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Moby-Dick and Captain Trump

What America’s finest novel, Trump’s “quenchless feud” and Biden’s sinking presidency have in common
November 9th, 2023

By Jim Towey

Wall Street Journal columnist (and friend) Peggy Noonan wrote a piece recently recounting a colleague’s fear that he might die without having read what is considered to be America’s finest novel, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s 19th century classic.

I finished reading it this week – all 650 pages.  As I did, the parallels to Donald Trump seemed inescapable, accentuated by new polling results that show him with a comfortable lead over President Biden.  The farther I went out to sea with Melville, the more Mr. Trump paddled into my consciousness.

The novel’s iconic first sentence, “Call me Ishmael.”, began an eyewitness account of a tragic journey of about twenty whalers on the high seas.  The book’s two central figures were both mammals: Moby Dick, a whale; and Ahab, who lost half a leg to it and was the captain of the Pequod.

My Trump radar went off almost immediately after I dove into the book.  Ahab was described as a “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Check, check, check.  He was out to seek revenge for his great loss and willing to do whatever it took to settle the score.  Check, check.  Many who joined Ahab on the voyage were mesmerized by the charismatic captain.  Check.

Ishmael described the effect: “A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.”

So, to summarize: We have a deranged, narcissistic captain seeking revenge and victory even if his quest endangers others?  That ring a bell?  How about Ahab’s description of himself, “I am madness maddened.”  Ahab might as well have worn a red baseball cap!

The churning vortex

Don’t get me wrong.  Many Americans who aren’t MAGA-types have a “sympathetical feeling” toward the current presidential frontrunner and his feud with the “deep state” that, as Melville described the sea, “churns in one vast swirling vortex of circles, swallowing everything in sight.”  Yes, our tax dollars, free-speech rights, and other liberties seem to circle the drain these days under President Biden’s command. His record (annual interest on the national debt reached a staggering $1 trillion this week) and the possibility of his re-election seem unacceptable to a majority of Americans, if the polls are to be believed

In fact, some loyal Democrats want Biden out of the race while Trump’s base only solidifies. Just as Ahab’s faithful crew obeyed his every command knowing full well that to do otherwise meant certain death, Trump’s team at the White House either toed the line or were summarily dispatched. Remember Jeff Sessions, General John Kelly, William Barr, and the other good people who were put out to sea?

In Ahab’s eyes, the mighty, mysterious creature of the sea he pursued was the essence of everything evil in the world.  But to capture and kill it wasn’t going to be so easy.  It is one thing to try to drain a swamp, and another to hunt a solitary whale across the earth’s vast ocean basins.  As the plot progressed, Melville masterfully unveiled a foreboding sense of doom as Ahab roamed these waters, seeking revenge, against all odds.  That describes the political mood for most Americans, too.

The final showdown

Starbuck, the number two man on the Pequod, did all he could to dissuade Ahab’s murderous pursuit.  He implored the captain, “Go not. Go not.”  His pleas brought to mind the establishment Republican party’s cries to Trump, “Run not.  Run not.”  Ahab responded to Starbuck’s entreaties by threatening to harpoon him.  Trump one-upped Ahab. He pretty much speared Mike Pence, his own number two man, and planted a harpoon deeply into Ron DeSantis’s campaign, as the sharks circling him attest.

Moby-Dick saves its last 29 pages for the three final showdowns between Ahab and the great white whale.  Starbuck watched the final battle from the presumed safety of the Pequod’s deck (spoiler alert: it wasn’t so safe).  Melville described the spectacle of the ship as it was demolished.  “And now, concentric circles seized the loan boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.”

Which brings me to the simple question: Will that be our democracy’s fate?

Ahab met his death by becoming entangled in the rope fastened to the harpoon he had sunk into his nemesis in one last, desperate, futile act of revenge.  Moby Dick returned the favor by dragging the captain to his death.  Ahab’s shipmates, too, perished, save one – Ishmael.  He held tight to a life buoy for two days.  “The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea hawks sailed with sheathed beaks.”  He survived. It was a miracle.

Trump is now tangled up in legal woe and Biden is taking on water.  Let us pray that a year from now America gets its own miracle.  We need a better choice than Trump v. Biden to lead our ship of state in the treacherous waters in which our country now sails.


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