Donald Trump and Captain Ahab


“[Ahab] becomes the victim of a deep, cunning monomania; believes himself predestined to take a bloody revenge on his fearful enemy; pursues him with fierce demoniac energy of purpose.” George Ripley, 1851, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

It was inevitable, the comparisons between the president and similarly delusional literary figures. From Shakespeare’s King Lear, to old Narcissus himself, Trump’s imperialist persona has made him fair game for parallels with some of the most flawed leaders in Western myth and literature.

But perhaps most apt of all the fictional archetypes compared to Trump is Captain Ahab, Melville’s megalomaniacal skipper of a storied whaling ship, willing to sink his vessel and drown his crew in order to exact revenge on the giant beast that cost him half a leg years before.

Like any great allegorical novel, Moby Dick is subject to multiple interpretations. But however else his many plotlines might be parsed, it’s clear Melville intended the book to be a chilling meditation on the perils of trying to settle old scores.

And it’s here the comparisons with Trump most apply.

In an op ed from Oct. 19, 2016, Mother Jones Washington bureau chief, David Corn, cites a long list of those with whom candidate Trump sought to settle scores of his own — people who dared stand up to him despite his demeaning verbal barrages: Rosie O’Donnell; Megyn Kelly; John Kasich; Carly Fiorina; John McCain; Marco Rubio; a former Miss Universe, and the grieving parents of a dead US army officer.

Corn next reminds us of the special defamation Trump still reserves for all things Clinton; then includes a series of direct quotes from Trump speeches describing his vengeful modus operandi, including a telling passage from a 2012 speech:

“If somebody hits you, you’ve got to hit ’em back five times harder than they ever thought possible. You’ve got to get even. Get even. And the reason, the reason you do, is so important … The reason you do, you have to do it, because if they do that to you, you have to leave a telltale sign that they just can’t take advantage of you. It’s not so much for the person, which does make you feel good, to be honest with you, I’ve done it many times. But other people watch and you know they say, ‘Well, let’s leave Trump alone …’ I say it, and it’s so important. You have to, you have to hit back. You have to hit back.”

Open remarks like these lend credence to the stories told by many former Trump associates about their ex-boss. Despite his station and status, they’re on record with reports that once crossed, he personalizes the perceived affront and is consumed with getting even: unjustified firings, withholding earned wages, character assassination, bogus lawsuits and verbal abuse.

Taken together, Trump’s past rhetoric and actions were but a preview of the self-indulgent pettiness that pollutes now President Trump’s thinking on any number of critical issues, foreign and domestic.

In the end, comparisons between the flawed president and the flawed sea captain are instructive on a human as well as political level: Ahab ultimately drowns, caught up in his own harpoon line and dragged under the swells, he’s bound to the whale he swore to destroy. His quest for “justice” has come to naught.

Sadly, this president is not known for extensive reading, much less delving into metaphors and archetypes from a 19th century classic. But great literature or no, we’re right to expect better from a sitting president.

Melville had it right, Mr. President: Revenge clouds the mind. Entertained, it poisons the heart.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2017

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