In the virtuosic opening sequence of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, we are treated to a sumptuous and lavish wedding reception. Present is Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton). Michael wears a Marines dress uniform; the Second World War has recently ended. In his conversation with Kay, Michael notes that his father Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), a powerful mafia Don, was none too pleased with Michael’s enlistment. At the end of Godfather II, we get a flashback to the moment when Michael reveals to his brothers that he has enlisted. His eldest brother Sonny (James Caan) is incensed—immediately prior to Michael’s revelation, he had been going on about how people volunteering to go fight in the war were “saps,” because they’re risking their lives “for strangers.” Michael counters, “They’re risking their lives for their country.” “Your country ain’t your blood,” Sonny snaps back. “Don’t you forget that!”
Within the limited economy of organized crime, especially crime organized around family connections, Sonny’s perspective makes a certain amount of sense. If there is no higher loyalty than family, and the family’s prosperity, signing up to fight for a country whose laws the family in question flouts and rejects is, at best, an act of stupidity; at worst, of betrayal.
Michael Corleone will of course become the new Don by the end of the first Godfather, and become one of the most compellingly villainous anti-heroes in American film. But at the outset, nothing sets him apart from his family more, and nothing invites audience sympathy more, than his uniform. One of the great tensions at work in the Godfather films is this contrast between the blood ties of family and the abstractions of nation—given that politics is depicted as being as much of a scam as the rackets of organized crime, with law enforcement and elected officials all having their own price, the only real, authentic connections one has are to family. But like much art that challenges prevailing cultural mythologies, The Godfather uses Michael’s enlistment and his family’s anger at it in the service of troubling audience perception—the contrast between the gorgeous wedding reception and the usually-universal approbation attached to a WWII uniform, here the mark of Michael’s shame.
This week in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg published an article citing a variety of anonymous sources who quote Donald Trump echoing Sonny Corleone on numerous occasions. Referencing the time Trump cancelled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American cemetery in 2018, during the centennial of the end of WWI in Paris, because of “rain,” Goldberg writes:
Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.
I’m beginning to think that “Shocked but not Surprised” should be the title of the definitive history of the Trump presidency.
The White House has of course denied these allegations and condemned Goldberg’s article, so I suppose we must in good faith acknowledge the possibility that his sources were, for reasons passing understanding, all lying. And indeed, it would be difficult to credit that any sitting U.S. president would voice such thoughts aloud. To anybody. Ever. Even if they were genuine sentiments.
But of course we’ve heard such things from Trump before, such as when he denied that John McCain was a war hero, because “I like people who weren’t captured.” Or his attacks on the parents of Humayun Khan, an Army officer was killed in Iraq, for having the temerity to speak for the Democrats at the 2016 convention. Or, as was detail in Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s book A Very Stable Genius, when he called the assembled Pentagon brass who were trying to give him a crash course in geopolitics, “a bunch of dopes and losers.” Or, when he saw that the White House flags had been lowered to half-staff when John McCain died, he exploded, “What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser.”
The point here isn’t that we unequivocally owe military personnel our respect and reverence—I would, indeed, argue that the “thank you for your service” default setting, which allows people to be utterly unreflective about the nuances of uniformed life, is about as harmful as the reflexive hostility of anti-Vietnam protesters—but to observe, with an exhausted sigh, that these most impolitic of thoughts on Trump’s part only serve to reinforce what we know about the President’s narcissism and sociopathic self-regard. Perhaps the most appalling distillation of this is summed up by another tidbit from Goldberg’s article:
On Memorial Day 2017, Trump visited Arlington National Cemetery, a short drive from the White House. He was accompanied on this visit by John Kelly, who was then the secretary of homeland security, and who would, a short time later, be named the White House chief of staff. The two men were set to visit Section 60, the 14-acre area of the cemetery that is the burial ground for those killed in America’s most recent wars. Kelly’s son Robert is buried in Section 60. A first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan. He was 29. Trump was meant, on this visit, to join John Kelly in paying respects at his son’s grave, and to comfort the families of other fallen service members. But according to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”
Part of me doesn’t want to believe this. Not just the sentiment, but the fact that anyone would say as much to the father of a dead soldier while standing at the graveside.
Part of my doesn’t want to believe it, but at the same time, I have no difficulty believing it—not because, as some might charge, I’m invested in thinking the worst about Trump, but because he has, during the five years since announcing him campaign, given me no reason whatsoever to disbelieve it. Everything Trump does is transactional—as I said in my last post, he has made it obvious that his worldview is absolutely zero-sum. To paraphrase John Goodman in The Big Lebowski: say what you will about Sonny Corleone, but at least he had an ethos. Trump’s business and Trump’s presidency have both been compared more times than I can count to mafia-style operations; but to my mind, Trump et al are the mob at the end of the movie, when all of the original bonds of family and loyalty have been frayed by corruption and graft and over-reach. There was a time when I thought Goodfellas was a superior film to The Godfather and its sequels, because it seemed to me that, where Coppola romanticized his mafiosi, Scorsese was far more clear-eyed in depicting their sociopathy and moral bankruptcy. I’ve since come around on that: the decline and fall of Michael Corleone is the subtler of the two tales, not least because it showed how, criminal though the Corleone enterprise might have been, it had its roots not just in family, but a community at once ignored and victimized by an indifferent nation.
If the history of Fred Trump, Sr. and his successor Donald has showed anything, it’s that there was never that originary matrix of family and community. As Mary Trump details, the Trump legacy was never not zero-sum.
What was in it for them? Trump isn’t just asking that of dead soldiers. He’s asking it of anybody who does anything not just for themselves. He’s asking it of anybody who takes on a job whose labour and effort exceeds the fiscal reward—teachers, nurses, EMTs, firefighters, social workers—but which is done in the name of helping others, of serving a community. In Trump’s worldview, they’re all suckers.
And I think what’s most frustrating in the present moment is that his most ardent supporters—those that aren’t rich, that is—don’t grasp that he thinks the same thing about them. He loves their adulation, but was never about to stand for four hours of selfies like Elizabeth Warren did, or hear their stories. His attitude is best summed up by Bono, of all people, who told Jimmy Kimmel, “”He likes to see their faces in the crowd, but I don’t think he wants to know who they are when they go home.”
Of course he doesn’t. They’re not people to be served, they’re means to an end.