When I was a midshipmen, at home on summer leave, I worked the door at a nightclub south of Atlantic City that had a reputation for being the hang out of what was left of the South Philly mafia scene in the 90’s. The reputation was merited. I held the door for people whose pictures were on the front page of the newspapers for murder and racketeering trials and who have since had movies made about them. I grew up thinking this was normal. If you’re from Atlantic City, you know the club. If you’re from South Philly, you know the family.
It wasn’t just mob guys that went there. It was all sorts of Philly and Jersey shore types that wanted to be seen at the club. Real estate guys. Car dealers. Business men of a certain persuasion that saw themselves as an extension of the culture. And while the 30 bucks a night gave some walking around money, the real value was the education I got watching how the “Money Guy” worked the line. I was just muscle. He was the system.
Two lessons stuck with me. The first was that circa 1995, the image of the stylish goodhearted gangsters of the mob movies was bullshit. And it likely always was. They weren’t charming and generous. They were thick, dimwitted blocks who thought that a world of physical crime was the best way to make a living. And they didn’t throw the doorman a C-note on the way in. But they would throw a glass of scotch at your head if you told them they couldn’t take it outside.
The second lesson was more important; in that world, the broader culture not specific to just the crooks, the worst thing you could be, was a sucker. “Ass Hole” was a term of endearment. Nearly everyone you didn’t know was a “jerk-off”. Everyone was full of shit. No one could be trusted. All of this was ok. But a sucker was someone who had been taken. That was a fate worse than death. And if you were a lifelong sucker, you got your own name.
You were a loser.
Just up the street, Donald Trump’s name hung over the Atlantic City skyline in 30-foot, brightly lit letters. In a near literal sense, he owned the town. Half the casinos in a one industry gaming economy were his. He was no loser. A decade later when he finally left the crater of bankrupted casinos behind, he still wasn’t the loser. Everyone else was. “Atlantic City is a disaster, and I did great in Atlantic City. I knew when to get out. My timing was great. And I got a lot of credit for it.” he said.
Atlantic City was a city of suckers. And losers. This is the language of our president. I know, not because some elite lefty journo told me. I know because it’s the language I grew up with.
Yesterday The Atlantic published an article claiming that the President referred to America’s military dead as losers. And those that choose to serve as suckers. The president has denied it. Exactly what and when someone with the communication style of our current president said something isn’t really the sort of thing that’s likely to be proven. A more interesting discussion is whether it matters.
Contrary to popular opinion, views on President Trump break down within the military and veterans the same way as any other group. The single largest determinant for support for Donald Trump is education level. The second is racial demographics. White non-college educated Americans are heavy Trump supporters. And so white non-college educated military members are too. Young white men from rural areas are over represented in the enlisted military. And so the enlisted ranks of the military index high on Trump support.
The officer corps, who are nearly all college educated, index much lower on Trump support. But the division of support within the ranks is not unique to the ranks. And neither is the stubbornness.
All of this is to say that we shouldn’t expect the needle to move at all with the military and veterans because of a news story that President Trump called us losers and suckers. The supporters won’t believe it or don’t care. Those that don’t support simply have something else to point to as justification. What’s more material for me is the fact that while we may never know exactly what the President said, what was quoted, sounds like him. And in fact, in some instances, he’s said similar things in public. And in that, there is something to reflect on.
For me, it takes me back to working the door.
The Money Guy once told one of the wanna be wise guys that I was in the Navy. And his response, sealed with a Joe Pesci cackle (these guys really tried to play the part) was to call me a sucker. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to feed him his teeth or laugh. But in reflection, away from that place later, I realized something that would change the trajectory of my life forever. I realized that the distance between that club and the journey of service I was about to go on were about as far as anyone could travel within the spectrum of human experience. And I knew what side I wanted to be on.
In one world, sacrifice was for suckers. In the other, it was unavoidable. In one, my strength was predatory. In the other my strength was not for myself. It was for others. And it always would be.
Trying to explain that to someone who sees the world as a mark, just doesn’t compute.
Within that insight lives my strongest criticism of President Trump. For 40 years in the public eye, he set up camp in one end of that spectrum. His end was the end that said rules were for suckers. Taxes were for suckers. Monogamy was for suckers. Charity was for suckers.
Military service…was for suckers.
It’s a world where there are three types of people. Patrons. Marks. And you. Anyone else is invisible. Through that lens, one understands how someone, upon reviewing a field of fallen Americans who gave all that they were and ever would be for something bigger than themselves…might not get it.
One doesn’t move from one world to the next simply because you can convince 60 million marks you can.
There’s one thing about the story I just can’t shake though. It’s a circular thought that he’s not wrong. That in some perverse and simplistic way what he says carries truth. Such is so often the reality of Donald Trump. He tells many lies. And he tells many truths. You ignore the truths at your own risk.
The truth here is one I can’t live with. Many of the men and women in those graves were sold something. They were sold the idea that America was worth fighting for. And that the idea of the intractable quest of our people to create a “more perfect union” built on the principles of liberty and equality of opportunity…was worth dying for.
Perhaps, if you don’t believe that, then they are suckers. And losers, of the most tragic degree.
But aren’t we all then?