Sometime late last year, the leaders of the five power centers within the House Republican caucus started calling themselves the Five Families. “You know my reference,” Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (whom Kevin McCarthy admitted to Five Family meetings to secure her support for speaker) told Steve Bannon in a December 14 interview. “I would hope,” Bannon replied, “that those meetings turn out better than the Five Families’ meetings in The Godfather.”
They did not. In The Godfather there are five (Mafia) families: Corleone, Tattaglia, Barzini, Cuneo, and Stracci. These are fictionalized renderings of the real Five Families (Bonnano, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese), five competing Italian American gangs that, starting in 1931, agreed to carve up New York City into distinct territories.
In The Godfather, the fictionalized Five Families “go to the mattresses,” i.e., to war. In the Republican Conference, dissident members went to war in early January against McCarthy, denying him the speakership on 14 ballots until he bought them off and won victory in the fifteenth. Now, as negotiations start to get serious over the debt limit, potential warfare among the Five GOP Families threatens to plunge the country into default and untold financial calamity.
I yield to no one in my admiration for The Godfather and Godfather II, and even for a few stray elements in the otherwise-terrible Godfather III. (If you’re in Los Angeles, don’t miss the fabulous Godfather exhibit at the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.) But it’s one thing to revere the Godfather films as cinema and another to treat them as a self-help text, as the Republican Party seems to do.
The origins of the GOP’s Godfather cult reside in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, circa 1959. It was there that Trump, a young cadet at the New York Military Academy, first laid eyes on Francis Ford Coppola, future director of the Godfather films. “He was only a 13-year-old; I was a 17-year-old,” Coppola recalled in a September 2020 MSNBC interview. “He was another one who felt The Godfather was, he always would go to me, ‘Number One,’ ‘Number One.’” Coppola suggested in the interview that Trump had taken the Godfather films way too much to heart as a manual for acquiring and exerting power. When the late Ivana Trump nicknamed her husband “the Donald,” was it only, as she said, a rhetorical hiccup from her native Czech, or was she also pandering to her then-husband’s desire to be the don?
There has never been a presidency so obsessed with The Godfather as Trump’s. “If the Kennedy administration created Camelot,” observed Jonathan Chait in a 2019 New York magazine essay, “the Trump presidency has built a kind of cultural gangster state.” As president, Trump referred publicly to then-CNN anchor Chris Cuomo repeatedly as “Fredo,” drawing a deliberately insulting parallel to Mafia chief Michael Corleone’s dim-witted brother Fredo. Chris Cuomo took the jab (correctly, I think) as, among other things, an “Italian slur.” (His father, the late New York Governor Mario Cuomo, judged all pop-culture portrayals of Italian mobsters to be anti-Italian and refused for 40 years to watch The Godfather.)
In The Godfather, loyalty and omertà (i.e., never squeal) are paramount virtues. It’s like that in Trumpworld too—with the caveat that the Donald is never obliged to reciprocate. Thus when Trump ally Roger Stone was convicted of obstructing a congressional investigation into Russian influence over the 2016 elections, a key piece of incriminating evidence turned out to be an email Stone sent to radio host Randy Credico advising him to “do a Frank Pentangeli” when testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on how Clinton campaign emails obtained by Russian hackers made their way to Wikileaks one month before Election Day. If you’ve seen Godfather II, you know that mob functionary Pentangeli plays dumb at a congressional hearing to protect the Corleone family (“I never knew no Godfather”). Stone was advising Credico (who ended up taking the Fifth) to do the same about Russiagate, thereby, presumably, protecting Stone. Stone may have pulled a Frankie Five-Angels himself during the trial by not incriminating the Trump campaign; in any event Trump rewarded Stone by commuting his three-year prison sentence.
“For 30, 40 years, I’ve been watching flippers,” Trump said in a 2018 Fox News interview about his former lawyer Michael Cohen. “It almost ought to be outlawed.” Michael Corleone wouldn’t put it quite so idiotically, but he has even less tolerance for flippers—so far as we know—than Trump.
The Godfather came up yet again on the day of the January 6 Capitol insurrection in 2021, when Donald Trump Jr. texted White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, “This his [sic] one you go to the mattresses on. They will try to fuck his entire legacy on this if it gets worse. I’m not convinced these are trump supporters either btw so we should be looking into that.” From the context provided in Don Jr.’s interview with the House select committee on January 6, the president’s son was pushing Meadows to get his father to condemn the insurrection. But the “they” Don Jr. was referring to was pretty clearly any Democrat or Never Trump Republican with the temerity to make anything of the attack. It was never cleared up whether Don Jr. proposed “going to the mattresses” against the Capitol rioters, against Trump himself for refusing to condemn them, or against the Trump opponents out to “fuck his entire legacy.” Asked about that, Don Jr. said vaguely, “It’s just a reference for going all in. I think it’s a Godfather reference.”
Trump is gone, but the Trump cult, and therefore Trump’s own Godfather cult, lives on in the designation of the House Republicans’ five warring caucuses as the Five Families. Allow me now to play Joseph Valachi. Valachi was a Genovese family soldier with a sociological bent who explained the Mafia’s hierarchies and structures in granular detail to a congressional committee in 1963 after landing in prison for peddling heroin. Had there been no Valachi, there would be no Godfather. With the Republican conference I have nothing like the insider’s familiarity that Joseph Valachi had with the Cosa Nostra. But I will do my best.
1. The House Freedom Caucus. Among New York’s Five Families, the closest parallel to the House Freedom Caucus is the Colombo family, which New York Times reporter and veteran mob chronicler Selwyn Raab once identified as the most erratic and troublesome. “Crazy Joe” Gallo, the diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenic who was gunned down at Umberto’s Clam House in Manhattan’s Little Italy in 1972, was a Colombo family member. Crazy Joe once kidnapped his own bosses. In a similar spirit, the Freedom Caucus tried to deny the speakership to McCarthy without ever articulating exactly why except that they just didn’t like his face.
The Freedom Caucus has only 34 members. That’s because they won’t take just anybody. As with Yale’s Skull and Bones, you have to be tapped. Founded in 2015 in opposition to the Republican leadership, the Freedom Caucus was instrumental that year in persuading House Speaker John Boehner to resign (and also in persuading Kevin McCarthy not to take his place). Trump won their allegiance by hiring Meadows, a Freedom Caucus founder, as chief of staff. In return, most Freedom Caucus members refused to certify President Joe Biden’s victory. Another founding member, Ron DeSantis, now governor of Florida, is considered Trump’s most formidable opponent for the 2024 nomination. Its current don is Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.
Perry is a piece of work. In 2017 he accused CNN’s Cuomo of dispensing “fake news” about the devastation wrought in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. “You’re simply just making this stuff up,” he said. “If half the country didn’t have food or water, those people would be dying. And they’re not.” That was Trump’s bizarre position too, but not a lot of people were willing to echo it. According to the official death toll, 2,975 Puerto Ricans died in the hurricane, and that was probably too low. Perry later tried to secure a blanket pardon for Trump in connection to the January 6 attack.
For all that, Perry is not the Freedom Caucus’s Crazy Joe, because competition is fierce for that title. I’d call it a tie between Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene and Arizona’s Paul Gosar, who two years ago tried to form a breakaway America First Caucus committed to “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” The rebellion was quickly put down, and now Greene, one of the few Freedom Caucus members openly to embrace white nationalism, has gone quasi-respectable in exchange for McCarthy treating her like the serious person she so obviously is not.
If Congress forces the United States into default, the Freedom Caucus will be the likely culprit. On March 10 it laid out its demands for raising the debt ceiling. All “topline discretionary” spending (i.e., spending that must be appropriated, excepting emergency spending) must be frozen at current levels, “allowing for 1 percent annual growth” (i.e., inflation increases that will be far below the annual level of inflation, even if the Fed achieves its target of 2 percent). All major regulations must be approved by Congress. Remove all regulations and subsidies concerning energy (i.e., kill investment in green technologies and drill, baby, drill). Stiffen work requirements for welfare. And lower nondefense discretionary spending to its 2019 level (which means the freeze on top-line discretionary spending starts domestic spending at a lower level than defense spending). There is no chance Biden will agree to this. The White House last week declared the Freedom Caucus proposal a “five-alarm fire.”
2. The Republican Study Committee. This is the largest of the Five Families, with 173 members. The bad news is they’re almost as nuts as the Freedom Caucus. Like the Freedom Caucus, the RSC was founded in opposition to the Republican leadership, but it was founded way back in 1973, when House Republican leaders could more plausibly be described as moderate accommodationists. Its founder was not a member of Congress but Paul Weyrich, a hard-right nutter with theocratic leanings and a fair claim to being the Johnny Appleseed of the New Right, having also co-founded the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Because of its size and age, the RSC is best compared to the Genovese family, the oldest and largest of New York’s Five Families, founded in 1931 by Lucky Luciano. The RSC’s don is Representative Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, nicknamed “McCongressman” for his past ownership of several McDonald’s franchises. Hern is a fiscal conservative whose Tulsa-based KTAK Corporation received about $1 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans, all of it forgiven, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a March 15 letter Hearn demanded a reversal to recent increases in discretionary spending, deregulation of the oil sector, tax cuts, and congressional approval for all major regulations. Unlike the Freedom Caucus, Hern is bucking Trump by demanding cuts in Medicare and Social Security (phrased euphemistically as “Codify procedures to ensure the federal government honors critical obligations”). McCarthy is likely hoping Hearn will be as hypocritical about a debt-ceiling deal as he was about PPP. He shouldn’t count on that.
3. The Republican Main Street Caucus (67 members), which took a severe beating in the 2022 midterms, fancies itself more conservative than, and is highly sensitive about being compared to, the Republican Governance Group, which is slightly less touchy about being called moderate (to the small extent anybody in the House GOP these days can call themselves moderate). The Main Street Caucus don is South Dakota’s Dusty Johnson, who voted with the Democrats to establish the doomed January 6 commission. He’s also voted to toughen antitrust enforcement. Of the debt limit, Johnson says only that “we feel strongly that it’s only reasonable, responsible, and appropriate to raise the debt limit while securing some commonsense fiscal reforms; $32 trillion in debt is not something that we should overlook.”
4. The Republican Governance Group (42 members) is descended from the Tuesday Group, which in turn is descended from the Wednesday Group, which the late Stewart McKinney described in the 1980s as ‘’Republican but not so Republican that it frightens people away.’’ It’s changed its name twice in recent years to distance itself from such sentiments. Its don is Representative David Joyce of Ohio, who’s been in Congress for an unusually long time for a Five Families don (10 years!). According to Five Thirty-Eight, Joyce voted with Trump only 91.8 percent of the time, which in Trumpworld makes you a traitor. He also called the January 6 insurrectionists a “mob” that left “an indelible stain on our democracy.” But Joyce is way too mild-mannered to criticize Trump directly, and in December, when Trump called for “the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” Joyce said “He says a lot of things,” claimed Trump’s words were taken out of context, and vowed to support the Donald if he wins the nomination in 2024. The only real reason for the Republican Governance Group’s existence appears to be maintaining its political action committee. I’m not aware that Joyce or the Republican Governance Group has made any demands at all concerning the debt limit.
These last two are the two most boring of the Five Families, committed vaguely to a pragmatic fiscal conservatism on the old-fashioned Republican model (though like all congressional Republicans they never, ever support tax increases). Neither of these groups can be compared to one of New York’s Five Families because none of the Five Families is this self-effacing.
5. The Problem Solvers Caucus. This isn’t a Republican caucus at all, so I don’t understand how it became one of the Five Families. Indeed, it has twice as many Democratic members as Republican ones. McCarthy counts its 29-member Republican rump, led by Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, as one of his Five Families only because his governing majority is so thin. Or maybe just to be polite. According to The Washington Post, it’s “the only bipartisan ideological group in the House, making it the most moderate of the five families.” It was started in 2017, and its greatest success thus far has been the bipartisan criminal justice reform act signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018. Its existence is a valuable reminder that, every once in a while, you can get Democrats and Republicans to agree on something, and that’s nothing to sneer at. As with the Main Street Caucus and the Republican Governance Group, the Problem Solvers Caucus doesn’t lend itself even to facetious comparisons with any existing criminal organization.
The Problem Solvers have some articulated budget principles. These are very hard to disagree with: Be “good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars,” pay down the debt when circumstances allow, make spending decisions more transparent, and pass something called the TRUST Act that would create “rescue committees” to stabilize Medicare and Social Security. The most salient recommendation is, “We support curbing brinksmanship related to the debt limit, which risks the full faith and credit of the government due to artificial limits, and tying such reform to meaningful debt targets.”
Now that’s an offer we can’t refuse.