The Trump saga bears an uncanny resemblance to the TV show, The Sopranos, that ran from 1999 to 2007. Both are essentially soap operas, serial melodrama of domestic life, set on the edge of criminality, and beyond. This is a big part of their popular appeal.
A family in every sense of the term
Tony Soprano is the head of a Mafia family, seen through the lens of his family life. This is a good way to sentimentalize organized crime, even with its violence and treachery. It makes these into homey and sympathetic people who go through the same things as the rest of us: the kids growing up, messing up in school, teens stretching the limits. A mid-life crisis that sends the husband into psychotherapy with a female psychiatrist. A middle-aged housewife flirting with a good-looking Catholic priest, while her husband shacks up with young bimbos. Soap-opera stuff, but she can brush it aside precisely because they are bimbos, not real rivals, knowing underneath it all that Tony Soprano is committed to his family. Just boy stuff, as Melania Trump might say.
It is an old-fashioned Italian family. The father is the undisputed boss, loyalty the chief virtue. Everything centers on a family business, continuing across the generations, branching out to relatives who can’t be forgotten, no matter what. Uncle Junior, an over-the-hill hoodlum. Tony’s querulous mother, who berates him for not coming to see her enough, while he maneuvers her into a nursing home she hates. Christopher, the nephew learning the business, callow and sleazy but an eager enthusiast, a sort of male ingénue working his way up in a crime career.
As a Mafia family, it combines domestic with fictitious kin and pseudo-family relations. Hoodlums like Pauley and Big Pussy, who come over for home-made Italian pasta and are regarded as family by the kids. Boyhood friend Artie, a genial restauranteur who provides another meeting-place and prospers under Tony’s protection. The Mafia operates in a world of small family-run businesses, never in bureaucratic corporations or chains. They are independent, outside of formal rules and record-keeping, under the radar. Family-like loyalty and privacy is the secret of their success.
Tony’s headquarters is the back office of a roadside strip joint-- or for that matter, out front at the bar where the girls undulate while insiders shop-talk and plot. Tony lives in a big house in a wealthy suburb, but he commutes every day to a neighborhood of cheap store-fronts where his business associates hang out. Killings take us inside kitchens and meat-lockers; bodies are buried in garbage dumps-- one of Tony’s fronts is the waste disposal business.
This is crime with a work ethic. Tony and his gang are always taking care of business-- one difference between the Mafia elite and casual robbers who commit the intermittent stickup to finance their drug habit. They keep regular hours and put in overtime as need arises. Tony suddenly stops his car to chase down and beat up a guy who owes him money-- a gambling addict on the hook for huge interest to Tony’s shylocking operation. Taking his daughter on a visit to a New England college, Tony spots an aging police informer now in an FBI witness protection program; so while Meadow listens to the college admission spiel, Tony sneaks out to kill the rat. Drama is always popping up in the midst of ordinary routine.
Behind the scenes of everyday life, something is hidden and exciting. This is the formula for detective stories-- that distinctively modern form of literature, enlivening our disenchanted world where almost everything is routine. The Sopranos works the formula from the point of view of the criminals, while bringing it closer to our own lives by embedding crime business in the cycle of domesticity.
The Trumps are another family in the pre-modern mold.
Donald, of course, the head of family, both domestic and business, with precious little distinction between them. An over-the-top egotistical self-promoter. That itself is a business asset, since Trump is a brand name, in a post-modern economy where branding is the core money-maker and the grunt work is shunted off to the periphery. Even the controversies add to the attention. Is he a mega-billionaire? Is he faking it, a pyramid of debts and shaky holdings? It’s all part of the drama.
Trump is a pre-modern business model in the most post-modern of economic sectors. Flashy hotels, golf resorts, casinos, the “in” places where the action is. His venues are places for spectacle and entertainment. Beauty pageants. Boxing promotions where famous fighters shake hands in the front rows and Penthouse Pets parade around the ring carrying the round cards and have their pictures taken with Donald Trump.
The web of businesses is family held, avoiding bureaucratic strings. Trump decides as much as possible himself, surrounded by a loyal core of long-time employees, many of them women. In addition to this pseudo-family, his businesses are run by his children, especially his highly competent older daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared. He is the kind of relative who gets absorbed into the core of loyalists. Jared is a parallel to Donald’s own career: launched by a wealthy entrepreneurial father, striking off in his early years on his own ventures; even taking over when the father gets caught on the wrong side of the law. Like the Mafia, it is more of an umbrella for holdings than a vertical bureaucracy. As a closely-held family business, it stays as far as possible from the formal rules and record-keeping of big corporations, publically-traded companies, and government regulations. Like the Mafia, it is based on the opposite of transparency-- which means open to formal oversight and outside interference.
Managing the network of enterprises is very labor-intensive, a more than full-time job-- in effect no time off at all, no distinction between private life and work. Trump manages it by being very quick and decisive. He also needs very little sleep, a workaholic who gets his emotional energy from his business interactions where he is always in the center of control. For implementation, he has to rely on trusted followers whose loyalty is unquestioned. And he does this successfully by grooming his children to join him in the inner circle. Far from leaning over backwards to avoid the impression of nepotism, he concentrates on making nepotism work.
Even Trump’s bitterest opponents give tribute to his family. On campaign and in the public eye, they make a good impression: good-looking, well-dressed, well-behaved, seriously involved. They are in implicit contrast to so many children of elite families, the spoiled rich, the money squanderers, the druggies, the Teddy Kennedys with their car crashes, Sarah Palin’s family of trailer-trash scrapes, Bill Clinton’s and Jimmy Carter’s black-sheep brothers. Donald himself may create the scandals but his family is united in riding them out; this is not one of the all-so-frequent upper class families divided by battles over inheritance or waiting for the older generation to retire. How does Trump keep them loyal and committed? Apparently, by involving them from an early age. He keeps them around and pays frequent attention to them--- not by taking time out from his business, but by bringing them into it as much as possible. Donald’s divorces and remarriages do not prevent him from keeping his children close. He claims to have told them every morning at breakfast to stay away from drinking and drugs. Like Donald, they are not party animals but call the shots at promoting parties: similar to Mafia chiefs who run the drug business but strictly prohibit using it themselves. Trump himself does not drink, one reason why he can be up in the middle of the night sending Tweets.
Trump’s pre-modern family/business is a source of controversy, especially in the period of transition to the Presidency, and very likely beyond. The two entities are almost co-extensive, the opposite of the now-conventional wall between public and private life. It is considered mildly scandalous that Ivanka, Jared, or Donald Jr. are involved as diplomatic contacts and go-betweens with foreign leaders. This will not go away. Trump’s business and political careers have been based on defying pressures to adhere to conventional consensus. Like the Mafia, the familistic structure is the source of its strength. Controversies about it are just one more thing keeping the Trump saga in the center of attention.
Another level up in social class
The Trumps and The Sopranos are not identically patterned. The Sopranos are upwardly mobile from the working class. They have made it into the upper-middle class segment that lives in the expensive suburbs but still does their own cooking. They have all the middle-class comforts but talk in the accents of East Coast immigrant working class. Tony’s mob is centered in grubby working class areas and caters to working class male recreations. They have money for NFL games, NBA, hockey-- for that matter, they are the clientele as well as some of the more profitable workers servicing Atlantic City casinos like Trump’s. As sociologist David Halle found in his research on oil refinery workers in northern New Jersey (almost exactly where Tony lives), they are working class on the job, but at home they are middle class, by their expenditure patterns and by the respectable activities their wives drag them to. The sociology of this group is perfectly captured in the tug-of-war between the stripper bars across from the factory where many workmen spend their lunch and after-work hours, and the Catholic church events and school activities their wives involve them in. The Mafia is, so to speak, the most aristocratic of the working-class aristocracy.
If The Trumps are a version of The Sopranos, they are a very upper-class version. They are the glittery part of the upper class. There also exists a more traditional, boringly respectable part of the upper class, the world of polite formal occasions, charity balls and opera openings, ladies’ luncheons, stuffy men’s clubs (now become stuffy men’s and women’s clubs), testimonial dinners and cliché-recycling conferences. The Trumps have entree into this, but it is not what elevates them to the center of public attention.
Women are a crucial part of Trump’s image. His wives have all been fashion models, but distinctive ones. Sexy rather than the skeletal look of the runways; sleek and glamorous in a throwback style that is more Playboy than fashion-world edginess. Supermodels who spin off their own brands and ride the momentum of their circle of fame into personal business lines. Trump and his women play off each other like acrobats on a high-wire act. Their audience is middle-brow, not the esoteric in-group fashion statements of the self-consciously sophisticated. This is not Mamie Eisenhower’s upper class, nor Truman Capote’s. The Trumps present the upper-class image most palatable to today’s lower-middle and working class.
Are there sleazy business dealings? Of course. Hard-ball lawsuits; aggressive bankruptcies; stiffing your contractors; making your lenders absorb losses because you are too hard-charging and too big to fail. These tactics are not exactly unknown in the creation of big business fortunes, from the time of Rockefeller to the corporate raiders of the present. French sociologist Michel Villette found that virtually all of the big fortunes made in Europe and the US since the 1950s involved shady legal tactics. Machiavelli wrote that the way to carry out a coup is to chop off your enemies’ heads, display them on the city walls, and join the church procession at the cathedral next morning. The modern American way of laundering predatory fortunes into respectability is to ostentatiously give a lot of money to charity, especially through a family foundation. Trump’s style is more in-your-face, making up in boldness for what it lacks in smarminess.
The Mafia-family genre
The Sopranos is in the lineage of sentimentalized Mafia films going back to the early 1970s. The Mafia was a very secretive organization, above all in its center of power, New York City. Although there were occasional spectacular murders and high-profile investigations, on the whole the structure and operations of the Mafia were little known until the revelations of Joe Valachi, an FBI informant, in 1963. This inspired a popular novel, which became the Godfather in 1972. Like The Sopranos, the technique is to present a Mafia family sympathetically, from the point of view of its home life. We see less about Mafia rackets than in The Sopranos, as most of the plot is taken up with a Mafia war. The aging Godfather (Marlon Brando) is badly wounded in an assassination attempt; his boys have to take over the family and fight off a rival borgatta.
The plot takes a sentimental turn. The youngest son (Al Pacino) has been brought up to go straight; he has gone to college-- the first of his family-- and is expected to assimilate their wealth into the WASP elite. But with his father incapacitated and the war going badly, the youngest son volunteers to be the go-between to negotiate peace with the rival Mafia chief. They scope out the meeting place in advance, a restaurant where they can hide a gun in the toilet. Pacino arrives, is patted down for weapons; eventually excuses himself to go to the bathroom, comes back and shoots the enemy chief. Then he goes on the lam to Sicily, where he learns about his Mafia roots and acquires the manners that will eventually promote him to Godfather when he returns to America.
The Godfather mixes incidents from different historical periods. Marlon Brando’s character is based on Carlo Gambino, who took over one of the five New York families after a Mafia war in 1957. But the restaurant murder is based on the 1930-31 Mafia war that established Italian hegemony in the New York crime world. One of the lieutenants, “Lucky” Luciano, decided to end the war by double-crossing his boss. What happened was roughly what we saw in The Godfather-- the young man telling the Boss he's got a deal with the enemy, going to the toilet, the bodyguards disappearing while killers burst in shooting. A few months later, Luciano pulled another tricky set-up on the other remaining Boss, using hired Jewish hit-men in disguise. This was epoch-making for the New York Mafia, since Luciano proceeded to set up a five-family “Peace Commission” to approve all Mafia hits and keep its affairs under cover by systematic bribing of New York officials.
Flash back to the present, which is to say 1972, the year The Godfather set a box office record. It was the triumphant era of the black Civil Rights movement, the latter phase when white ethnics started making similar demands for recognition. Mafia secrecy was not just blown by best-sellers and Hollywood. Joe Colombo (head of the Colombo family) was making public speeches rallying Italian-Americans like Frank Sinatra, to protest against defamation (such as the slur of mentioning the Mafia). Joey Gallo, believed to have engineered the shooting of Colombo at his Columbus Day rally in 1971, was temporarily the darling of cafe society before being shot at a Manhattan restaurant in 1972.
The Mafia saga is full of ironies and contradictions, as far as its public image goes. One of the slogans among intellectuals in the 1970s was “the rise of the unmeltable ethnics”-- an attack on White Anglo-Saxon Protestant domination, and a refusal of the ethnics to assimilate to it. This is part of the rhetoric that by the 1980s became known as Political Correctness, and which continues today in an expanded array of group identities that claim revenge on WASP (and male) domination. The Godfather films were the first triumph in popular culture of this anti-establishment rebellion. The irony is that The Godfather represents successful upward mobility from ethnic roots into the American upper class. In a climactic scene, Al Pacino is now the Godfather, married to a naive WASP woman, a trophy bride for the upwardly mobile. She has qualms about whether her husband is involved in all the violence that swirls around their luxurious life. Finally she confronts her husband: Tell me the truth. Did you order these killings? Pacino counters: if I tell you, will you stop asking? Yes, she says. OK, he replies, No. The Mafia has made it; the family is intact, even managing to assimilate a clueless upper-class WASP into its underground life.
The Godfather is a coming-of-age movie, reaffirming your ethnic roots. Our hero grows up to become his true ethnic self, defeating all enemies both professional and cultural.
The Sopranos have not changed much from this point. They are middle-class Americans, with the lifestyles of 30-40 years later. Instead of grand Mafia chiefs, they are in the local grind of organized crime, showing more working class roots than The Godfather did. Partly this reflects a real historical decline in the Mafia; with RICO prosecutions since the 1980s, the remaining Mafia families have nothing like the money and influence they had at mid-century. This is one reason why it feels harmless to be a fan of thinly fictionalized Mafia characters; they have been displaced by Dominican mobs, Russian oligarchs, and Mexican cartels in the sphere of big-time crime. Minor league criminals with a family organization that lends itself to sentimentalizing, the Mafia has become a comfortably naughty entertainment.
Why Trump is Great Box Office
Trump’s political campaign dominated public attention from the outset. It’s the Hollywood principle-- it doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right-- in spades. Trump hooks people’s attention, whether they like him or not; especially when not. It is like being addicted to daily soap opera. The Sopranos blended soap opera with Mafia violence. The Trumps blend soap opera with edgy big business and edgy politics. Tune in for another episode to find out what outrageous thing he’s said today.
Trump goads people into responding to him, so much so that every candidate he faced spent most of their time talking about him. On policy issues, his stances have been heard before. The movement of grass-roots outrage at illegal immigration has existed for decades. Trump ratcheted up the hyperbole with his slogan about building a wall, and when Mexican leaders responded angrily, topped himself by claiming he would make Mexico pay for it. Job loss to foreign countries and profits going overseas has been an issue on the left; Trump made it his issue with over-the-top threats against China. Opponents play into his game by taking what he says literally and venting about it, whereupon instead of backing off he thumbs his nose at them. The underlying game is who gets to frame the issues and who grabs the center of attention speaking about them; Trump wins on both counts.
Even without the issues, the topic became his unconventionality and norm-breaking of the established customs of public life. It began with Trump belittling other candidates to their face, turning dignified debate formats into a political version of the Jerry Springer show. The press is accustomed to creating news by their questions at press conferences; Trump refused to let them control the situation, calling out persistent reporters for their pushiness. After the election, the usual behind-the-scenes selection of top officials was been turned into try-outs televised at the front door. Manners became the message. Established media and politicians constantly find themselves playing straight man to his punch lines. Constantly upsetting the apple-carts made all other candidates look static.
How to defeat the politics of scandal
Established social life relies on the mechanism of scandal to keep things conventional. But Trump constantly plays on the edge of scandal anyway; digging up dirt about his past is only ephemeral news. He won’t release his tax returns, although every other candidate has done it for years? It’s a custom, not a law, and anyway (actions speaking louder than words) I’m not going to do it just because you demand it. Bring on the next scandal. How about the pussy-grabbing tape? Ordinarily sex scandals are deadly in public life. How Trump survived the outcry is instructive. He refused to apologize, and even counter-attacked with sleazy sex-charges of his own. The refusal to apologize is itself outrageous, in the eyes of the attacker. But a scandal is an emotional snowball; once it gains momentum, anyone caught off balance by it gets flattened. Whether by instinct or by calculation, Trump held his ground and played for time.
One thing that helped is how expectable the politics of scandal has become. In the normally deadlocked mode of American politics, where it is difficult to win on the issues, the weapon of choice has been to spring a scandal. Experienced political operatives are familiar with the Saturday Night Special (for a Tuesday election date); with the October Surprise that the Clinton campaign surely must have thought would clinch their victory. Trump not only rode it out but battened on it. As Republican political pros joined the chorus of shocked voices, Trump marshaled his supporters to stand fast: whatever we may feel about his language, we’re still there on the issues; the other side is worse; it’s just dirty politics, this October surprise. Above all, breaking the emotional momentum.
As sociologists have pointed out, a scandal is a multi-layered event. First, something is revealed that is considered a scandalous breach of propriety. But what gives the scandal its power is the secondary scandal, looking for the cover-up; widening the hunt to those who not only connived but failed to do anything about it. A truly powerful scandal is where everyone who fails to denounce the scandal becomes a target. If you are not with us in the witch-hunt, you must be one of the witches. That is why the chorus of former supporters joining in the denunciation is the switching point. The attitude of prominent supporters like Mike Pence and Reince Priebus kept the secondary scandal from getting out of hand. (There would be no equivalent of the Republican senators who joined the Watergate investigation and thereby raised their own popularity.) It was a pause, a slowing-down that broke the emotional momentum. During this period stories emerged of voters who were afraid to express their support of Trump; but at least they didn’t denounce him. Pressure to join a nation-wide denunciation dropped. Soon it was just the Democrats talking to themselves. In the politics of scandal, the time-dynamics of collective emotions are the key. A few weeks of relative calm gave opportunity for other events to intrude (the FBI/email flurry, round 2) and the sex scandal was old news.
Has America gotten beyond the politics of scandal? Not likely. Not everyone has the bluster to play it like Trump; and he had plenty of experience with scandals in his business/ entertainment career, where scandals don’t necessarily hurt. Probably the profession of political operatives, battered as they are, will keep the Saturday Night Special in their playbook.
A new era of media politics?
It is often said that Trump’s style is tailored to the social media and the dispersion of attention away from the traditional gatekeepers of public information. This is true, although the mainstream media still provide some common focus of attention, that would otherwise be lacking when everyone is camped in their own little Internet world of the like-minded. Trump won because the mainstream media, competing among themselves for market share, quickly publicized every outrageous thing he said on Twitter and every incident at his rallies. After all, long political campaigns are very repetitive, and stump speeches hardly make breaking news. The politics of edginess, combined with the saga of the glittering Trump family, made it irresistible to put him in the driver’s seat in the struggle for attention.
The Sopranos are the archetype of the serial melodrama that lets us live vicariously in a family that is like ours but more exciting. But at least we knew it was a show put on for our entertainment. The Trump show is orchestrated by Trump himself, with the aid of a loyal family team, smoothly on display. It has just the combination of glitter, shock value, and old-fashioned loyalty to keep us watching. And in politics, as in most things, controlling the center of attention is the formula for success.
How long will it last? Even the most popular TV shows have their day; the greatest box office records are eventually eclipsed. Here is another problem for the sociology of emotional time-dynamics. If scandals have a make-or-break turning point within their first weeks, what determines how long political soap opera keeps up its fascination? Stay tuned.
Ari Adut. 2008. On Scandal.
David Halle. 1984. America’s Working Man.
Joseph Pistone. 1987. Donnie Brasco. My Undercover Life in the Mafia.
Selwyn Raab. 2006. Five Families. The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Families.
Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot. 2009. From Predators to Icons. Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero.