Among our neighbors to the north and south, pundits and political leaders are warning us that Donald J. Trump’s candidacy bears a strong resemblance to the rise of dictators like Mussolini and Hitler. A columnist for the Toronto Sun who compares Trump to Hitler claims that we Americans need to reboot our political gene pool, while the president of Mexico, in these very pages, likens Trump’s demagoguery to “how Mussolini got in, that’s how Hitler got in.”
These easy allusions are to be expected, but what is surprising are the frequent references that align the flamboyant Trump and some of the other candidates with Al Capone, the legendary gangster who has been dead since 1947. In articles and blog posts, depending on the political persuasion of the writer, the mobster’s name is evoked as a quick and easy way to say that a vote for any one of the candidates is akin to a vote for Al Capone.
“Al Capone bankrolled Republicans,” writes the Sun columnist before conceding that “not all Republicans are thugs.” A conservative blogger takes on the Democrats when he ponders if Hillary Clinton’s emails will do her in, just as Al Capone’s tax records did to him. The blogger calls it Secretary Clinton’s “Al Capone factor,” while yet another one calls it her “Al Capone moment.” A Clinton supporter bemoans the continuing GOP fixation on her email server but says it is behavior true to form, as the party “regards Clinton as Al Capone in a pants suit.”
A letter writer to a Midwestern newspaper chastises a young voter who he believes has been taken in by Trump’s claim that he is a businessman who understands the situation of the average American worker. The writer admonishes, “So did Al Capone, who understood the ‘average’ person and used them to his advantage.” He is referring to Capone’s comment during the height of Prohibition that he was also a businessman engaged in giving the public what it wanted.
Al Capone makes for easy psychological comparisons such as the one by a writer for a Jewish publication who begins an appraisal of Trump’s character with references to Freud’s Totem and Taboo before he moves on to Erick Erickson’s writings about strong men and their followers, and finally to his own conclusion about the ultimate dictator, Hitler. Not content to end there, he cannot resist alleging that Al Capone was “America’s contemporaneous lawless contribution to the tradition.”
Even former Texas governor Rick Perry once merited a Capone comparison. And when Ted Cruz objected to Margaret Sanger’s portrait being hung in the National Portrait Gallery, a New Yorker writer compared all the candidates’ positions over the Planned Parenthood funding fracas to “the Al Capone option—defending while distancing” themselves either for or against the organization’s continued funding.
Al Capone died in 1947 at the age of 48, his brain so damaged by syphilitic dementia that his mental age was something between seven and 10. His criminal reign was brief, a mere half dozen years in the 1920s, and it ended when he was sentenced to prison, not for his heinous criminal deeds like the (depending on who’s counting) several hundred murders he probably ordered but for tax evasion. He spent almost eight years (1932-1939) in federal prisons far removed from the gangland arena, and in his last years was in the public consciousness only when an enterprising reporter needed to create a story, most of them based on imagination far more often than reality.
When Al Capone was released from prison, Prohibition was long over and the country was in the tight grip of the Great Depression. The Second World War turned the public’s attention away from the domestic arena, and as it raged, Al Capone was spending his last years quietly at his Florida estate. And yet, for the last half of the twentieth century, he has been an ever-growing enigma who has become a major legend within the collective American imagination. His legend has so grown that merely invoking his instantly recognizable name can be made to support whatever point the speaker or writer wishes to convey.
Gangsterologists (those who specialize in the study of criminal history) debate in academic settings his role in American crime. Law students study his famous trial and stage legal re-enactments. Doctors debate his medical treatment and psychologists examine his character and personality. Even the Harvard Business School makes a case study of how Capone ran “The Outfit” during the few brief years when he was in charge of Chicago’s most famous crime syndicate.
Because his name is used for everything from pizza joints to pit bulldogs, with hotels and restaurants claiming he slept or ate there, perhaps it is to be expected that it is also used for every form of political commentary. His name was used, but seldom, throughout the last half of the 20th century, when insults and attacks were generally characterized by an overlay of politeness that softened their hostility. It is true that animosity, insults, caricatures, and lies have a long history throughout American politics; what is new within the current campaign are the outrageous slugs of personal insult and the slams of bathroom humor. Thus, the invocation of Al Capone’s name by each side is both interesting and puzzling.
What is there about this present moment in American politics that makes Capone so relevant to those who propose themselves as candidates for the presidency and those who write about their antics? Capone was a ruthless killer, a scofflaw, a keeper of brothels and bordellos, a tax cheat and perpetrator of frauds, a convicted felon, and eventually, a mindless, blubbering invalid. In his heyday, when he was not describing himself as a business man whose job was to serve the people what they wanted, he was busily defending his role as the man who served the public good. One of his minions described Al Capone as a Republican when it suited him, but left unsaid how his natural leaning were with the Democrats. He set up soup kitchens in the Depression, donated generously to charities, was among the first to insist that milk bottles should bear sell-by labels, and lavished massive amounts of money on political causes (granted, so he could control how the recipients voted).
Could that be the first clue to our understanding of why his name conveys so much meaning today—that he only served the people what they wanted? Right now, the American people don’t seem able to decide what it is that they want. In a year when the electoral process has degenerated into gang-wars lite, what with all the name calling, protestor-bashing, and reporter-assaulting, we come perilously close to the rough and raucous times when all of gangland, starting with Al Capone, waged every conceivable assault on the political process. And that’s what makes it so easy to fall back upon his name for an easy allusion, no matter where you stand in 2016.