Warning: The following Opinion-Editorial contains MAJOR spoilers from the TV series “The Sopranos,” which incidentally has been off the air for 12 years…
Years back, on Facebook, during Donald Trump’s seemingly doomed run for the presidency, I made a joke that Trump was very similar to the character Ralph Cifaretto from “The Sopranos.” The similarities were at turns superficial and meaningful: both have red hair, both are obnoxious chop busters, both have disturbing women problems, and both crashed the party of their professions as fundamental outsiders.
As time’s gone on, though, the parallel has deepened. I invite my left-leaning readers (whose ranks I count myself among) to hook up to an oxygen machine and take a nice deep breath:
For in addition to what I’ve listed above, Donald Trump and Ralph Cifaretto are also good at their jobs.
Trump told us that was coming. He said in the early days that he’d do a good job. Most of us in blue states were too busy hiding under our beds and sucking our thumbs to really hear it. We were correctly concerned about his clear autocratic tendencies: the Muslim travel ban, the transgender military ban, the inhumane incarceration at our southern border. Meanwhile, the presence of Steve Bannon in the White House wasn’t exactly soothing, either.
But time has passed. He’s cleaned house. He’s slashed regulations and delivered major tax reform. In the process, he’s led during a remarkably robust and healthy economy, one which happens to be delivering major gains for women of color in the workforce. Another staggering turnaround? This man took 8% of the African-American vote in 2016, yet found himself enjoying a 36% approval rating among African-Americans by 2018. And although he’s currently teasing at a variety of wars, the truth is, he’s yet to take our country into one, an uncommon feature for any given U.S. president.
Add to this the factor which perhaps gave him The White House — an American left that manages to simultaneously be (A) intensely divided in terms of its message and values yet (B) intensely inflammatory and reactive around alternative political points-of-view (which has lately led to (C) a tendency to alienate many one-time adherents) — and Trump’s coming to be seen among many in a better light. As a cherry on top, Russiagate has concluded in his favor, leading to a widespread sentiment along the lines of “Maybe the poor guy was simply misunderstood!”
But now let’s bring it back to Ralph Cifaretto…
Ralphie was a problem from the get-go. He’d walk into a room, slinging loud insults in the form of wisecracks, and everybody would grow instantly tense. The paradox was, he was an excellent earner. His exemplary job performance fueled his cockiness. In one of the greatest shots in “Sopranos” history, we go into the don Tony Soprano’s point-of-view. He recently, suddenly lost a top earner; the guy wasn’t even murdered, he died of a freak ailment on the toilet. Absent a replacement, Tony takes a look at a handful of options. The camera pans along with his gaze. And man, are these guys pathetic. The camera shows us as much without the need for dialogue: they just look weak and slouchy.
Until the shot lands on Ralphie.
We can feel Tony’s frustration. Ralphie’s the only one who’s up to it. Forget the fact that Ralphie’s a piece of crap — inclined to get coked up and beat a young stripper to death for the crime of carrying his unborn child — he’s capable of delivering money, and keeping the family’s cash flow healthy. Everybody’s long wanted him out. Nobody would miss him if he was gone. But Tony, seeking a fresh burst of energy — not unlike 62 million Americans in 2016 — puts Ralphie into the position.
Then what happens? Well, kind of like what’s happening right now with Trump: things get normalized. Everything settles. On the TV show, they forget all about what Ralphie did to the stripper (even though it’s in the back of their minds). In real life, many of us have conveniently cast aside the 20 sexual assault/misconduct allegations against the president, so busy are we enjoying this nice economy.
I recall what several of my Republican friends said to me, when justifying their decision to vote for him. It was repeatedly a variation of “I don’t like him as a person, but I think he’ll be good for the economy.”
In other words, to quote Spock, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
It may be overwhelmingly clear that Trump is personally racist, but so what if his economy is lifting all ships with the tide (putting aside far-left notions of our economy being inherently racist no matter what)? It may be overwhelmingly clear that Trump is a man who has done horrible things, but so what if he’s effective, efficient, and useful while on the clock?
I’m not mocking the above questions. They’re good ones. Tony Soprano had to wrestle with them. What do you do when someone’s an abomination, yet a useful and valuable abomination? Do you keep him around or throw out the baby with the bathwater?
I think “The Sopranos” solves this question well. For many episodes after Ralphie settles into his new position, laying off the coke and becoming somewhat tolerable much of the time, he goes ahead and does something striking but utterly unsurprising:
He kills Pie-O-My.
Pie-O-My is Tony’s beloved racing horse. Ralphie kills him ostensibly to collect on an insurance policy, but also because he’s a sick freaking maniac. He tries to hide the action behind a fire, but Tony sees through it, and confronts him at his house. It’s delicate timing, as Ralphie’s young son has just been badly injured in an archery accident. So Tony rather tries to skirt around the issue. But Ralphie, being Ralphie, doesn’t like being questioned. The two men start yelling. Then they start fighting.
Then Tony strangles Ralphie to death on the kitchen floor.
Tony had wanted to do just that for months — ever since the stripper, if not well before then. In typical cynical “Sopranos” fashion, it takes the murder of a horse, rather than the murder of a woman, to finally get Tony out for justice. But justice comes, and the problem of Ralph Cifaretto is taken care of.
Now what about Trump’s presidency? Don’t let him lull you. Don’t let the turning of the media page — Russiagate over, economy singing, minorities with a piece of the pie — persuade you into thinking that this man’s worth voting for. ‘Cause just like Ralphie was always Ralphie, Trump will always be Trump. Someday, he’ll suddenly remind us again. It’s in his nature. He very likely won’t burn down a horse stable, but in all likelihood what he does do will be jarring and unforgivable.
Spock was right: The needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few. But when all is said and done, a bad man who happens to be good at his job isn’t really good at his job, for at the end of the day, he’s still a bad man. Which means he bears the weight and the baggage and the inclinations of a bad man. Ralphie reminded us. Trump will, too — if we dare keep him around.
The needs of the many remain very much at stake.