United Scatinos of America

I wrote this for my now-defunct political blog in July 2005. Seven years on, I think it’s still pretty apt about the Republican program.

One of the things that redeemed the second season of “The Sopranos,” which had gone all wobbly after a good start, was the unblinkingly cruel subplot about David Scatino, a boyhood friend of mobster Tony Soprano, who talks his way into one of Tony’s high-stakes poker games and almost instantly buries himself under an unpayable mountain of debts. It quickly turns out that Tony knew about Scatino’s compulsive gambling problem, but let him into the game anyway because Scatino and his wife own a successful sporting-goods store. What follows is more frightening than any monster movie. After siphoning out Scatino’s bank account (including his son’s college fund), Tony and his cronies gorge themselves on the store’s credit lines, buying up easily resold big-ticket merchandise and leaving the store awash in hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills. The business dissolves into bankruptcy, taking with it Scatino’s marriage (his wife divorces him), his family (his son, cheated out of an Ivy League future, hates him) and a good portion of his sanity. In the end, as he prepares to embark on his new life as a drifter and day-laborer, Scatino asks Tony why he let him destroy himself. After all, haven’t they known each other since childhood? Tony replies with the story of the frog and the scorpion. “This is what I am,” Tony says. “This is what I do.”

What we’ve just seen is a variation on an old con called a bust-out. Usually it involves con men offering to buy a business, making a partial payment to gain access to the firm’s credit and name, and then hollowing out the company’s finances by running up the existing credit lines and opening new ones, all of which are maxed out to buy electronic gear and anything else that can be resold quickly at a fraction of its value. For the con men involved in the bust-out, it’s all gravy. The phony buyer — usually a shell company with no discernible assets — defaults and the business reverts to its original owner, by which time the once-thriving firm has been turned into a rotting hulk ready to have its bones picked clean by creditors.

The Bush family has often been referred to as the WASP version of the Corleones, but the Soprano clan makes for a much better comparison. At its best, “The Sopranos” is an acid mockery of the phony gravitas of the three “Godfather” movies. Where Michael Corleone is heroically evil, an international player who consorts with statesmen and the Vatican before succumbing to his tragic flaw, Tony Soprano is a sewer rat engaged in the grubby business of preying on human weakness and fear — when his fall comes, it will be tragic only to himself. Until then, however, he’s going to make as much money as he can for himself and his buddies, and leave the rest of the world holding the bill. I’m not just using hyperbole here. I do think that when honest historians assess the Bush administration, they will find it more useful to treat George II and his Republican cronies as a criminal organization rather than a political party.

The best tool for analyzing Bush’s policies is not historiography, but the procedures used by federal agents as they pursue a RICO investigation into a mobbed-up business. Take the money and run. As long as Republicans are in power, that phrase should replace “E Pluribus Unum” on the national seal. It’s the natural outcome of a quarter-century of rhetoric about how government is the problem, not the solution; how government doesn’t work; how deregulation is the only way to build the economy. If government is nothing but a taxpayer-funded scam, then why not use it to enrich yourself and your buddies? If the very idea of public service as an idealistic calling has been turned into a mealymouthed joke, then where’s the shame in abusing power and running the country into the ground? As long as you can convince just over 50 percent of the suckers to vote your way, you can throw yourself a party and leave the world holding the bill.

This is what they are. This is what they do. Didn’t they tell you?

The recess appointment of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is all of a piece with this scenario. Even many Republicans find this loudmouthed dolt hard to take; certainly no foreign leader will be able to take him seriously as a player on the world stage. Bolton will face a building full of career diplomats who know his nomination was dead in the Senate, that he had to be smuggled into office under cover of darkness, that the best they can expect is three years of low-down entertainment until the Bushies pack up their swag and head for the hills. If you despise the very idea of the United Nations — and if your core voting bloc cherishes Satanic conspiracy fantasies about the UN being the Antichrist’s method for achieving one-world government — then an ambassador capable of effective diplomacy is unnecessary. The important thing is that a plum job went to a crony. Sure, he may very well be implicated in the Valerie Plame case, but after a couple of years on the government sugar tit he’ll be able to lawyer himself up and hold the prosecutors at bay for a long time.

Insane tax cuts for the wealthy. Delusional military ventures abroad. From the minute the Bushies took power, their biggest concern has been to break open the cash registers, empty the shelves and open the bank vaults. Stewardship is a joke to them. What we are witnessing may very well be the biggest bust-out in human history. And if you, good citizen, are wondering where you fit into this picture, just cast your mind back to the last episode of the second season of “The Sopranos.” One of the closing shots shows us David Scatino in an empty parking lot, tying some gear to the top of his car as he prepares to leave his ruined life behind him. He wanted to play poker with the big boys, so you can say he brought his troubles on himself. A majority of Americans voted for Bush in at least one of the last two elections, so you can say we brought this on ourselves. In Scatino’s case, human weakness created a business opportunity for Tony Soprano. America’s weakness created a business opportunity for the Republicans. With the national press at a historic low ebb, the Democratic Party flat on its back and the airwaves humming with wingnut propaganda, the pickings couldn’t be any richer.

They saw their chance and they took it. That’s what they are. That’s what they do.

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