Anthony Scaramucci’s mere 11 days as presumptive White House communications director hardly gave Italian-Americans enough time to go through the full cycle of pride or embarrassment.
A prominent member of our smooth-talking tribe had only moments on one of the grandest of stages before he was undone by a very familiar Achilles’ heel: a profane mouth. We almost didn’t even get around to the usual community discussion of whether “The Sopranos” is unremittingly demeaning or not. (I mean, we sort of got there.)
While we looked on with apprehension and prepared to squabble, the rest of the country got in all its good spaghetti-memes, “Godfather” jokes and “Saturday Night Fever” references.
And then, he was gone — for now, though he’s already promising a return.
But maybe we, and not just Italian-Americans, can learn something from The Mooch’s demise. Maybe there are lessons to be drawn from his brief tenure that began with a slick, brash, fluent and sometimes funny turn at the White House podium and ended with the self-inflicted wounds he incurred after saying some pretty racy things to a New Yorker reporter — the nicest of which was that former chief of staff Reince Priebus was a “paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac.”
In particular, it might be worth taking a look at why his caricature of Italian-American hand-waving behavior was so widely fascinating.
Ode to a wiseguy
“Our culture aggrandizes the wiseguy perspective,” said Donna Chirico, dean of arts and sciences at CUNY’s York College and an incisive commentator on Italian-American identity. Chirico cuts through the usual “Sopranos”/“Godfather”/“GoodFellas” references to point to the underlying resonance of those stories and others like them: the wiseguys, or stereotypical Italian-Americans if you must, “have some control over their lives in ways that others do not.”
A neighbor disrespects the wiseguy, the wiseguy goes and shoots his dog. The wiseguy “stands up there and says whatever he wants,” Chirico says. Watching that, the viewer knows the wiseguy is coarse, vulgar, aggressive, but “he can tell people off in a way I don’t or I can’t.”
That persona was vintage Scaramucci, who kissed the media goodbye at a White House briefing, who described himself as a Long Island bouncer, who could talk about all elements of the male anatomy with equal fluency and effect. He didn’t care. He didn’t care that he’d said some contradictory things in the past when he was basically a Democrat. He was happy to tell you that he had deleted those tweets, like the uncle who liked to tell you stories about underage drinking but would be furious to catch your teenage self doing it.
We enjoy this persona because it is a “cocoon” away from everyday life, Chirico says. The brash devil-may-care attitude is nothing like the plodding politics of a 9-to-5, and the persona suggests that if you can keep up the facade, an even more physical cocoon might soon be yours: think the trappings of gaudy wealth like the closet of fancy suits in “GoodFellas,” or Scaramucci’s real-life multiple luxury properties (including spots in the Catskills and Southampton, according to financial disclosure forms).
Breaking every expectation — and getting away with it
The antics of The Mooch seem like an escape from saying the right thing and getting nothing for it, an escape that even those on the left might grudgingly admire — which is why so many watched and analyzed Scaramucci with such energy, only sometimes mixed with dismay.
But that wise guy appeal didn’t disappear from the White House when Scaramucci got canned. It’s clearly central to President Donald Trump’s own mystique, too.
Chirico says she’s not sure why Trump never seemed to suffer even when he flew too close to the profane sun the way Scaramucci did. As a candidate he exhibited even worse behavior, plus the lies and insults and schemes that continue to this day, along with the insidious policy threats towards immigrants that should be anathema to the immigrant culture of Italian-Americans. Trump was up before voters, funneling many factors and inputs into their decisions, where Scaramucci could simply be fired by the top guy, of course. But Chirico posits that The Mooch was especially easy to drop because of his outsider status — as a political newcomer, a caricature, even as an Italian-American: “It was easy to get rid of him.”
For Trump? Maybe we’ve just gotten used to him.