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  • Tom Bennitt

Donald Trump, Captain Ahab, and the Homo Sacer

A couple months ago, as I watched Trump spew his rhetoric of narcissism and hate from the center stage of the Republican National Convention, I thought back to April, when Donald Pease visited Lincoln. During a conversation with graduate students in a Bailey Library lecture about Moby Dick, Pease, a noted American Studies critic and scholar, drew interesting parallels between Captain Ahab and Trump. And now, with the presidential election two months away, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit this comparison.

Melville’s epic novel was a significant example of America’s nineteenth-century cultural and literary renaissance. And over the years, Ahab and Ishmael have received the bulk of critical attention. But during his talk Pease focused on the whaling ship, the Pequod, and its crew as a collective unit.

Interestingly, whaling ships operated much like a present-day startup businesses. Since predicting whether a whaling expedition would make a profit was a major gamble, they were funded by joint-venture capital firms comprised of wealthy financiers (not unlike today’s investment banks or hedge funds.) Of course, a roguish captain like Ahab would have ignored any advice or direction from investors.

When sailing in the middle of the Pacific, the Pequod is a confined structure – no exit or entry –with a restrictive economy, and none of the crew receive payment until they return home. Accordingly, the ship acts as a kind of labor camp. As sovereign of the ship, Ahab can suspend and/or change the traditional laws and norms of a typical whaling expedition. When he does exert this power, his crew are stripped of their human rights and personal freedoms. Ultimately they become bare flesh, or what Agamben would call a homo sacer. At one point, Starbuck questions Ahab’s motives, reminding him that the crew’s main objective is to hunt whales to sell for the New England market. Ahab responds by essentially tearing up the contract, stating that their current mission is to hunt one whale, Moby Dick, and not for profit but revenge. Thus, their journey becomes a death march.

A prime example of the homo sacer – a person who can be killed, but not sacrificed – is Pip, a castaway who does not even have crew member status. He is treated as a slave and forced to do the most demeaning jobs, like extracting ambergris (sperm) from captured whales. Pip also has a near-death experience. While the ship is pursuing a whale, he gets tangled in rope and falls over. He is later rescued, by chance, but Pip cannot relate his story because he can no longer speak in audible tones. He has literally been stripped of his voice.

So, what does any of this have to do with Donald Trump? It warrants a closer look.

First, Trump’s immediate family and inner circle operate like Ahab’s crew: absolute loyalty is required, and no public discussion or dissent is permitted. In their soundbites and speeches, Trump’s kids sound like they’ve been programmed to glorify their father’s virtues as a great leader and businessman.

Further, Trump changes or suspends the traditional rules of engagement (of political campaigns) to suit his needs. At his rallies, for example, he has encouraged his audience to surround and intimidate protesters. He has called undocumented immigrants “rapists” and “terrorists” who are roaming free in this country. But his resorts and hotels commonly hire undocumented workers, paying them far below minimum wage. He has questioned a Mexican-American judge’s ability to be impartial. He has publicly mocked a journalist’s disability. Recently, Trump has become even more unhinged, criticizing the Muslim parents of a fallen soldier, and even yelling at a baby for crying too loud during his speech. Such behavior resembles Ahab’s lunacy and rage as he gets within striking distance of the white whale.

Trump’s method of discrimination is broad and systemic. He even treats his supporters as bare flesh, whose only real value is their vote. He repeats the idea that America needs a great leader, touting his business record and negotiating skills, to become a great country again. And yet, that record includes manipulating the bankruptcy laws to avoid paying creditors and employees what they’ve been owed. Still, it is dangerous to underestimate Trump’s appeal to a large segment of America. He has successfully branded himself, in business, as a working-class kid from Queens who battled the Wall Street elites, and now, in politics, as an outsider to Washington’s political and intellectual elites, like Bill and Hillary Clinton.

When discussing most presidential election, it’s generally safe to assume that both the Republican and Democratic candidates are examples of the neoliberal democratic tradition, and that both would govern the country in a similar manner. Agamben and other theorists have argued that since 9/11, American presidents have used the “state of emergency” clause with alarming frequency, in order to consolidate or increase the power of the executive branch. Nevertheless, the rule of law – new legislation passed in congress, Supreme Court decisions, state and local government – continues to be respected and followed as an organizing principle.

If Trump wins, however, I fear the rule of law will be abandoned. (The economy going off the gold standard might be a proper analogy.) He will take every opportunity to change or suspend laws that might somehow curb his power or wealth. His decisions will be driven by self-interest: i.e., what is best for him and his business entities, rather than what’s best for the country. American citizens, like crewmembers of the Pequod, will find their civil liberties further diminished and their economic well-being directly tied to the decisions of the sovereign. More importantly, marginalized groups – including immigrants, Muslims, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, and those living in poverty – will become bare flesh.

As a new father who wants to teach his son the importance of tolerance, diversity, and individuality, there is no way I could ever justify voting for Trump. I just wish all parental decisions were so easy.

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