One of the more common (and more frivolous) complaints about the Trump administration is that it has obliterated satire. The truth is so upsetting, and so ridiculous, that fiction is now useless. We’ve lost all precedent, all context. Cynical political farces like Veep or even loopy melodramas like House of Cards can’t keep up. Neither, it turns out, can The Godfather.
On Tuesday, The New York Times reported on a June 2016 email exchange between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and an intermediary writing on behalf of a Russian former business partner of the now-president offering damaging oppo research on Hillary Clinton, provided by what the Times described as "a senior Russian government official." As the intermediary explained, "This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump."
To which Trump’s oldest son, Donald Jr., replied, "If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer." Another reason we know this is because Donald Jr. tweeted screenshots of the entire email exchange shortly before the Times story broke.
Here’s a free piece of political advice: Don’t do that. Don’t exchange pleasantries with a potential agent for a hostile foreign government in the midst of your father’s presidential campaign. And don’t tweet evidence that you did that in a bid to convince people that you didn’t do that. What’s the matter with you? You know who’d do something that brazen and stupid?
Fredo Corleone, that’s who. At least, that’s the implication of a Daily Beast report posted Sunday, long before Don Jr. tried to tweet through it:
Ever since the campaign, a popular, behind-his-back nickname for Trump Jr. among some in his father’s political inner circle has been "Fredo," referring to Fredo Corleone, the insecure and weak failure of a son in The Godfather series who ends up causing major damage to the crime family and contributing little of value. This has been relayed to The Daily Beast in several stories by Team Trump veterans over the past several weeks.
Given the Trump administration’s bungling — its singular cocktail of contempt and incompetence — a broader and even harsher theory has emerged:
Vanity Fair quickly moved to corroborate this omni-Fredo theory, convincingly. And as shorthand for "They’re all mean-spirited loser idiots," this unkind analogy satisfies as gallows humor, if not political analysis. It’s fun, is what I mean. It’s fun to rewatch Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (’74) and scour them for snarky, absurdist modern-day analogies. Here, for example, is rare footage of Don Jr. using his phone to tweet evidence meant to quell a raging political scandal.
But the key phrase in that Simon Maloy tweet up there is "I can’t maintain the analogy any longer." Nobody can. It is instructive to examine the Fredo Archetype — to interrogate one of the few remaining pop-cultural touchstones that might even begin to explain how the Trump family operates. But you can only reach the conclusion that the comparison fails, that poor, sweet, hapless, doomed Fredo can’t explain this, either.
Let’s start by saying something nice: Fredo gets the single funniest line in either movie. Right at the end of Godfather Part II, in a flashback scene of the Corleone family gathered peacefully together, long before they’re all murdered or irreparably damaged. The topic is the recent bombing of Pearl Harbor. The oldest Corleone son, the brash and impetuous Sonny, is appalled: "Dropping bombs in our own backyard, on Pop’s birthday." To which Fredo, the timid middle son, timidly replies, "Ahh, they didn’t know it was Pop’s birthday."
Grant him this small victory. For the preceding six hours or so, he’s been the most cruelly, vividly, and expertly drawn loser in cinematic history.
Fredo is introduced as a bumbling, simpering lush with no social skills, no prospects, no upside. Both his older brother Sonny and his quietly ascendant younger brother Michael regard him as a lost cause, and this is before he watches helplessly as his father is shot in the street, bumbling with his own gun and whimpering over the body. Nobody ever even gives him any crap about that, because what did you expect? Later, to keep him out of the way, he is dispatched to Las Vegas, where both his moral compass and his fashion sense rapidly deteriorate.
It is Godfather Part II, of course, where Fredo takes a more central role, emerging as the saga’s ultimate tragic figure. He has grown an ineffective mustache. We meet his wife, Deanna, who disrespects him immediately by dancing lasciviously with some other dude at Fredo’s nephew’s first communion party. ("You’re just jealous because he’s a real man," she jibes, before Fredo weakly consents to letting somebody else kick her out.) After an assassination attempt, Michael, as the new family kingpin, gathers his forces, and does not count his older brother among them: "Fredo? He’s got a good heart. But he’s weak, and he’s stupid. And this is life and death."
Soon, we learn that Fredo is complicit in that assassination attempt, albeit in a weak, oblivious sort of way. He can’t even betray his family right.
The indignities pile up. He struggles to open a suitcase full of money. He describes Havana as "my kind of town." He orders a banana daiquiri. He brags about hanging out with Johnny Ola immediately after denying having ever met Johnny Ola. He is depicted, in flashback, as a screaming, naked baby riddled with pneumonia.
It’s pathetic. It’s a little too pathetic, really. The only thing keeping Fredo from cheap caricature, from soap-opera villainy, is the actor playing him, John Cazale. Cazale’s claim to fame is that he appeared in five movies — the first two Godfathers, plus Dog Day Afternoon, The Conversation, and The Deer Hunter — all of which were nominated for Academy Awards. (His player efficiency rating is unreal.) As Fredo, he provides a master class in how much strength it takes to convincingly convey weakness, how much subtlety it requires to avoid garish unsubtlety.
Projecting all of this onto Don Jr. is a wild oversimplification, just like anything on Twitter, or like most statements made anywhere, in the year 2017. You can quibble with the details: Isn’t it the arrogant and furious Sonny who spends most of his screen time acting Not Mad Online IRL? Or you can take a more nuanced and clear-eyed view of Fredo himself.
The whole point of Fredo is his singularity, his isolation. There can be only one, defined by the love and respect he can never get, that everyone else in the family already has. "I can handle things — I’m smart!" he shouts at Michael, climactically, powerlessly. "Not like everybody says, like dumb! I’m smart! And I want respect!"
Michael, in a near-whisper, just kicks him out of the family, and soon, Fredo goes fishing. Because the point of Fredo is not that he’s a brash asshole who digs his own grave and gets what he deserves. The point is that he’s too passive a figure to do anything as emphatic as act brash, or conspire against anybody, or even dig a hole in the ground. He’s not defined by his actions. He’s defined by his inaction, by how little everyone in his family thinks of him.
Every time Donald Trump Jr. does something hostile or ill-advised in public, a Facebook post from shortly before Election Day resurfaces, written by Scott Melker, who describes himself as an old classmate of Don Jr.’s at the University of Pennsylvania. He recalls watching Don Jr. be humiliated by his father for trying to wear a Yankees jersey to see a baseball game: "Without saying a word, his father slapped him across the face, knocking him to the floor in front of all of his classmates. He simply said ‘put on a suit and meet me outside,’ and closed the door."
A Twitter recirculation of a Facebook post hardly counts as damning, incontrovertible evidence, here in the Fake News Era. That account may well be as fictional as The Godfather itself. But real or not, that’s the Don Jr. story that most clearly evokes Fredo. He’s not the point man for a quasisophisticated international conspiracy. He’s the demeaned and impotent figure subsumed by it. Fiction remains an excellent way to escape our fraught current reality. It has never been a less effective means of explaining it.