In a video that quickly went viral on Monday, an unidentified man confronted CNN anchor Chris Cuomo and addressed him as “Fredo,” who was of course the ineffectual brother in the first two Godfather movies.
Cuomo reacted somewhat angrily, first acknowledging that he knew the Fredo name is a reference to “the weak brother,” but then stating that “Fredo” is an “an insult to your fucking people” and “like the N word for us.” The video, which continued for a little less than two minutes, led to Cuomo threatening to throw the man down a flight of stairs, and to “wreck your shit.”
The clip ended without any violence, although it had been viewed more than 4 million times on Twitter as of Tuesday morning (a conservative YouTube channel was the first to post it). CNN defended Cuomo and announced that he won’t be disciplined after the confrontation.
Cuomo, whose late father Mario Cuomo was formerly the governor of New York and whose brother Andrew Cuomo currently holds that office, has been called Fredo before, as it appears to have been a coinage of Rush Limbaugh. However, the analogy isn’t exact, as Chris Cuomo, who is 15 years younger than Andrew, is not an older brother who was stepped over. Also, there’s no indication that Andrew Cuomo has any plans to assassinate his sibling.
In addition, Mario Cuomo had a long, often-articulated disdain for The Godfather movies, believing they stereotyped Italian-Americans; the elder Cuomo finally saw The Godfather for the first time in 2013, just over a year before his death.
This all led to some fascinating discourse. Most observers seemed to agree that Cuomo’s combatant had started a confrontation, in an obnoxious way, in order to create a viral clip, but that Cuomo had lost his cool. Cuomo, in an act of code-switching, also spoke in a heavy New York accent, adopted a menacing tone, and liberally dropped f-bombs, sounding about 180 degrees away from the way he normally speaks on television. Though if Cuomo did talk that way on the air, his show would be way more entertaining.
It’s also fairly clear that the insult “Fredo” is a very specific reference to ineffectual sons and brothers, and is not in any way a slur towards Italians, much less the equivalent of the N word.
Then Donald Trump, Jr., in one of the great self-owns in Twitter history, declared that “Fredo” isn’t the N word for Italians, it just means you’re the dumb brother.”
The non-Italian Don Jr. and his brother Eric, needless to say, have also been compared to Fredo in the past. So has their father, in a David Frum piece in The Atlantic in early 2018, which argued that Fredo’s famous line “I can handle things. I’m smart! Not like everybody says, like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!” should be read as the president’s unspoken mantra.
My reaction at the time was that it’s unfair to compare Donald Trump to Fredo, if only because it’s established that Fredo was at least good at running casinos.
The Godfather, and other mob movies, seem to come up a lot when it comes to Trump; I’ve noted in the past that Trump and his circle are the type of New York characters who tend to idealize the Mafia, even if their behavior has a lot more in common with the version they know from mob movies and The Sopranos than any actual mobsters.
That also came up this week in the legal proceedings around longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone. Stone, according to the federal indictment against him earlier this year, engaged in witness tampering when he repeatedly mentioned Frankie Pentangeli, the character in The Godfather Part II who was set to testify against the Corleone family before he backed down at the last second. Stone’s attorneys are fighting a request from prosecutors to show the clip from the movie in court.
And in an even stranger coincidence, this all happened on August 12, which happens to be the birthday of… John Cazale, the late actor who played Fredo Corleone.