Gangsters, Politicians, and Presidents

Alan Zendell, November 18, 2022

When Jimmy Carter was president, inflation was much worse than it’s been in 2022. From 1978 to 1980, there were only five months in which inflation was below 10%, and during the 1980 presidential campaign (and the Iran hostage crisis) it peaked at more than 14%. The 1970s and 1980s were also a time when the Mafia seemed untouchable and enjoyed a Robin Hood-like folk hero status. The wildly popular Godfather movies were released in 1972, 1974, and 1990, and a decade later, we paid homage to the mob, as The Sopranos made HBO a successful venture for six seasons.

The heated 1980 presidential campaign featured three candidates: Carter, who seemed to be the only person in the United States who didn’t realize he was a failed president, Ronald Reagan, whose platform was something called trickle-down economics that Bush-41 referred to as voodoo; and John Anderson, a Republican who ran as an Independent, because Reagan’s nomination had split the Republican Party. Voters weren’t particularly enamored with their choices that year, and we frequently heard comedians, and then political pundits suggest that the country would be better off if it was run by the Mafia.

Many corporate executives felt that way about their businesses, especially in industries where the Mob dictated the rules. In the New York City area, the most lucrative of those were major construction and commercial real estate. The less ethical an executive was, the more attractive the Mafia appeared, which brings us to the father-son team of Fred and Donald Trump. Between 1954 and 1973, the Trumps were investigated for profiteering by the U. S. Senate and the State of New York and censured by the U. S. Department of Justice for violating the Fair Housing Act.

The Trump Organization became synonymous with unscrupulous business practices, like the fraudulent Trump University and the bankrupting of Atlantic City, NJ. Trump was frequently accused of fraud and reneging on payments to contractors. Looking back, one might ask where the line between unethical and criminal was. An examination of the record suggests that the line was more semantic than real, and that applied in equal measure to The Trump Organization and the Mob.

Donald Trump had gone to school with John Gotti, the leader of the Gambino crime family of New York. It was almost a cliché at the time that it was impossible to be successful in the real estate development business without the cooperation of the gangsters that controlled the concrete and construction trades, and Trump used his connection to Gotti to forge a relationship with the infamous Roy Cohn.

Cohn was a sleazy lawyer who made his name prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and helping Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy ruin the careers of countless celebrities on charges of being Communists, though their investigations never resulted in criminal charges. Cohn was ultimately disbarred and imprisoned, but in his heyday he was consigliere for both Gotti and Trump. In the 1980s, New York gossip columnists described Trump and Gotti hanging out together in New York nightclubs and depending on Cohn to keep them out of court and jail.

Cohn’s philosophy was never back down, never admit guilt, deny everything, and attack your accuser with every resource you have. Gotti used Cohn’s playbook to evade prosecution for decades, until the FBI gathered enough evidence to sent him to federal prison in 1992. Trump used the same playbook, often using exactly the same language as Gotti when he was accused of racketeering and fraud. It’s well documented that Trump employed Gotti’s companies to construct Trump Plaza in New York. There were many charges of corruption based on that relationship, and I find it odd that Gotti, the “teflon don” went to prison while Trump was unscathed. We  won’t know until the court records are unsealed, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Trump avoided prosecution by testifying against Gotti under immunity.

Trump sees people like Gotti as gods ruling over their criminal fiefdoms. He envies their power and their ability to escape consequences for their crimes. In politics he transferred that worshipful appreciation to foreign dictators and corrupt politicians at home. There’s a reason he behaves like a gangster. That’s what he was taught by Cohn, Gotti, and his father, and it fits perfectly with his Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Look at the things Trump has done in the past seven years in that context. It’s like an epiphany, or in mundane terms, like finding the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

In 2016, Trump used his gangster persona to awaken the worst among us: racists, xenophobes, misogynists, and people who shared his lust for wealth and power. Back then, he was a celebrity. Today, we know him for what he is, an immoral, self-centered narcissist who will pander to anyone who pledges fealty to him. He may be the most dangerous person in America. He simply cannot ever be permitted to hold a position of power again. Anyone else who did what he has spent his life doing would be spending the rest of it in prison.

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