The Scorpion King

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Trendsetter Engineering Inc. on November 2, 2023, in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (including any of you who wish you were a little taller),

In HBO’s The Wire, an ambitious drug dealer named Marlo is determined to “wear the crown”—i.e. become the undisputed top dog of Baltimore drug dealers. To get there, he needs to rely on some of his rivals—for access to better product, and to learn how to successfully launder money and bribe politicians. But once he figures this stuff out, he realizes he doesn’t need them anymore. So he kills “Prop Joe,” dismantles the “co-op”—a cartel of various Baltimore drug dealers—and consolidates power. 

There are better analogies—from history, politics, etc.—for what we’re seeing in Trumpworld. The story of various historical figures rising to power by relying on existing stakeholders only to eliminate or marginalize those stakeholders once they attain power is very old. Joseph Stalin edged out Leon Trotsky, for instance, by forming a triumvirate within the Politburo with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. After forcing Trotsky out, Stalin then went to work on marginalizing his former partners. He played similar games with various generals, relying on their independent power and status while he needed it, then eliminating them precisely because they had independent power and status. By the time of Stalin’s Great Terror, the most dangerous thing one could do was to have any status or power that wasn’t entirely dependent on proximity, and loyalty, to Stalin himself. Of course, the second most dangerous thing one could do is have any power at all, because Stalin was so paranoid, he saw anyone with power and influence—even if it flowed from him—as a potential danger. 

A very similar story can be told of Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping, Saddam Hussein, and countless other criminals and despots. Play the game on the way up, rewrite the rules of the game once you get there.

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