What Herman Melville Can Teach Us About the Trump Era
Santiago de Chile may seem a strange place from which to try to understand Donald Trump and how to resist his most aberrant edicts and policies, and yet it is from the distance and serenity of this Southern Cone city, where my wife and I live part of the year, that I have found myself meditating on these issues, abetted by the insight and doubts of none other than Herman Melville.
When the Pinochet dictatorship forced me and my family into exile after the 1973 coup, the vast library we had laboriously built over the years (with funds we could scarcely spare) stayed behind. Part of it was lost or stolen, another part damaged by a flood, but a considerable part was salvaged when we went back to Chile after democracy was restored in 1990. What strikes me about these books that have withstood water and theft and tyranny is how they enchantingly return me to the person I once was, the person I dreamt I would be, the young man who wanted to devour the universe by gorging on volume after volume of fiction, philosophy, science, history, poetry, plays.
Simultaneously, of course, those texts, mostly classic and canonical, force me to measure how much desolate and wise time has passed since my first experience with them, how much I myself have changed, and with me the wide world I traveled during our decades of banishment, a change that becomes manifest as soon as I pick up any of those primal books and reread it from the inevitable perspective of today.
It is a happy coincidence that the works I have chosen to revisit on this occasion are by Melville, as I can think of no other American author who can so inform the perilous moment we are currently living. Roaming my eyes on shelf after shelf, I soon lit upon his enigmatic novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and sandwiched between it and Moby-Dick, a collection of his three novellas, Benito Cereno; Bartleby, the Scrivener; and Billy Budd, Sailor.
Having just participated, as an American citizen, in the recent election that elevated to the presidency an archetypal liar and devious impostor who has hoodwinked and mesmerized his way into power, The Confidence-Man seemed like an appropriate place to start. Though it was published 160 years ago, on April Fool’s Day, 1857, Melville could have been presciently forecasting today’s America when he imagined his country as a Mississippi steamer (ironically called the Fidèle) filled with “a flock of fools, under this captain of fools, in this ship of fools!”
The passengers of that boat are systematically bilked by a devilish protagonist who constantly shifts his identity, changing names and shapes and schemes, while each successive ambiguous incarnation tries out one scam after another, swindles and snake-oil-trickery that were recognizable in his day—and, alas, in ours. Fraudulent real estate deals and bankruptcies, spurious lies disguised as moralistic truths, grandiose charitable undertakings that never materialize, financial hustles and deceptions, bombastic appeals to the honesty of the suckers while showing no honor whatsoever—it all sounds like a primer for Trump and his buffoonish 21st-century antics and “truthful hyperbole.”
Of course, Melville’s time was not the age of Twitter and Instagram and short attention spans, so his ever-fluctuating rascal engages in endless metaphysical discussions about mankind, quoting Plato, Tacitus, and St. Augustine, along with many a book that Trump has probably never even heard of. And rather than a bully and a braggart, this 19th-century pretender is garrulous and genial. But just like Trump, he displays an arsenal of false premises and promises to dazzle and befuddle his victims with absurd and inconsistent projects that seem workable until, that is, they are more closely examined—and then, when cornered by demands that he provide proof of his ventures, the scamp somehow manages to distract his audience and squirm away. And also like Trump, he exercises on his dupes “the power of persuasive fascination, the power of holding another creature by the button of the eye,” which allows him to mercilessly best his many antagonists, exploiting their ignorance, naïveté, and, above all, greed.