“I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says, like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!”
So spake Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), wailing the eternal lament of the weakest child, the passed-over son, the sibling no one takes seriously.
This week, that looks like Donald Trump Jr.
On Tuesday, the general tenor of that 70 percent of the country not devoted to the Trump administration read the TV chyrons and social-media updates in bemused shock. What did Junior actually believe he was doing when he got out ahead of a New York Times report on his 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-linked attorney by tweeting out the e-mails in which that meeting was set up? The e-mails that used phrases like “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary,” and “I love it especially later in the summer.” The smoking gun e-mails that seem to prove that Trump Jr. — and Trump advisers Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, to whom the e-mail chain was forwarded — sought collusion with a foreign government in an attempt to sway a US election.
Was this an effort “to be totally transparent,” as was claimed? Is Trump Jr. actually so stupid as to think the e-mails revealed nothing amiss?
Is the man that ethically challenged? Or is he our era’s Fredo Corleone, desperate for a little respect and cutting deals with people he shouldn’t be — people smarter than he — in an effort to please the family’s big cheese?
I realize this reading puts Donald Trump Sr. in the Vito Corleone role, which doesn’t really wash. The Don shrank from publicity, while The Donald courts it. Corleone was Machiavellian; Trump is maladroit. Maybe Eric is hothead Sonny, and maybe Mike Pence is family consigliere Tom Hagen, but only in his dreams is son-in-law Jared Kushner a stand-in for rising son Michael Corleone. Although Ivanka — Ivanka might make a good Michael.
Donald Jr.? Fredo all the way. On Tuesday, the Internet seemed to agree, with images and GIFs popping up all over social media of John Cazale, the late, great actor who portrayed the runt of the Corleone litter. As there was a strong element of pathos to Cazale’s Fredo — the hurt behind a lifetime of being ignored — so there was an element of both sympathy and schadenfreude behind the Junior/Fredo parallels.
To be so intent on saving the family honor and yet to be so profoundly mistaken about the impact of the action you’re taking — why, it’s very nearly touching. Might even be if it didn’t reveal the tip of the iceberg of what may prove to be one of the worst cases of collusion in this country’s history. (Double-checking here: Subverting one country’s democratic process with the aid of another country not notably partial to democracy, when that country has a stake in the outcome— is that collusion? If not, why not?)
But let’s talk about stupidity for a moment. Every last one of us is certain we’re smart, or smart enough, even when the evidence to the contrary may be overwhelming. That said, the damage that some stupid people do — to themselves and those around them — is generally in direct proportion to their belief in the infallibility of their ideas.
When that sense of infallibility conflicts with reality, the response can be confession, chagrin, adaptation — or it can be anger, fingers in the ears, and a general demonizing of the messenger. We’ve seen a lot of the latter directed at the nation’s media: If it’s “fake news,” you don’t have to pay attention to it, do you?
But sometimes the pose slips and something real and fearful slips out. The response of the #MAGA faithful to the e-mails’ release was an all-caps online tantrum, as if shouting would make it all go away. As further revelations come, if they do, we may get closer to the resentment — the pure, needy fury — at the heart of the matter.
It’s right there in Fredo’s climactic speech at the climax of “Part II,” when decades of festering slights boil over in a rage so childishly pure that it breaks your heart. (But not his brother Michael’s heart; that’s why he’s the smartest character in the movie as well as its villain.) It’s the same flickering light bulb that comes on over Brando’s Terry Malloy in the linchpin scene of “On the Waterfront,” when he says, “I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum. Which is what I am.” That nanosecond of self-knowledge may be the very essence of tragedy.
It would be interesting if we got something like that from one of the Trump brigade before this circus was over, provided the big top itself is still standing at the end. Maybe such a speech would sound like tragedy. Maybe like just desserts. But at this point in time, with the smoke from the e-mails still hanging over the Trump administration, it wouldn’t be surprising if Donald Sr. gave Donald Jr. a big Corleone kiss and said, “I know it was you, Fredo.”
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.