There Is a Twisted Logic to Trump’s Obsession With Al Capone

In recent months, Donald Trump has been trying out a new routine. At rallies and town halls across the country, he compares himself to Al Capone. “He was seriously tough, right?” Mr. Trump told a rally in Iowa in October, in an early rendition of the act. But “he was only indicted one time; I’ve been indicted four times.” (Capone was, in fact, indicted at least six times.) The implication is not just that Mr. Trump is being unfairly persecuted but also that he is four times as tough as Capone. “If you looked at him in the wrong way,” Mr. Trump explained, “he blew your brains out.”

Mr. Trump’s eagerness to invoke Capone reflects an important shift in the image he wants to project to the world. In 2016, Mr. Trump played the reality TV star and businessman who would shake up politics, shock and entertain. In 2020, Mr. Trump was the strongman, desperately trying to hold on to power by whatever means possible. In 2024, Mr. Trump is in his third act: the American gangster, heir to Al Capone — besieged by the authorities, charged with countless egregious felonies but surviving and thriving nonetheless, with an air of macho invincibility.

The evidence of Mr. Trump’s mobster pivot is everywhere. He rants endlessly about his legal cases in his stump speeches. On Truth Social, he boasts about having a bigger team of lawyers “than any human being in the history of our Country, including even the late great gangster, Alphonse Capone!” His team has used his mug shot — taken after he was indicted on a charge of racketeering in August — on T-shirts, mugs, Christmas wrapping, bumper stickers, beer coolers and even NFTs. They’ve sold off parts of the blue suit he was wearing in that now-infamous photo for more than $4,000 a piece (it came with a dinner with Mr. Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort).

Commentators have long pointed out that Mr. Trump behaves like a mob boss: The way he demands loyalty from his followers, lashes out at rivals, bullies authorities and flaunts his impunity are all reminiscent of the wiseguys Americans know so well from movies and television. As a real-estate mogul in New York, he seems to have relished working with mobsters and learned their vernacular before bringing their methods into the White House: telling James Comey, “I expect loyalty”; imploring Volodymyr Zelensky, “Do us a favor”; and pressuring Georgia’s secretary of state, “Fellas, I need 11,000 votes.” But before, he downplayed the mobster act in public. Now he actively courts the comparison.

Mr. Trump’s audacious embrace of a criminal persona flies in the face of conventional wisdom. When Richard Nixon told the American public, “I am not a crook,” the underlying assumption was that voters would not want a crook in the White House. Mr. Trump is testing this assumption. It’s a canny piece of marketing. A violent mobster and a self-mythologizing millionaire, Capone sanitized his crimes by cultivating an aura of celebrity and bravery, grounded in distrust of the state and a narrative of unfair persecution. The public lapped it up. “Everybody sympathizes with him,” Vanity Fair noted of Capone in 1931, as the authorities closed in on him. “Al has made murder a popular amusement.” In similar fashion, Mr. Trump tries to turn his indictments into amusement, inviting his supporters to play along. “They’re not after me, they’re after you — I’m just standing in the way!” he says, a line that greets visitors to his website, as well.

Mr. Trump clearly hopes that his Al Capone act will offer at least some cover from the four indictments he faces. And there is a twisted logic to what he is doing: By adopting the guise of the gangster, he is able to recast his lawbreaking as vigilante justice — a subversive attempt to preserve order and peace — and transform himself into a folk hero. Partly thanks to this framing, it seems unlikely that a criminal conviction will topple his candidacy: not only because Mr. Trump has already taken so many other scandals in his stride but also because, as Capone shows, the convicted criminal can be as much an American icon as the cowboy and the frontiersman. In this campaign, Mr. Trump’s mug shot is his message — and the repeated references to Al Capone are there for anyone who needs it spelled out.

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