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How Trump became all of America’s Frank Rizzo | Will Bunch Newsletter

Trump on the 'Big Bambino’ track to become media star, perpetual candidate.

Director Robert Mugge sees similarities between Frank Rizzo (left) and Donald Trump, but key differences, too.
Director Robert Mugge sees similarities between Frank Rizzo (left) and Donald Trump, but key differences, too.Read more

With a courtroom strategy for overturning his election loss that makes My Cousin Vinny look like Clarence Darrow, President Trump’s time is getting shorter, much like the days of late autumn. But like any true-blue Philadelphia journalist, I’ll always jump at an excuse to write about Frank Rizzo. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at, shelter in place, and keep reading from the safety of home.

Trump on the 'Big Bambino’ track to become media star, perpetual candidate

He was a wildly politically incorrect “law and order” man, beloved by the white ethnic working class even as the Black community mostly despised him. When it came time to transfer power, he didn’t want to go, and tried to change the rules. And when that failed, he took to the airwaves, becoming an avuncular late-life media star, and never stopped running every four years, literally until the moment he finally keeled over.

Many of my Philadelphia readers probably know this story: the long third act of Frank Rizzo, the city’s top cop, two-term mayor in the 1970s, and finally de facto king of white middle-class resentment, right up until his death on the campaign trail as the Republican Party’s candidate for mayor in 1991. But “the Big Bambino” from South Philly may have accomplished something else in the last 12 years of his storied career, in creating a blueprint for the post-presidential life of Donald Trump.

The only surprising part of this story is that we didn’t see this coming. For weeks before the Nov. 3 end of the election season and in the days since, it’s been fashionable — including in this space — to worry about the possibility that Trump, in failing to accept his resounding defeat at the hands of Joe Biden, wouldn’t leave the White House in January, that he might stage an American coup to overturn or just ignore the results.

That’s not going to happen, and I write this not only because the president slipped up and wrote that “He [Biden] won...” in one of his Sunday morning Twitter rants. The day before, Trump cruised in his presidential limousine through the middle of the 15,000 or so who attended his “Million MAGA March." It was the perfect opportunity to jump out and rally the “Army for Trump” with a Braveheart-style speech, but instead he kept rolling to the golf course.

Here’s the reality: Trump’s only interest in staying in the White House past noon on January 20 is to avoid indictment. He does hate losing but — barring prison — he won’t hate being an ex-president because his new gig, like Amy Coney Barrett’s, is a lifetime appointment: Dear Leader of America’s angry, aggrieved whites. And in doing so, he’s ripped off the Frank Rizzo playoff, taking it to a bigly national stage.

Many before me have noted the uncanny Trump-Rizzo similarities, especially the strongman “law and order” posture and their shared hatred of political correctness. Rizzo famously pledged — apologies for the highly offensive language, which shows what made him such a flashpoint — to “make Atilla the Hun look like a faggot,” establishing a tradition of verbal outrage that Trump adapted to his often-xenophobic 21st century agenda.

Historian Timothy Lombardo, who wrote a 2018 book about the late Philly mayor called Blue-Collar Conservatism, told Jake Blumgart for Bloomberg CityLab that Rizzo, with his outrageous statements and verbal gaffes, essentially invented the model for “owning the libs” that Trump would copy a generation later. “Every time he would do something that angered liberals,” Lombardo said, “his people would cheer him on even more.”

While Trump has tried, with mixed results, to shred the Constitution, Rizzo went to war with Philadelphia’s City Charter and its two-consecutive-term limit on mayors. But his ballot question to overturn that was defeated very strongly in 1978, led by Black voters. (Why does this sound familiar?) It was seen as the end of the Rizzo era but instead he never stopped running, losing narrowly to W. Wilson Goode as a Democrat in 1983 and as a Republican in 1987 (in the aftermath of the MOVE bombing) and winning the GOP nomination, in an upset, again in 1991 before his untimely death while campaigning. In between, Rizzo supported himself and stayed connected to his blue-collar fans as a radio talker on 1210 AM.

Trump, for his part, is certain to announce his 2024 campaign before he leaves the White House, and has floated the idea of launching or taking over a TV network, to fuel his political ambitions and litigate his latest narcissistic feud with Fox News. His new life could offer everything he’s loved about the last four years — flying to big rallies, doing morning TV “hits,” and playing lots of golf — without the parts he’s hated, like working at the job of president.

Remember, Trump ran in 2016 not to win but as the ultimate brand-building exercise. The 72-million-plus votes he recorded this fall — the most in American history!!! (cough, cough...except for Joe Biden) — is a better validation for him than actually sticking around to deal with the mess he’s created at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

For Trump — unlike the 43 men (Cleveland twice!) who came before him — the presidency wasn’t really the ultimate prize. Instead, in the spirit of series like House of Cards or Veep, the White House was just the middle of a story arc — maybe Season 3 or 4 — in a production that will unfortunately keep getting renewed even as the show gets both lousier and more implausible (just like House of Cards!). Trump the Presidency has been cancelled but — and it pains me to write this — Trump the Show will continue to air as long as his ticker keeps ticking.

Ask me anything

Question: Will Mitch McConnell block Biden’s cabinet picks? I say yes, husband says no. — Via @eloiseviolet on Twitter

Answer: I wish I could resolve your low-stakes marital spat, but the correct answer is “depends.” Most importantly, it depends on the Georgia Senate dual runoff on January 5. If GOP incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler win, McConnell is certain to wield a cruel veto power over the new president’s ability to govern, forcing his former Senate colleague Biden to nominate only milquetoast, centrist (or worse) Dems. A Democratic sweep in the Peach State gives Biden some room with veep Kamala Harris breaking a 50-50 tie, but that still might give “conservaDems” like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin the ability to reject true progressives. Sigh.


How deep does the brainwashing and dumbing-down of America run at the end of the Trump presidency? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially after reading the viral tweets of the South Dakota ER nurse whose patients insist with their dying breaths that the coronavirus is a hoax. But the even sadder truth is that brain rot is spreading to the leadership class. The Financial Times reported this week that Montgomery County native Stephen Schwarzman, a friend of President Trump who became a billionaire by promising to multiply investors' money with his Blackstone Group, doesn’t understand basic addition — at least for elections.

The FT said that on a conference call with other top U.S. CEOs about the 2020 election, Schwarzman questioned the results in Pennsylvania and “said there had been news reports stating that ballots had continued arriving days after the election and that some of them may not have been real — issues that needed to be resolved...” In the reality-based world, Pennsylvania was simply counting a flood of legal mail-in ballots, all with GOP observers watching, and that count went heavily for Joe Biden because Democrats encouraged vote-by-mail while Trump disparaged it. Schwarzman, you’ll recall, generated a ton of headlines and controversy around these parts with a $25 million donation to his alma mater, the public Abington Senior High School; the district, after a flurry of complaints, nixed a plan to rename the high school for Schwarzman but did take his money to help build a new science and technology center. Hopefully Abington grads will learn basic math, and also news literacy, better than the center’s Wall Street namesake.