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OPINION

The Trump family and the Corleone Doctrine

It is certainly no cause for glee that the most powerful man in the world should aspire to be a mafioso. Yet there may be worse figures to imitate than Vito Corleone.

Bonasera, portrayed by Frank Puglia, asks Don Vito Corleone, portrayed by Marlon Brando, right, for a favor in a scene from the 1972 film "The Godfather."
Bonasera, portrayed by Frank Puglia, asks Don Vito Corleone, portrayed by Marlon Brando, right, for a favor in a scene from the 1972 film "The Godfather."AP

The aftermath of the killing of Iran’s Major General Qassem Soleimani, the mastermind of Tehran’s dirty wars, not only confirmed the weakness of the Iranian government, it also exposed the weakness of President Trump’s domestic opponents.

The Iranians launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq that house American troops. No lives were lost, because the strike appears to have been preceded by a warning to the Iraqi government. Yet it seems, the Iranians mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian Boeing 737 as it took off from Tehran airport, killing all 176 passengers and crew.

No doubt there will be more threats of retaliation. No doubt there will be more missiles fired. And no doubt there will be fewer passengers on planes to Tehran.

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Meanwhile the Democrats fired their metaphorical missiles at the president. They were no more accurate. The only difference was that they did more damage to themselves than to any innocent bystanders.

“Innocent civilians are now dead because they were caught in the middle of an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat,” tweeted Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a Democratic presidential candidate.

Joe Biden, who remains the Democratic front-runner in the opinion polls, was not to be outdone. “Anything that Barack and I did, [Trump]’s determined to undo,” Biden said during a speech at a private fundraiser in California. “This is the guy who said he wanted to end endless wars in the Middle East,” Biden went on. But “the end result … is we find ourselves more vulnerable.”

Very vulnerable. During a news conference with other Democrats on Wednesday, US Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said she “felt ill” because of “everything that is taking place” in the Middle East. “Every time I hear about … conversations around war,” she continued, “I find myself being stricken with PTSD.” She later tweeted: “Trump is on the brink of dragging us into an endless war.”

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On Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a resolution that Trump must seek approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Announcing the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the killing of Soleimani “provocative and disproportionate.”

The Democrats have now had three years to figure out Trump and they still haven’t got it. Of course no one could predict with certainty how the Iranians would react to Soleimani’s killing. But what could be predicted was that Trump did not intend to start an “endless war.” On the contrary. I am not sure quite how the Democrats will react when, as I think likely, Trump simply accedes to the wish of the Iraqi government to withdraw the remaining US troops from Iraq, and then blithely starts negotiations with Iran. So accustomed are Pelosi and company to accusing Republicans of being warmongers that they cannot fathom how Trump could first take out Soleimani and then take out his own troops.

Yet, as Walter Russell Mead explained in the Wall Street Journal, this is a quintessentially Jacksonian foreign policy move, in the spirit of Andrew Jackson, the president Steve Bannon told Trump to make his role model. Like his supporters in red-state America, Trump has no appetite for the “endless wars” they associate with George W. Bush’s administration. But he and they also believe that the United States should retaliate against attacks on Americans. (Nawres Hamid, a naturalized US citizen, was killed by an Iranian-backed militia attack while working as an interpreter near Kirkuk on December 27.)

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As Mead put it in his book “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World,” a Jacksonian believes “that the most important goal of the US government in both foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and the economic well-being of the American people.” Neo-conservative nation-building or liberal interventionism are not on the Jacksonian menu. It’s all about “Don’t Tread on Me!” — the rattlesnake’s warning on the Revolutionary battle flag.

Since mid-2018, I have argued that Trump has an incentive to make Jacksonian foreign policy waves in an election year. It guarantees that he dominates the airwaves, depriving his Democratic rivals of the oxygen of media coverage. It also encourages the Democrats to sound like a bunch of wimps.

Yet there is another influence at work here, besides that of Andrew Jackson.

I am certainly not the first person to notice the influence of “The Godfather” on the president. Former FBI director James Comey said in a 2018 interview that Trump’s style gave him “a flashback to my days investigating the Mafia.” Trump’s way of establishing a tie of loyalty to him, Comey has written, was “like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony — with Trump in the role of the family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man.’”

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Jailed Trump lawyer Michael Cohen once described himself as the Trump organization’s Tom Hagen, the consigliere played by Robert Duvall in “The Godfather” films. Jailed Trump adviser Roger Stone once urged an associate who was supposed to testify against him to “do a Frank Pentangeli.” Trump himself has alluded to “The Godfather,” for example, when he mocked CNN anchor Chris Cuomo by repeatedly calling him “Fredo.” According to CBS, “The Godfather” is one of the president’s top three favorite movies — after “Bloodsport” and “Goodfellas,” and just ahead of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

After the lofty foreign policy doctrines of the past — from the Monroe Doctrine to the Reagan Doctrine — the Corleone Doctrine is hardly the stuff of international relations theory. It is certainly no cause for glee that the most powerful man in the world should aspire to be a mafioso. Yet in the realm of Realpolitik, there may be worse figures to imitate than Vito Corleone.

At the heart of Trump’s seemingly erratic approach to international relations is the dream of making Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei an offer he can’t refuse; the fond wish to have North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sleep with the fishes; the fantasy of leaving the severed head of his favorite horse in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s bed. Trump’s admiration of Vladimir Putin rests on the Russian president’s distinctly mafioso style.

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I quite see why the Council on Foreign Relations deplores all this. But Democrats underestimate at their peril how very well it plays in Middle America. For “The Godfather” is one of the most popular films of all time, and for good reasons.

It is a tale of gangsters, of course — of crime and violence. But it is also one of the great family sagas, inspired by “The Brothers Karamazov.” And, at its heart, “The Godfather” is about succession. We all know who the Don is: Donald. The big question is: who’s Michael?

The appearance of Donald Trump Jr.’s book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list in November offered a hint. In the wake of the Iranian wet job, its title — “Triggered” — has a new significance.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.