Culture  /  Comment

What Herman Melville Can Teach Us About the Trump Era

He would point out that what plagues us are America's sins coming home to roost.
George G. Rockwood/Wikimedia Commons

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.

Indeed, Melville’s misanthropic allegory often seems less a denunciation of the glib and slippery trickster than a bitter indictment of those gullible enough to let themselves be cheated. The author saw the United States, diseased with false innocence and a ravenous desire for getting rich, heading toward Apocalypse—specifically, the Civil War that was a scant four years away. Fearful that, behind the masquerade of virtue and godliness performed by the role-playing passengers, there lurk shadows of darkness and malignancy, he was intent on revealing how the excessive “confidence” in America’s integrity, virtuousness, and “ardently bright view of life” can lead to tragedy.