As a firm grasp on reality has become increasingly inadequate to explain the behavior of the Trump administration, we’ve turned increasingly to works of fiction, from King Lear to the Harry Potter series, in hopes of finding some way to make sense of it all. With the latest scandal involving Donald Trump Jr., one comparison in particular seems inevitable.
We should stop calling junior Don. We should start calling him Fredo.— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) July 12, 2017
I haven't seen The Godfather, but based on all the comparisons to Donald Trump Jr., I assume "Fredo" was the name of like, a very dumb goat.— Josh Gondelman (@joshgondelman) July 11, 2017
According to the Daily Beast, the comparison to The Godfather’s hapless scion isn’t just the province of cultural commentators and social media wits: “Fredo” has been some Trump insiders’ nickname for Don Jr. since the early days of the presidential campaign.
Some of the Don Jr.–is–Fredo crowd have already acknowledged the flaws in the analogy, namely that it would, by extension, make Donald Trump the equivalent of Vito Corleone. But you don’t have to play out the string that far to see where the likeness comes up short. Comparing the son of the president of the United States to the impotent, treacherous brother of a fictional Mafia don is grossly unfair. To Fredo.
Yes, Donald Trump Jr. is, like Fredo Corleone, a coddled, semi-competent adult child who owes whatever success he has found in life entirely to his family connections. Sure, Don Jr. managed to compound his disastrous attempt to “help” his father’s campaign by meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton by posting his own incriminating emails to Twitter, much the way Fredo claimed to be aiding his brother, Michael, in making a deal with Hyman Roth by conspiring behind his back and unwittingly set Michael up for an attempt on his life. And OK, both Don Jr. and Fredo seem to have spent their lives struggling and failing to escape the enormous shadow of their successful fathers.
But part of what makes Fredo Corleone such a great and enduring character is that he just wants, at heart, to be respected and, in the case of his brother, loved. He’s not a hateful or violent man, just desperate and sad. Donald Trump Jr. killed a baby elephant for sport and posed with its severed tail; when assassins made an attempt on his father’s life, Fredo was too flustered to even hold a revolver. Don Jr. has been Donald Trump’s hatchet man, doing the dirty work that his father was too smart to sully his hands with. Fredo is a puppy dog; Don Jr. is an attack dog.
What’s more, Fredo Corleone was played by John Cazale, who may have the best (brief) track record of any actor in movie history. Cazale, who died at the age of 42, acted in only five movies, but every one of them was nominated for multiple Oscars, and four of them won at least once. Perhaps you could argue that, as far as presidential campaigns go, Donald Trump Jr. has an undefeated 1–0 record, but it seems pretty unlikely that in 40 years we’ll look back on the Trump presidency the way we do The Godfather, or even The Deer Hunter. If you really need a cinematic analogue for the Trump administration, try the words “Oscar winner Suicide Squad.”