Trump’s Moby Dick Debate

I don’t think the point of Moby Dick was that the whale brought it all on himself, and that should never be how we look back on l’affaire Lewinsky or any of the other events and fabrications that were used in the 1990s to try to bring the Clintons to their political knees. The ending here is different, for starters. If you thought that the Republicans’ defeat in the 1998 midterms, the acquittal of the president, and the resignation of Newt Gingrich were the equivalents of Captain Ahab being lashed to the White Whale and dragged to the depths of the ocean, then you obviously didn’t watch last night’s debate. Because Captain Ahab lives!

In one of the earliest reviews of Herman Melville’s epic, George Ripley of Harper’s wrote that 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.” That seems like a good description of Donald Trump’s whole campaign, as he seeks vengeance for being humiliated by the president at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011. In a broader sense, though, it’s a description of the itch Trump was scratching last night for his base.

As Robert Costa, Dan Balz, and Philip Rucker report in the Washington Post, a shocking scene took place moments before the debate last night, when Donald Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Rudy Giuliani, and Breitbart‘s Stephen K. Bannon hatched a plot to embarrass and discomfort President Bill Clinton on national television.

Donald Trump’s campaign sought to intimidate Hillary Clinton and embarrass her husband by seating women who have accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual abuse in the Trump family’s box at the presidential debate here Sunday night, according to four people involved in the discussions.

The campaign’s plan, which was closely held and unknown to several of Trump’s top aides, was thwarted just minutes before it could be executed when officials with the Commission on Presidential Debates intervened. The commission officials warned that, if the Trump campaign tried to seat the accusers in the elevated family box, security officers would remove the women, according to the people involved, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential.

Rudy Giuliani went into some details about their plan.

The four women — three of whom have alleged that Bill Clinton sexually assaulted or harassed them years ago — were to walk in the debate hall at the same time as the 42nd president and confront him in front of a national television audience.

“We were going to put the four women in the VIP box,” said former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who represents Trump in debate negotiations. “We had it all set. We wanted to have them shake hands with Bill, to see if Bill would shake hands with them.”

The plan was thwarted by Frank Fahrenkopf, the Republican co-chairman of the debate commission, but that didn’t prevent Trump from making several references to the women in the opening moments of the debate. It was his chance to lob the worst accusations ever made against Bill Clinton like some kind of magic harpoon that would finally make the American people recognize the satanic possession of the Clintons. Also in Trump’s quiver were the most unhinged interpretations of Hillary’s missteps and vulnerabilities, from Benghazi! to the “missing” emails to her alleged role in silencing her husband’s accusers. To drive home the point, Trump referred to his debating partner as “the devil” and “Satan.”

It was impossible for me not to recall how Ishmael, Melville’s narrator, describes Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick:

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

In circumstances like these, speaking to and for a base that has hunted the Clintons around the seven seas of American politics for more than a quarter century now, Trump’s performance was guaranteed to excite and stimulate the limbic system of hardcore Republicans, including many who have no use for Trump as a candidate or potential president. It must have been an almost euphoric experience for them.

Except, Moby Dick was never “all evil” personified. Moby Dick was just a whale.

And on the third day of his final pursuit, Ahab finally realized: “Aye, he’s chasing me now; not I, him—that’s bad.”

Trump may have now fulfilled his destiny. Perhaps it, too, was foretold in some Fedallah’s prophecy.

But his party is now as shattered as The Pequod, and Trump’s presidential ambitions are sinking to the bottom of the sea.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.