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Belief in the myth of outlaw heroes partly explains Donald Trump’s die-hard support

David G. Bromley, Virginia Commonwealth University, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

In America, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a series of outlaw heroes, from Jesse James and William “Billy the Kid” Bonney to John Dillinger and Al Capone, around whom similar legends developed – that they stood up to unjust authorities in ways that were daring, captivating the imagination of many Americans.

But the reality of their lives was completely different than the myths.

They were constantly on the run from law enforcement authorities. While their daring jail escapes and bank robberies drew cheers from supporters, their lives were filled with dangerous shootouts, often ending in sudden deaths. In Capone’s case, it ended after years fighting dementia and other complications from syphilis.

John Dillinger, for instance, the notorious bank robber who gained fame during the roaring 1920s, was shot to death by FBI agents on July 22, 1934, after one such shootout.

Though these outlaw heroes may have targeted the rich and powerful, there is scant evidence that the riches they accumulated were ever redistributed to the poor. But the banks they robbed held the savings of ordinary people, and the violence they fomented took place in their local communities.

Capone is one example.


By the late 1920s, he had cultivated an image of a well-intentioned businessman who cared only about the welfare of his fellow Chicagoans.

In reality, Capone was the nation’s most visible mobster who violently protected his criminal enterprise of gambling and selling alcohol during the Prohibition era. Among the best examples of Capone’s ruthlessness was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on Feb. 14, 1929. Posing as policemen, members of Capone’s gang lined up seven rivals against a wall and machine-gunned them to death.

Throughout his life, Capone was indicted and convicted of several crimes, including tax evasion, contempt of court, carrying concealed weapons and bootlegging alcohol. He ultimately died on Jan. 25, 1947, at the age of 48.

This disparity between life and legend exists because outlaw heroes were both celebrated by supporters and condemned by authorities. The result, then and now, is that each side has been baffled by the other’s inability to see the truth.


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