Donald Trump's narcissistic, authoritarian instincts and the man's clear admiration of Vladimir Putin's gangster-capitalist leadership style makes me think of archetypal killers. During his campaign for president he spoke often of killing; he would anonymously refer to some of his business friends as "real killers," which was meant as a compliment on their skills and effectiveness. There was the remark he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. Lately, it's his public intervention in military discipline issues lionizing Seal Team Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, who's accused of being an overly enthusiastic killer.
This is not so unusual, of course, since Mr. Trump is a bona fide creation of American culture and we tend to revere killers in this culture. Richard Slotkin wrote a powerful trilogy of books on this aspect of American history beginning with Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600 1860. The final book, Gunfighter Nation, covers the 20th century.
"In American mythogenesis the founding fathers were not those eighteenth-century gentlemen who composed a nation at Philadelphia. Rather, they were those who . . . tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness. . . . Their concerns, their hopes, their terrors, their violence, and their justifications of themselves . . . are the foundation stones of the mythology that informs our history." Thus his thesis: "the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience." That is, when America hit a snag or a problem, look out, violence was coming.
Martin Scorcese's latest (and maybe greatest) gangster movie, The Irishman, is a three-and-a-half-hour paean to the killer in urban America. Robert DeNiro is Frank Sheeran, a made mob killer who's always algebraically calculating on which side his bread is buttered. The core drama of this gangster epic is how and why Sheeran ends up whacking his good friend Jimmy Hoffa.
Besides its epic drama, the film is a long You Tube how-to lesson in the finer points of knocking somebody off: One, clear the hit with the bosses; two, plan as much as possible to encounter your target in an out-of-the-way place; and three, if you know the victim, walk right up to him, exchange pleasantries and shoot him point blank two or three times in the head with a small, snub-nosed .38. Then you pop off a couple quick shots at the prone, twitching body to seal the deal. Finally, you fling the weapon into the nearest river.
There used to be a code in Hollywood movies that the ending must comport with the idea that crime doesn't pay. In our age of open-secret corruption, that code no longer prevails. In this case, Sheeran does some jail time for "bullshit" crimes, which is part of the swaggering lifestyle. But they never get our man for murder. The sentence he suffers is permanent alienation from his beloved daughter Peggy who will never speak with him again. The film ends with our urban American killer in a wheelchair ignominiously facing his own death alone in an old-folks home in Philadelphia. He never gets to see how he's immortalized by Scorsese and Netflicks, which financed the film.
From Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar to Paul Muni and Pacino in two versions of Scarface, the gangster killer has fascinated American culture almost as much as the mythic western gunfighter immortalized from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood. Today, our favorite killers tend to be divided into protagonists and their antagonists engaged in our foreign wars.
Donald Trump may be, according to a psychiatrist interviewed by Lawrence O'Donnell recently, a man who thinks in a "simple", "primitive" and un-empathetic way that was established when he was quite young; one thing he's particularly good at is couching everything in a cultural fashion that aligns with his narcissistic mind. No one knows better than he does how important the killer is as an American archetype. Beyond this archetypal/mythic reality, Trump clearly understands what a critical tool killers can be in the pursuit and retention of power.