The Mob Movie Goodfellas Tells Us Everything We Need to Know About Trump’s Universe

Politics Features Donald Trump
The Mob Movie Goodfellas Tells Us Everything We Need to Know About Trump’s Universe

Praising its “stellar cast,” Mr. Trump has referred to the 1990 film as “great entertainment.” — CBS News

Goodfellas is the Rosetta Stone for the Trump Presidency (some spoilers ahead). My brother (we’ll call him N.) and I were watching the heartwarming, blood-splattered classic over Thanksgiving. In the second half, Henry Hill is rolling in money from his Pittsburgh coke connection. Henry’s wife Karen is flaunting their regained wealth to Morrie and Belle. Karen pushes a button on a remote control. A pair of doors swing open, revealing the most garish home entertainment center this side of a Dubai strip club. It’s Scorsese taking a cold-eyed look at Seventies mob taste. My brother and I started laughing. N. said, “This is what Trump thinks is classy.” And that’s the key to our glorious President: he thinks he’s in this story.

I’m not the first to note parallels between Scorsese’s 1990 crime epic and Trump. Back in August, the New York Times noted:

“When I first heard that Trump said to Comey, ‘Let this go,’ it just rang such a bell with me,” said Nicholas Pileggi, an author who has chronicled the Mafia in books and films like “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” … Mr. Pileggi traced the president’s language to the Madison Club, a Democratic Party machine in Brooklyn that helped his father, Fred Trump, win his first real estate deals in the 1930s. … Mr. Trump honed his vocabulary over decades through his association with the lawyer Roy Cohn, who besides working for Senator Joseph McCarthy also represented Mafia bosses like Mr. Gotti, Tony Salerno and Carmine Galante.

But these are surface comparisons, and miss the point. The most interesting connection between Goodfellas and Trump isn’t that “Trump behaves like a mafia don.” It’s that the President thinks that being a mafia don is the best possible life. And that is desperately sad.

Henry begins the film by telling us, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States.” Trump is what happens when you try to have it both ways.

With the possible exception of Fight Club, Goodfellas is the most misinterpreted movie in history. Let me clarify. If you watched Goodfellas, and took away “They’ve got it made,” if you watched The Sopranos and thought “Man, Tony’s got it figured out”—or if you watched Breaking Bad and said “Wow, Walter has grown into a hero”—then, my friend, have I got tough news for you.

Goodfellas is one long gag on the audience—You really think the mob is about glamour and loyalty? Check these guys out! Trump is the kind of man who takes a joke literally. It’s almost as if the movie was designed to appeal to him. The story of Henry Hill is essentially a narrative about half-witted narcissistic sociopaths with weird hangups … who take themselves and “respect” incredibly seriously. Paulie’s weirdness about using the phone could be a Trump peccadillo. Trump’s dearest associates are either people who believe this, or are criminal grifters. Both of these types appear in Goodfellas.

Thirty years after its release, Goodfellas shadows over all crime fiction. Scorsese’s masterpiece has perfect atmosphere. There are details about postwar Mafia culture that only close-hand observers would know. The film seems inexpensive but never cheap. As Bill Burr once said, every scene’s a closer.

And Goodfellas illustrates the squalor of Henry’s world. And Trump’s.

As someone once said, Trump is a dumb man’s idea of a smart rich man. But we forget just how dumb that idea is. I mean, here’s a guy in big awkward suits, surrounded by dopey cronies, who lives in a golden penthouse, uses words like “rats,” and chooses to spend his time with thick-necked real estate brokers in Mar-a-Lago.

Goodfellas nailed Trump’s type down to a T. Even if you believe wealth and power and strength are inherently admirable (they’re not), Goodfellas portrays the cheapest, shoddiest versions of those glories—the Trumpian versions, as it were.

During my twentieth time watching it, I was reminded of how weird and broken the characters are, and honestly how little they settle for. Their idea of money is a couple of free hundreds. Their idea of masculinity is bullying their friends. And their idea of power is—what, not getting bothered by the cops and scoring a seat at the Copa?

Trump: A man whose idea of power is large crowds. A man whose loyalty goes one way. A man who forgoes clever lying for easily disproven brags. A thin-skinned man who gives into performative public explosions instead of building power wisely. A profoundly dull, needy, unimaginative man, easily provoked and easily upset.

The underworld of Henry Hill seems so shabby once you’ve read about people with real wealth and real power and real strength. Selling your soul is bad enough, but doing it for so little is doubly humiliating. In the play A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More says: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?”

Another point that Goodfellas is very clear about: everyone here is deluded. Just as Trump is deluded. Every claim Henry makes for The Life is disproven in the course of the film. The whole movie is one long, extended exercise in How Men Miss The Point. And Henry, from the first to the last, takes the wrong lesson. Much as Trump does. That’s the tragic thing about nihilists. They sacrifice so much just to believe in nothing. And nothing is what they get.

We’re told again and again in the film how much loyalty matters. But loyalty doesn’t matter. Not in this film, and not to Trump. The respect economy is make believe. The point of Goodfellas is that these are literally not “good fellas.” Organized crime is a business pretending to be a family. Goodfellas is a story about false laughter, false camaraderie, false everything. These are predators pretending to be blood brothers. That’s why so much of the male friendship in the movie has this bizarre, edgy dream logic to it. These are paranoid, insecure, desperate losers clawing at each other to stay afloat. Human feeling is alien to them, as it is to Trump.

Goodfellas feeds into the The Sopranos, and The Sopranos feeds into Trump. As one Reddit user put it, Tony Soprano’s descent into dark misanthropy—his alienation of everyone in his life—is the path of the MAGA suburban dad. Tony is unable to stop being selfish, or to tell himself the truth. He couldn’t face his own choices, any more than Henry or Karen could. That’s Trump’s base, and it’s Trump himself.

Sure, Horatio Alger was the lie that square America told itself. But the edgy alternative, Goodfellas, is also a shabby untruth. The lie that, with the right friends, or the right crew, or the right deal, you can jump in line ahead of all those suckers. People who take Goodfellas at face value are distantly related to people who take Fox News seriously. There’s nobody easier to con than people who think they can’t be conned. When you get a free second, ask an Alex Jones listener about nutritional supplements.

The Trump White House (like Goodfellas) is full of people who spent their lives conning other people, only to fall for the biggest con of all, as Paul Manafort’s week has detailed. They all played themselves into following a deluded schmuck, and believing his childish lies. Like Henry Hill, Trump wants to avoid living his life like an average nobody. But the point of the movie is that only a schnook would seriously believe in The Life. There’s no fool like a man desperate to be nobody’s fool, and guess what? He’s the President. Donald, you sure are a funny guy.

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