Donald Trump Italian American Vote 2020

Donald Trump And His Italian American Supporters

At some point, Italian Americans stopped being a monolith, particularly as a voting bloc. Then at another point, they started swinging ever more determinedly towards the right. And then, along came Donald Trump.

At some point, Italian Americans stopped being a monolith, particularly as a voting bloc. Then at another point, they started swinging ever more determinedly towards the right. And then, along came Donald Trump.

In most matters I consider Vincent DiGaetano to be one of the most intelligent people I know, but there are three areas in which his analysis is unparalleled: US political history, baseball, and The Godfather films. It conveniently happens that he is my father, so I have collected a rather large data set on his expertise.

When I was six or seven, he kept me home from school to watch the Iran Contra Hearings with him, because he felt it was a better education than I would be getting in first grade. When I lived in Hawaii in 2000 and had no television, he called the final game of the World Series to me, pitch by pitch, over the phone and it wasn’t until years later that I saw the film of Bernie Williams catching that final pop fly into centerfield. And after careful scrutiny and endless viewings, we both agreed on our favorite Godfather character: Michael Corleone’s unnamed bodyguard in the second film of the series, played by Hungarian sculptor Amerigo Tot.

Before retiring, my father worked as a letter carrier in Jamaica, Queens, one of the furthest outposts that could still be considered New York City. He was an active member of the letter carriers union and our summer holidays would inevitably involve a trip for union meetings, or a picnic in a state park with the other union members. Most of them were, like us, Italian American families one or two generations removed from our immigrant ancestors. It went without saying that everyone was a Democrat, just like my father was and my grandfather before him. “We were called Kennedy Democrats,” he told me time and again, drawing a neat circle around the three years that defined an epoch. It never occurred to me that there were any lines outside of that circle.

But lines there were, and as the years went on those lines became ever more deeply filled in until the neat circle around which the middle class, unionized, Italian American Democrat often found him or herself painted into a corner. At some point, a point which I could not recall, Italian Americans stopped being a monolith, particularly as a voting bloc. Then at another point, sometime perhaps later, they started swinging ever more determinedly towards the right.

And then, along came Donald Trump.

I never knew quite when or how it happened, only that it seemed to be a dramatic shift towards an ideology, and an ideologue, that bore no resemblance to anything I remembered. But in 2016, 44 percent of Italian Americans voted for Donald Trump, and many of them continue to support him in 2020. In New York, which nearly always casts its electoral votes for the Democratic party, the popular vote is more revealing: Trump won overwhelmingly in Staten Island, Bensonhurst, Howard Beach, and Eastern Bronx. All of those neighborhoods are heavily populated by Italian Americans. When, and how, did it happen?

The Great Divergence

There was, of course, only one person to whom I could pose the question. While he may not be accredited, Vincent DiGaetano is nonetheless an authority and he did not disappoint. And as I would find out, the subject touched on his three particular areas of expertise. “First off,” he told me, “you have to go back to the 1968 elections, which was a watershed moment. Robert Kennedy was running for president but when he was killed, it changed the course of the country. Then the violence that broke out, and the fractures, it changed us all.”

As the political climate changed at the end of the 1960’s, so too did the traditional alliances that held many working class individuals to the Democratic Party, first as New Deal Democrats, later as the ‘Kennedy’ Democrats, and finally those who felt disillusioned at the ‘Great Society’ Lyndon Johnson promised butnever seemed to deliver. As Michael Cohen pointed out, “1968 represented a clear inflection point in American politics. The result was that American politics became more ideologically conservative but remained largely operationally liberal.“ Racial integration, and the violence that both preceded and followed it, were also a fundamental part of the fracture. As the United States moved towards formal policies of integration, Italian American communities were often at the forefront of these hostilities. Much of this, my father says, is because “Italians weren’t really white, and to tell the truth, we still aren’t.”

The complicated process of assimilation that Italian Americans undertook, first as immigrants and then through the class system, is still tinged with the ‘otherness’ that my father pointed out. As John Gennari notes, “Italian Americans have occupied a liminal and transactional space in the ethnoracial order of the United States — at once white, near-white, and dark. [They] have mediated US concepts of black and white, outsider and insider, high culture and low culture, in ways that have decisively shaped American thinking about race and ethnicity.” Indeed, Italian immigrants often faced brutality and discrimination upon arrival in the United States and ghettoization in industrial American cities often led to their portrayal as racially mixed and thus, inferior. Every Italian American family jokes about that one cousin or uncle who is a little more dark skinned, and inevitably they point to that family member’s ‘Sicilian’ blood. In my family, that ‘Sicilian’ was my father and when he married my Irish-German American mother in 1974, everyone joked that it was a ‘mixed’ marriage. In a way, at the time, it was.

As generations passed and more Italian Americans became upwardly mobile, they moved closer to ‘passing’ or ‘fitting in’ to their more genteel neighbors, colleagues, and eventual friends. Importantly, they remained excluded from spheres of power or influence, particularly in the national political landscape. My father highlights this in the only way we know how:  “Remember in The Godfather, when Vito tells Michael: ‘I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Corleone; Governor Corleone.’ But it the end, where did he end up? Where did he belong? Italians were always marginalized, because in the end, they would take our money but they wouldn’t elect us.”

The Tom Hagen effect

As soon as Geraldine Ferraro was announced as Walter Mondale’s Vice Presidential candidate on the 1984 Democratic Party ticket, rumors of mafia connections in her family began to circulate. Her response was telling: “I knew this was going to happen, but I didn’t think that it was going to be on this scale… Would they have done it if I were male? Would they have done it if I were not Italian-American?”

Likewise, Mario Cuomo was long considered by many in the Democratic party machine to be the frontrunner candidate for the Presidency, or at the very least to be put on the ticket as Bill Clinton’s running mate. However, he announced that he would not seek either high office and while a specific reason was never given, many pointed to the “skeletons in his closet” that involved organized crime links both in his and his wife’s family. None of those links were ever proven to be of any substance, but it didn’t stop accusations from flying over airwaves and newspaper pages. For his part, Cuomo was never surprised by the accusations. My father, who made me write my first book report about Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, waited patiently while I made the connection.

“Ok but what does this have to do with Donald Trump? After all, Dad, when last I checked, he wasn’t Italian.” He laughed. “Ginger, don’t you see? He’s a Tom Hagen.”

For those whose life has not been punctuated by Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy, Tom Hagen was the German/Irish orphan who was adopted by the Corleone family and rose through the ranks to become consigliere, or advisor, to the fictional Don Corleone. For anyone who grew up Italian American, a Tom Hagen is someone who is not Italian yet who displays many of the traits, sympathies, and characteristics for which the community has dubiously become known. My grandmother often used the term when referring to one of my mother’s brothers: he had the same swagger and bluster of those iconic figures we grew up with, and he often managed to show up at her house just when the macaroni was being dropped into the water. He was far from the only person who fit the category.

Throughout his tenure, Donald Trump has manipulated, inverted, and weaponized cultural tropes gleaned from The Godfather to characterize his own administration and its actions. He told Roger Stone to “do a Pentangeli” when he and an associate were being called to testify before the Senate; he mocked CNN’s Chris Cuomo as a “Fredo” for his supposed disloyalty. In so doing, he tapped into a particular symbolic universe that characterizes Italian American discourse, whether we like to believe it or not. Indeed, the accusation of being a Fredo, a nod towards the weaker Corleone brother who betrayed his family, led Cuomo to compare it to the ‘N-word’ for Italians (for the record, it isn’t at all comparable). Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s favorite infectious disease expert and general pole of sanity, was quoted as saying that in times of particular stress in the Trump administration, he reminds himself of the words from his favorite book of philosophy: “it’s nothing personal, strictly business.” Indeed throughout the Executive Branch, life imitates art imitating life, and so on.

Though he displays none of the quiet characteristics that Robert Duvall brought to the character, Donald Trump seems to get that pass, the ‘honorary’ Italian American who has the same level of brash disregard for convention that our favorite mafia characters displayed, both in art and real life throughout the most prolific era of organized crime in the United States. On Italian American Facebook pages and Reddit groups, I found Trump favorably compared to a mafia don, not only because of his very real connections to the criminal enterprises that helped him build his empire but because of his flagrant disregard for the very barriers that should have kept him far from office in the first place. Donald Trump is, at his very core, a vulgar sort of individual. However, it is precisely this vulgarity that makes him so popular with a specific subset of Italian Americans, because it mirrors the attitudes to which they have been subjected, regardless of the economic and social advances they have made. As Pascal Bruckner and Mary Byrd Kelly observe, “vulgarity is born at the moment when the people, at least in principle, go from being subjugated to being the leading actors in political life. It constitutes the awful dissonance that emerges from the cross-fertilization of different milieus and the intermingling of separate classes that do not know well enough to stay in their proper places.”

For many Italian Americans, Donald Trump’s power lies in his vulgarity, in his transgression of those spaces that should separate him and anyone like him from the corridors of real power. His supporters see in him someone who broke through their own fictive glass ceiling, a barrier to entry based on the intangible notion that they are not polished enough, not sleek enough, not good enough to enter. Every time he “tells it like it is,” he is thumbing his nose at the establishment just as the criminal bosses we quote so often did so well. Much in the same way that those mythic characters changed the rules and in so doing, changed the game, Donald Trump has convinced millions of people that he is as fearless, as irreverent, and as strong as they are. Time and again, in the course of conducting research for this topic, people compared him to fictitious mafia dons not because of his criminality, but because of what they saw as his integrity. To them, he “refused to be a fool, dancing on a string held by all those bigshots,” and in the process, he achieved what Ferraro, Cuomo, and Corleone could not. President. Senator. Thus Donald Trump’s successes become their successes, regardless of whether or not they see the actual spoils and regardless of who gets hurt along the way. After all, it’s not personal. It’s just business.

Where Have You Gone, Joe de Maestri?

To be clear, this swing towards the right and more specifically towards Donald Trump is not characteristic of all Italian Americans, by any means, and there are just as many who refuse to buy into the overwrought mythos that the administration has created. My father is steadfastly one of those for whom these particular parlor games don’t work, but he understands why they are effective on some of his friends, neighbors, and relatives. At 72 years old, he knows that his generation was the exception rather than the rule: “we came after the war, when there was money and security and everything was a little bit better. And our parents had suffered. So they wanted us to have everything they didn’t have, and for the first time they could give it to us. So we were spoiled. We tried to live up to that standard, but we were always left wanting.” As he sees it the Baby Boomer generation, and particularly the Italian Americans who started to move up and into the more closely embedded social and economic fabric of American society, lost themselves along the way. “I remember speaking to people who said they would rather vote for Hitler than Hillary in 2016. These were the children of men who had fought, and whose lives had been forever marked by the war against Hitler. If my father had been alive to hear that he would have strangled them.”

“But you know, our generation got off so easy, and in the process we lost a sense of who deserved our respect. We started to workship actors like John Wayne, singers like Frank Sinatra. We worshipped people for the wrong reasons. I worshipped Mickey Mantle and never realized that he didn’t deserve that kind of love. The men of my father, your grandfather’s generation, knew better, they saw through the performance. We were spoiled, we knew so little of suffering, and it turned us into exactly the men our fathers wanted to avoid.” For my father, the line between Mickey Mantle and Donald Trump is clear, and it is the very same line that painted over those neat boundaries of Democrat and Republican. “Imagine idolizing someone just because they can hit a ball and meanwhile your father is in the room next to you and he’s got two purple hearts, he was in the first wave of soldiers dropped onto Omaha Beach in Normandy, and you don’t even think about it. That’s what Donald Trump is like. A distraction, a false hero.” He is perhaps too hard on himself, but it isn’t difficult to understand why my father feels that the Italian American embrace of right wing politics and Donald Trump in particular is a betrayal of the very values and opportunities that allowed families like ours to flourish in the United States.

The tumult of 1968, all of the fissures that rose to the surface and all of the cracks that have yet to be filled back in, remains one of the foundational moments of my father’s life. But as we unpack the phenomenon of Donald Trump, he hearkens back to an earlier time. In 1961, all of America and New York in particular was held rapt by the home run race between two Yankee teammates, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Dubbed the ‘M&M Boys’, Maris and Mantle battled each other to break Babe Ruth’s 60- home run record and people watched in awe as the two defied what seemed at the time to be an unbeatable benchmark. My father was 13 at the time, the exact age that such a feat should be superhuman. It was two years before John F Kennedy would be assassinated, seven years before his brother Bobby would follow, when Martin Luther King Jr would join them and the world would change forever. It was, by all accounts, an age of innocence.

But this isn’t what Vincent DiGaetano wants to talk about. Instead, he says, “everyone forgets that when Roger Maris was brought to the Yankees in 1959, he was part of a seven player deal. You know who was also brought over in that trade? Joe de Maestri.”

If you’ve never heard of Joe de Maestri, don’t feel bad: I had never heard of him until the moment my father brought him up and I have no doubt that even the most ardent baseball fans would struggle to place him. But that was exactly my father’s point. “Joe de Maestri was a solid player, a standout shortstop. He was an Italian from California, just like Joe DiMaggio, and he could have been next in line. But he was there during the summer of ‘61, when nothing else mattered but that home run race. No one cared about anything else, no one cared about Joe de Maestri.”

My father looked at me over our video chat, expectantly. Since I wasn’t quite sure of the point he was trying to make, I returned the look, waiting for the punchline. “Don’t you see, Ginger? We chose the glitz and glamour over the substance. We weren’t looking in the right places, because we were so busy being entertained. That’s Donald Trump. We’re so enraptured by his spectacle and waiting to see what he’ll do next that we’ve forgotten who we are, we forgot about the people that really represent us. We forgot about Joe de Maestri.”

Perhaps in the race to become heroes, Italian Americans have indeed forgotten our humble beginnings. When I ask my father how he reconciles this extraordinary divergence between those Italian Americans who remain steadfastly opposed to Donald Trump and those who will once again vote for him in 2020, he laughs and holds out his hand. “You know what they say. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

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  1. Most Sicilians aren’t even dark. We are a mixture of Greeks, Arabs, Spaniards and Norman (French). Green, hazel, blue eyes are not at all unusual among us. l. I am of Sicilian origin and I have visited Sicily three times. My father and brother had hazel eyes. My grandmother had green eyes and he father had blue eyes, and they all were light- complected. Not important maybe, but at least true.

  2. Some of the points here are well-argued, but one of the biggest reasons the Italian-American demographic is less a reliably blue voting bloc has to do with the advertised core values of the respective parties. All due respect to the wise father in this article, but completely attributing this political sea-change to a recognition of Trump as a Tom Hagen figure is interesting but somewhat reductive – it’s deeper than simply seeing Trump as a sort of adopted son of a diverse and widespread IA community, which is never how I ever heard anybody perceive him. More and more, the left has removed traditional value-voter concerns like the importance of the nuclear family and the tenets of faith from their platform, two long-standing bedrocks of Italian-American households. The value of hard work, individual enterprise, ownership of private property, and a certain aversion to accepting “hand-outs” from a government out of pride or shame are just a few more factors why I have certainly noticed the same shift towards the right. Whether Trump actually believed in these values may be up for debate (though he certainly peddled these ideals), but they do remain central talking points of the Right wing platform, whereas the Left has abandoned those more traditional issues for identity politics, victimhood culture, communal grievance-letting, and over-regulation of enterprise – things that may make a household descended from hardscrabble immigrants otherwise bristle. It’s a worthwhile topic to explore, and I appreciate the article, especially since some of the most popular up-and-coming political figures on the Right indeed have Italian last names.

  3. I think it’s also worth noting that the very little violence Italians did experience in comparison to say, African Americans who were lynched by the thousands and enslaved or American Indians, were mostly confined to Sicilians, who along with being physically separated from the rest of Italy, don’t even consider themselves Italians.

    You could break Italians up into normal Italian Americans, and Sicilian Americans. Sicily has a different genetic history which includes North Africans and Arabs. The rest of Southern Italy is mostly Greek with French and Spanish influence.

  4. “Italians weren’t really white, and to tell the truth, we still aren’t.”

    As someone of Italian descent, that only has a KERNEL of truth to it. Some of them definetley AREN’T White and have darker skin. Especially the Sicilians. They’re very much comparable to their brothers, the Jews who were also discriminated against in Nazi Germany for being an inferior “darker” race. Other Italians, certainly LOOK White on the surface and are no less White then the French, Austrians, or other European groups that surround them in Europe.

    “White” is really just a code-word for WASP. Which are Protestants from the British Isles who were the founding stock of the country. So yes, Italians really aren’t “white”. Neither are the Irish, or Germans for that matter. They were all seen as “foreign” or “other” with the darker ones certainly getting the worst treatment.

  5. Ginger, A very interesting article with a unique perspective. Thank you for sharing your ideas and your father’s ideas with us. By the way, the next time you talk to him, tell him his cousin Joe says hello.

    1. I’m not Italian, but I understand the Mafia Don angle of T**** appeal. Just a few weeks ago I compared him to Tony Soprano.

      But there is a HUGE piece missing in the Godfather/Sopranos analogy.

      T**** has no heart. Nothing and no one that he loves. Vito and Sonny and Michael and Tom and even Tony Soprano were hard edge guys who made moves when they had to and didn’t answer to anyone else.

      But there was also something… lovable about them, or admirable, or touching, that made them seem like real people.

      No one has ever seen T**** show any compassion toward anyone, or any other emotion unrelated to his own personal needs. Nor can we imagine him doing so. There is a void in him, an empty place where humanity would soften his bluster and show us all he isn’t completely evil and cruel and selfish… he has feelings like we do.

      We all have seen a human/heart place to identify with each of the main characters in the Godfather (I’ll spell some out in a second comment if you want). And needless to say, T**** avoids therapy like the plague even though he needs it badly.

      I can understand people being taken in by a con man playing at Mafia or even playing at being Tom Hagen.

      What I can’t understand is 70+ million people not seeing through the con after four whole years of it.

      Ascribing full humanity, faith, and a capacity to love to a man who has never known love, or friendship.

      (That’s a reference to a different set of movies that describe T**** a lot better.)

      And so it seems easier to look to misogyny and racism and other less noble motivations for the reasons T**** is adored by people he himself despises.

  6. This was really interesting and also fun to read. I am wondering where the author would insert Roe v Wade and the ensuing argument over abortion, the Catholic Church’s stance against it, the rise of Evangelical Christians in politics around the issue and more generally, the demise of pro-life Democrats, the real and perceived abandonment of the working class by the Democratic Party, and the consequent shift of many Democrats to the Republican Party, Italian Americans among them, if at all?

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