangster in general, they think of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone or of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or perhaps James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. Trump’s political success doesn’t lie in his hopeful associations of himself with larger-than-life American bad guys. It lies in his ability to perform an American bad guy.

Because Trump often seems like a walking anthology of unattractive character traits – loud, boastful, mendacious, offensive, abusive, arrogant, etc – he tends to be written about like the kind of person who displays those traits. That is to say, the often-pedigreed media types who write about him treat him like the sort of person they learned to mentally write off as they made their way into privileged realms: they dismiss him as a “loser”. That fatal underestimation lay behind his victory in 2016, and the outraged incredulity that ensued accounted for much of the hysterical response to him throughout his presidency.

Discomfiting as it might be to acknowledge, Trump is, in historical terms, one of the most successful humans to have ever lived. Much of his appeal to his followers, and much of the hatred he arouses in his opponents, is in the way he has turned upside down the model of conventional success. Trump has created a new social form for what has always been the function of society to conceal. (The internet, running parallel to Trump’s advent and ascent, has done exactly the same thing.)

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Finding a social form for the unsayable and unsocial is what the movies do – from the Marx Brothers right on up to Oppenheimer and Poor Things. As an effective practitioner of socialising social taboos, Trump is also a consummate actor, though unlike that other presidential actor, Ronald Reagan, the aim of Trump’s performances is not to weave a sunny illusion, but to expose the artifice of every public performance that does not conform to Trump’s own enactment of, in his eyes, the dark, naked truth. American political life has followed a plunging arc from John Ford to (the misappropriation of) Bertolt Brecht. And as an actor – a skill sharpened during his run in The Apprentice, the reality show that made Donald Trump “Trump” – Trump has perfected the two fundamental tools of the actor’s trade. He knows how to use his face to convey not just emotion, but to shape a mise en scène, and he knows how to suddenly seize and rivet his audience’s attention.

It is fascinating to read reporters covering Trump’s trial scramble to capture the expressions on his face as if catching him red-handed. He glared, they informed us: he stared, he glowered, he frowned, he smiled, he yawned. He even seemed to fall asleep! The reporters had unwittingly been transformed into film critics commenting on the ability of Trump – the former reality star – to use his face, as all film actors do, to tell a story. Did he really fall asleep? Or did he pretend to be asleep in order to display his utter contempt, to the delight of his supporters, for the boring pretence of justice? The upshot of it all was that, along with endless mind-numbing commentary on every aspect of the legal case against Trump, reporters seemed to only come to life when talking about Trump’s performance itself. He glared at a certain New York Times reporter! The CNN anchor interviewing her said that Trump had glared at her in the same way! That was when coverage of the trial came alive too. When it stopped being about the trial. Trump’s supporters hang on Trump’s every word and gesture. Along with Trump’s supporters, so do, what you might call at this point, Trump’s reporters. Trump knows how to turn a crowd, any kind of crowd, into an audience. A mob is, after all, a crowd that has become an audience, which then storms the stage.

If the success of a work of art lies in its ability to make itself an original experience, the effectiveness of an aberrant personality works along the same lines. Lacking precedents or referents that might make encountering Trump less an emotional experience than a critical one, you fall into the story he is creating whether you love him or loathe him. Call it the unwilling suspension of disbelief.

In the course of writing a profile of Al Pacino once, during which I told him what The Godfather had meant to an adolescent suburban misfit like me in the 1970s, I answered the phone late one night to hear Pacino playfully say, on the other end of the line, “I have a bedtime story to tell you.” He proceeded to relate to me how, just before filming The Godfather Part I got under way, the cast met at Rao’s, a famously exclusive restaurant in New York’s East Harlem. Within minutes he said, Pacino, who had grown up virtually as an orphan, began to talk to Brando, who was set to play Pacino’s fictional father, as Brando’s son, and Brando, drawn in by this intense need of Pacino for a father, began to relate to Pacino as his son. Plunged into an original experience by Trump’s unspeakable speech, by his asocial social acts, people fall into their natural roles in Trump’s story, along the lines of their personalities and their situations in life. “He glared at me.” “He glared at me, too.” “I hate the son-of-a-bitch.” “I adore him.” “He imperils democracy.” “He sticks it in the eye of liberals.” “He’s a bully.” “He’s not a virtue-bully.” America has never been so united in its divisiveness by a single script, with a part for everyone to play.

Trump’s other thespian gift is his refinement of the art of distraction. On the second day of his trial, he paid a visit to a West Harlem bodega – a small grocery store. What followed was as beyond belief as it was real: a defendant appeared in public during his criminal trial calling the trial “rigged” and the judge “conflicted” as he warmly greeted bemused but sympathetic supporters. Even just watching a video of Trump’s visit erased what you had read and heard and seen that very day, on the news, about the trial.

The scene recalled an appearance Marlon Brando made on a once-famous talk show hosted by Dick Cavett. Suddenly, out of nowhere, just as Cavett is about to ask him another question, Brando, whose annoyance or boredom with the interview is visibly intensifying, seems to accidentally drop something on the floor. He leans down from his chair to pick it up. The camera closes in on the object, revealing it to be a black bracelet, which Brando snaps back on to his wrist. “What is it?” Cavett asks. “Stevie Wonder gave this to me on the airplane today,” Brando says, “and, uh, it was very nice, he took it off his wrist and, uh, said ‘I want you to have this’ and it was very nice of him, very kind of him.” In that one instant, the studio fell absolutely silent. The scene was like the enactment of some primordial myth, and you were transfixed. Trump achieved a similar effect at the bodega, on the second day of the most singular, and consequential, criminal trial in American history. He created a narrative earthquake that shifted the ground underneath you.

Two other, related stories about Brando come to mind. In one, he dispensed with a rival for a woman’s affections by vividly describing to her a fantastical scene that involved said rival falling off a ladder, somehow getting a broomstick fixed immovably in his posterior, and hopping about the room trying to dislodge it. The woman, so the story goes, could never see the rival in the same romantic light again. That is exactly the effect of Trump’s psychologically astute schoolyard insults. The second story also reveals Brando’s grasp of the effects of human weakness. He was said to be able to walk into a crowded party and in an instant find the woman most vulnerable to him and take her home. Leave aside the manifold creepiness of that. Trump walked into national politics and found the Americans most vulnerable to Trump and spirited them away. Actors, who possess huge egos but also suffer – and benefit – from a profoundly weak sense of self, have that type of uncanny gift for detecting human weakness. In the birthplace of Hollywood, and in the teeming capital of TikTok culture, where American acting has become a universal condition, a politician who has that gift poses a special challenge. Capone himself would have killed to get his hands on it.

[See also: The unlikely alliance of Robert F Kennedy Jr and Russell Brand]

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