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Keep Fredo’s Name Out of Your Mouth

Michaels are extinct, by the way

An interesting assumption on the far right of American politics is that the progressive left has any love for guys like Joe Biden, Bill Maher or the anchors at CNN. A gaffe or provocation from one of these characters quickly becomes grist for the eternal flamewar between a couple million Twitter goons, up to and very much including the president, our shitposter-in-chief. That’s how we go from raw video of CNN’s Chris Cuomo yelling at dudes who called him “Fredo” — which he declared an anti-Italian slur on par with the N-word — to Trump agreeing with the hecklers.

In the great wide field of human insignificance, this feud ranks as one of the least consequential ever. It does not matter. At all. If you had any self-respect, you’d be reading about what’s going down in Hong Kong instead. Still here? Ah, thought so. Then we may as well cut through the dumber elements of the discourse (no, “Fredo” isn’t like the N-word, whatever its overtones of ethnic insult) to a matter of genuine interest: the ongoing failure to understand Fredo Corleone.

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A richly tragic and complex figure in The Godfather saga, Fredo has lately been reduced to a term of sheer loserdom, usually as compared against the success of a sibling. Urban Dictionary defines this archetype as the proverbial “black sheep” of a family, “the goof and the screw up.” This is the simplistic reading that branded, for example, President George W. Bush as a Fredo, with older brother Jeb filling in as an accomplished, even-handed Michael Corleone figure. Maybe this casting applied in their youth, but W. is the brother who finally occupied the White House, and even if, like Fredo, he served his terms as a nominal underboss with little actual power, that would make Dick Cheney the Michael — then we’ve lost the whole dynastic angle. Meanwhile, other people saw W. as Sonny Corleone, the cocky and impulsive eldest son of Vito.

What a mess. Better to junk the whole framing. 

But after Obama, along come the Trumps, creating another plum opportunity to view our national politics through a Godfather lens. Donald Trump has five children, one more than Vito: three sons, two daughters. The Trumps are heavily, transparently invested in the consolidation of power within their bloodline, meanwhile demanding total, unquestioning loyalty from cronies. Trump’s ties to the actual mafia, set next to his alleged crimes, add to the overall tapestry. Surely there’s a Fredo in here somewhere, no? Almost everyone would point to Donald Trump Jr., a glaring liability for his immediate relatives, and one who appears well aware of the reputation.   

It’s true that Don Jr. ticks plenty of the Fredo boxes: He creates problems for the family business by asserting a primary role, never shuts up when he ought to and wouldn’t recognize a smart decision if it ran him over like his dad on a golf cart. Crucially, he longs for the love and approval his monstrous father has denied him since birth. Yet Fredo is more than a weak, messy dimwit — he possesses, moreover, the rage and resentment to betray the people around him. And Fredo as we understand him isn’t realized until after Vito dies, when he’s forced to submit to his younger brother’s control. Again, you can’t have a Fredo without a Michael, the hyper-competent, cold-blooded heir. That ain’t Ivanka, and it ain’t Eric.

I’ll admit I’m highly intrigued by a future where Donald Sr. is long gone, Barron Trump has seized power and Don Jr. tries to subvert him, only to end up (metaphorically) whacked on a boat at Lake Tahoe. But until it happens…

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Indeed, the Fredo tag is universally inappropriate because Michaels are, as a species, extinct. For Chris Cuomo to be Fredo, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has to be Michael, but he, too, sucks total ass. A Michael needn’t be “good,” of course — Al Pacino’s character was a ruthless antihero — he just needs to be effective. What we tend to see now, instead of men who take up the mantle of a towering patriarch, are male descendants who cannot escape their boyhood. They are “Large Adult Sons,” or “failsons,” thirtysomething dudes of no ability who are only saved from the gutter by the charity of their parents and the privilege into which they were born. 

The resonance here, then, is not with Fredo, but a more recent fictional mob scion: A.J. Soprano. Throughout The Sopranos, the son of North Jersey’s crime boss trips over the lowest of bars, vacillating between bratty entitlement and mental collapse. Tony, his dad, remarks that A.J. could “never make it” in the underworld, lacking both the necessary focus and fortitude. Instead, he will fritter away his life in meaningless hours of distraction and dumbassery — much like the Trump boys sharing racist Twitter memes and whatnot.

Unlike The Godfather, The Sopranos isn’t the story of one man’s rise but the fizzling of an empire, with A.J. as the anticlimax, personified. When Donald Trump departs this world, he leaves behind no Fredo or Michael, only a clutch of incompetent A.J.s, who will be unable to maintain the house of cards he built on his father’s fortune. The same is more or less true across the American aristocracy.

But that’s what you get in an age of collapse — antagonists who wish they were man enough to represent the family interests in Las Vegas.

Truth is, these guys make Fredo look good.