One of my all time favorite movies is Martin Scorsese’s 2002 historical epic Gangs of New York. Though it’s one of his most polarizing pictures–you either totally love it or you simply can’t stand it–I feel it’s Scorsese’s masterpiece, and will come to be even more highly regarded in the decades to come. Even those who don’t like the film universally admire the over-the-top performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as the film’s villain, William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, easily one of the most colorful and memorable antagonists in recent cinema history. While watching Gangs of New York again recently, though, I was struck by a curious parallel that Scorsese could not have intended when he made the film 15 years ago: the similarities, at least as American archetypes, between Bill the Butcher and the real-life presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for President in 2016, Donald Trump.
First let’s talk about the film. This article contains spoilers, obviously. Gangs of New York is an atypical historical drama, because it depicts the lowest classes of America’s urban poor in the 19th century. In 1846, in a notorious slum known as the Five Points, a ferocious battle ensures between two rival gangs: the Dead Rabbits, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), who are almost all Irish immigrants; and the Native Americans, led by Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis). The Native Americans–that term is not intended to refer to American Indians, obviously–win the day, Priest is killed and his young son witnesses the carnage. Years later, during the Civil War, the grown-up son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the Five Points seeking to avenge his father’s death. But in getting close to Bill, who is now the lead gangster in control of the Five Points, Amsterdam becomes something of a protege, making it much more difficult for him to destroy Bill who, despite his brutality, he admires.
The famous opening battle scene from Gangs of New York introduces the audience to the brutal gangster Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), and his style of settling an argument.
Scorsese’s film was not meant as literal history; far from it. It’s a very loose adaptation of journalist Herbert Asbury’s classic 1927 book The Gangs of New York, which was largely a collection of urban folklore centering around New York’s underworld in the 19th century. There really was a “Bill the Butcher,” but his name was Poole, not Cutting; he died in 1855 in a saloon shooting, not in 1863 in a gang war as depicted in the film; and he was primarily known as a bare-knuckle boxer. But he was also a political agitator, and this is what the movie Gangs of New York gets right about him. In the film Bill is a leader of the “Know-Nothings,” an extreme conservative faction virulently opposed to Irish immigration and Catholicism in general. The Know-Nothing party (official name, the American Party) was a powerhouse in urban centers in the decade before the Civil War, and their basic platform was xenophobia. This, of course, brings us to our modern-day Know-Nothing, Donald Trump, who has risen to lead and exemplify the modern Republican Party by stoking exactly the same nativist sentiments that the Know-Nothings did in the 1850s.
Bill the Butcher, as portrayed in the 2002 film, shares a number of remarkable similarities with Donald Trump. Both are brash New Yorkers, and both believe they embody New York itself. “I’m New York!”, Bill gushes early in the film; Trump of course owns (or leases from others) much of modern Manhattan and lives out the glitzy, over-the-top lifestyle of New York’s late 20th/early 21st century rich. Bill’s singular obsession is ceasing Irish immigration, which he sees as a cancer polluting a city that should belong to “real Americans.” Trump similarly is obsessed with illegal immigration by Hispanics and Muslims. Remarking to a political boss, Bill the Butcher says, “If only I had the guns, Mr. Tweed, I’d shoot each and every one [of the Irish] before they set foot on American soil.” This isn’t so far from Trump’s hostile braggadocio about “building a wall” to keep out Mexicans or barring Muslims from entering the country.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Bill the Butcher is one of the most powerful performances ever put on film. This is arguably his best scene. [NSFW dialogue!]
Indeed, in Gangs of New York, Bill reluctantly embraces establishment politics–while pretending to be opposed to it–exactly the way Donald Trump has done. Bill the Butcher spends most of the film making deals with Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), a crooked political boss who not-so-secretly controls the city through the Tammany Hall organization. But the alliance is uneasy. Even when they’re working together Bill threatens Tweed with his gangster muscle, warning him “any time that I wish, I can turn it against you.” Trump, though he needed the Republican Party machinery to ascend to political power, has similarly made threats against his own benefactors. Disdain for the political process is part of the message he brings to his supporters. Late in the film Bill the Butcher finally does turn against Tweed and Tammany; it remains to be seen how Trump’s frosty relations with his own party will play out. But the key point is the simultaneous disdain for the political process, while using it to its greatest potential.
The real message of Gangs of New York–and one that Trump and his supporters would probably dispute–is how ultimately self-defeating the cause of nativist violence really is, especially in a society bending, however slowly, toward diversity. The seething chaos of 1860s New York in the film is multicultural. The Catholic Irish, embodied by Amsterdam Vallon, surge to power not only in street brawling, but also in politics, and they as well as African-Americans and other ethnic minorities are portrayed, in the words of the U2 song that plays over the end credits, as “the hands that built America.” By contrast Bill the Butcher loses his last gang war, which is futile anyway as it occurs against the backdrop of a much greater cataclysm, the New York Draft Riots. The Civil War–a struggle to abolish slavery–makes Bill and his kind obsolete. All they can do is go down fighting the tide, which they do. In the film’s final scene Amsterdam remarks in a voice-over, while walking among the corpses of the riot victims, “friend or foe, it don’t make no difference now.” All of this turmoil is part of the story of New York, a violent, contested space, but one that is ultimately inclusive, however imperfectly.
Bill the Butcher goes down in the final gang fight with his arch-rival, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), during the Draft Riots of July 1863.
This is the same tide that Donald Trump has based his bid for power on resisting. America is becoming more diverse. The days when America was defined by a “monoculture” dictated primarily by straight white males is a thing of the past. Trump certainly knows this, but he sees power for the grabbing by stoking the same resentment that animated those Know-Nothings who brawled in the cobblestone streets of Manhattan some 160 years ago. Whether you liked the film Gangs of New York or hated it, you have to give Scorsese some credit: he was remarkably prescient.