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Standing Up to The Don


One of the most enduring films in American cinema is “The Godfather”, in which the mafia boss Don Corleone is played as a sympathetic character, a devoted family man. The audience also identifies with his oldest son, Sonny, despite his hot-headed nature. The youngest son Michael, who ends up taking over the family business, is ruthless but still a character whom film viewers admire. The assassin Clemenza is so lovable you want to take him home and share a cannoli, along with his homemade meat sauce.

In the film “Goodfellas”, the characters Henry Hill, Tommy DeVito, and James Conway all pull the audience to their side. We identify with all these mobsters despite their involvement in crimes such as drug dealing, grand larceny, money laundering, corruption, and murder.

You see, America likes the thug. This helps explain the success of the current Don in the White House. Despite all the negatives heaped upon him by pundits on the left of center (and even by some on the right), our Don can confidently argue that he is winning. I say this without irony: He has been strikingly successful in many ways. It is important to understand why this is so—why he is successful, and what we can do in response.

Here is the evidence:

Unlike any president in history, our current Don identified a current of disillusionment in a large portion of the American public. He was able to channel this through his assault on the “elite” (media, Democrats, and allied nations) as well as people on the margins (mainly immigrants). Roughly 60 million people (90% of Republicans and 81% of White evangelicals) strongly identify with his brand, attend his rallies, wear his hats, and believe his words and message.

He has an unprecedented hold on a major political party. Republican politicians who dare stand up to him better be planning their retirement (Senators Corker and Flake), for if they run in a primary they are liable to be beaten or forced into a runoff. There is no dissent, and party members follow his lead even on issues such as tariffs and trade, where they once took opposite positions.

He has grabbed media attention like no president before him and like no other leader in the world. He has proven to be a godsend to everyone’s ratings. People wake up waiting to read his tweets. He is the lead story not just on Fox News, but also CNN, MSNBC, and the traditional broadcast networks. Comedians and talk show hosts cannot ignore him either. Moreover, when they attack him, this just feeds the anger and resentment of the 60 million base mention above.

To date, he and his gang have gotten away with actions and behavior that would have detailed any previous administration. His lies are legion. He holds no press conferences. His is friendly with foes and antagonistic toward allies. His family members are involved in multi-million dollar deal making, through brazen if not criminal enterprises. Unethical cabinet members fail to face any consequences. The rules have been rewritten for this group.

In all, this is how our current Don measures success, and he is right. He has reshaped his party and the presidency, at least for the time being.

But this is not about him. This is about us—how we were susceptible to someone poised to exploit our cultural divides, vulnerabilities, shallowness, and greed. And how we can overcome this hostile takeover of our country.

Here is a roadmap on how we might extricate ourselves from the clutches of the Don:

  1. Don’t feed the beast. The current president thrives on division, and anytime his supporters perceive he is being attacked, their support for him grows stronger. Stay above the fray; focus on policy, not personality. Robert De Niro and Samantha Bee, I’ve loved your work in the past, but SHUT UP. I’m easing up on watching even those comedians I like, for their ongoing attacks on the current president, satiating as they may be, offer no road map to a more positive future.

  2. 60 million Americans have the Don’s back, but if you are not one of them, you have a MORAL IMPERATIVE to vote for Democratic congressional candidates this fall. This means you, Republicans. Your party has been invaded and thoroughly corrupted, and your representatives are incapable or uninterested in fulfilling their necessary constitutional obligation to serve as a check and balance on the executive. Our country needs two responsible parties, and only the utter defeat of one of them can lead to its positive regeneration.

  1. Democratic candidates must continue to focus on policy, not personality (they’ve done a good job so far) and draw a through line connecting rural and urban areas. This doesn’t mean abandoning progressive principles and ceding the ground on social issues. Rather, make the connection between rural victims of resource extraction and urban victims of neglect and exploitation.

  2. Finally, this has been my mantra all along: Vote. Organize. Flip. Vote in November and make sure your family and friends do the same. Organize with a volunteer group that is working on progressive principles. Flip Congress by working to turn a toss-up district.

At the end of “The Godfather” saga, Vito Corleone survived a hail of bullets and then died peacefully in his garden. But his son Sonny was brutally assassinated, and Michael ended up alone and abandoned. In “Goodfellas”, Henry Hill ratted on his confederates and then had to sneak away to witness protection. The real life Jimmy Conway died in prison, while Tommy De Vito was killed by his mob associates.

The point is that the beast can be beaten. Mobsters sow the seeds of their own demise. There are more of us than there are of them. Stand up, fight back.

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