The Sopranos Is the Perfect Show to Help Us Understand the Trump Era
Tony Soprano is a bully with a deep distrust of the FBI — just like our current president
He’s a swaggering, narcissistic bully whose waistline balloons as the pressure builds. He’s racist, sexist, and chauvinist — but saves his harshest words for the FBI. He inherits his father’s sketchy business, but almost loses everything when his witless cronies bungle a clandestine meeting with the Russians.
I’m talking, of course, about Tony Soprano, the boss of North Jersey. And I am also talking, of course, about Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States. Twenty years after a mob boss walked into a psychiatrist’s office to launch a series, and four years after a mogul rode down an escalator to launch a campaign, the resemblance is uncanny.
Despite living in a golden age of television, I rewatch The Sopranos like clockwork every year. Partly it’s because it’s one of those rare shows that always offers something new on repeated viewing. Mostly it’s compulsive. Birds fly south. I hit play on the pilot. Which, until fairly recently, is not the kind of thing I would have mentioned to a casual acquaintance, let alone the entire internet. It hardly suggests time well spent.
Then Trump came along. The leads of David Chase’s drama and our national one aren’t identical (Trump would never see a therapist; Tony’s casinos never lost money). But The Sopranos, improbably, might just be the most relevant show of 2019. Plenty of fantastic shows have grappled with our current political moment, from The Handmaid’s Tale and Jane the Virgin to The Colbert Report and Jimmy Kimmel Live! But if you want to understand Donald Trump, and the political moment that spawned him, there’s no substitute for The Sopranos, a series that premiered before today’s youngest voters were even born.
The Sopranos helps explain how people — even otherwise decent people — could fall for Trump’s larger-than-life persona.
More than anything else, The Sopranos captures the blend of power, insecurity, and resentment that lies at the core of Trumpism. There’s Tony, with his pool and McMansion, living large. He, like nearly all his accomplices, is doing better than their parents ever did — he’s taken big risks, and those risks have paid off. Violent criminality aside, he’s living the American dream.
Yet Tony is unhappy, and so are most members of his crew. All their success feels tenuous, and not just because there’s always the possibility of getting clipped. “I feel like I came in at the end,” Tony tells his shrink, Dr. Melfi, in the pilot episode. Despite his house on the hill and boat in the marina, when he imagines greatness he conjures up a bygone era. Tony doesn’t end the episode by donning a Make America Great Again cap. But it’s easy to see how, with his nostalgic fantasy of the past and gloomy outlook for the future, he could.
Tony also shares the #MAGA crowd’s resentment, often bordering on envy, of elites. No matter how rich he becomes, or how much of Jersey he controls, he will always be looked down on by the secure, smug professionals thriving in the white-collar world. Want to know why Trump, the most powerful man on earth, has such thin skin? Just grab your parents’ HBOGo password and fire up “A Hit is a Hit,” the season one episode where Tony becomes a golf-course punchline to his neighbor, Dr. Cusamano, and the rest of his polo-shirt wearing pals. The boss of New Jersey is a made man, but at the end of the episode, after failing to fit in, he’s still denied a seat at the table he so desperately seeks. There’s nothing wrong with playing public courses, but in Tony’s eyes, it means he’s destined to be a second-class citizen. And he’s angry about it.
That anger feeds directly into his racism. To hear Tony and his crew tell it, the white working-class (and especially the white, Italian working class) is the group that’s truly marginalized. There’s a constant fear that some other group — often a black or brown group — is just waiting to take their place. In one scene in the third season, Tony goes berserk upon discovering his daughter Meadow is dating a fellow student who’s half African American. If Tony wasn’t worth several million dollars, a pundit might diagnose his condition as “economic anxiety.”
As it is, Tony’s anxiety, while not economic, is very real. On that note, it’s worth taking another look at the season four episode “Christopher,” which has long been the most-maligned episode in the series. Sure, the crew’s outrage over a planned Columbus Day protest might be heavy-handed, but then again so is politics in 2019. Like Tony, Trump sees success as a zero-sum game between competing tribes. He can’t imagine that other people might take a more expansive view.
In fact, this assumption that everyone is as crooked as the boss pervades The Sopranos — and the Trump administration. To Tony’s family, there is no such thing as justice divorced from self-interest. Whether something is right or wrong, true or false, is entirely a function of whether it helps you get ahead. Just watch as Tony manipulates his own crew in “The Strong, Silent Type” covering up his murder of fellow made guy Ralphie Cifaretto. He lies with remarkable fluency. And these days, his performance is remarkably familiar.
Which begs the question: why would anyone throw in their lot with a jealous, boorish, bigoted pathological liar? The Sopranos provides an answer for that, too.
The genius of James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony is that you can’t help but be drawn to him. The characters on the show certainly are. When he’s not in the throes of depression, his irrational self-confidence is infectious. He’s charming. He can make people feel special and — when it suits him — he’s deeply loyal to those he loves. He has a contagious, childlike quality. As Dr. Melfi puts it, “He can be such a little boy sometimes.”
There’s another way in which he’s a little boy as well. In “No Show,” Tony’s wife, Carmela, tells Meadow, “Just getting what you want is for babies, not adults.” But that’s news to Tony. He steals. He betrays. He cheats, both on his wife and for a living. And he gets away with it. For those who fall into his corrupting orbit, there’s the intoxicating sense that when you’re with him, the rules no longer apply. You can live as selfishly as you want to, without responsibility or consequence. I suspect it’s the same noxious, intoxicating feeling some people get from a Trump rally.
Nor is it just the show’s characters who Tony, and Gandolfini, so expertly fooled. He fooled much of the audience as well. The first time I watched the show, back in the early 2000s, I found myself rooting for Tony. It was only later, with the maturity that comes with age (or more likely a half-dozen viewings) that I began to realize I, like so many others, had fallen for Tony Soprano’s bullshit. Tony is so convincingly larger than life, so thoroughly the protagonist of his story, that it’s easy to mistake him for a hero.
The Sopranos helps explain how people — even otherwise decent people — could fall for Trump’s larger-than-life persona. For willing henchmen like Lindsey Graham, Trumpism offers a strangely fulfilling promise: freedom from confining respectability, with none of the consequences.
Yet not everyone falls for Trump’s act — or for Tony’s. A select few characters — a traffic cop who Tony has fired for not letting him out of a ticket, and who refuses to take his money even after losing his job; restaurant co-owner Charmaine Bucco, who holds her ground even when it puts her marriage at risk — resist Tony’s appeal. What separates them from their corrupted neighbors is a refusal to bend even the slightest bit. Where others dip a toe across the line, hoping to get just a taste of lawless freedom without paying the price, the resistors’ boundaries are absolute. This makes them seem stubborn, at times even extreme. But an unwillingness to compromise is what allows them to hold their ground.
Of course, refusing to engage with Trumpism isn’t really an option for Americans today. Like it or not, he’s the president. We’re all in his orbit.
Which is why, in 2019, the most important character in The Sopranos might be Svetlana Kirilenko, the Russian nurse (and cousin of Tony’s mistress) who looks after Tony’s aging mother and uncle. Hardened by life in the former Soviet Union, she has no time for Americans and their insecure nonsense. She faces the kind of obstacle most characters on the show couldn’t imagine — she walks with a prosthetic leg — but never shows self-pity or existential angst. She’s not wealthy. She’s not powerful. But she is secure.
Most importantly, she knows who she is. And that self-knowledge helps her understand what drives others as well. About halfway through the series, Svetlana sleeps with Tony; he suggests a follow-up liaison, and she turns him down him in cold, matter-of-fact terms. “I don’t think so,” she says. “I don’t want to prop you up.”
She’s not just rejecting Tony. She’s rejecting the idea of Tony — the notion that he’s the North Jersey version of the generals he watches in his history documentaries. She looks through Tony’s swagger and sees the gaping insecurity lying underneath. It’s one of the rare times, perhaps the only time, where Tony is made powerless in a relationship.
For those of us wondering how to tackle Trump, there’s a valuable lesson in that: If you want to take on the mob, there’s no more powerful weapon than a sense of self. Knowing who you are and what really matters doesn’t help you win the game. It transcends the game. It makes the liars and bullies look pathetic for playing. And it makes them powerless as a result.
Let’s hope the 2020 candidates have access to HBO.