How Herman Melville Foresaw the Rise of Donald Trump

Photograph of Donald Trump at a podium, with American flags waving in the background
Donald Trump, by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr (reproduced under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence).

Donald Trump sold himself to the American electorate as an ordinary guy who could make America great again. Alexander McDonnell suggests that the dangers posed to American society by the trickster who promises a great future on the basis of past myths were presciently foreseen by Herman Melville in his 1857 satire, The Confidence-Man.

What possible connection could Donald Trump have to Herman Melville’s obscure nineteenth-century novel, The Confidence-Man? Melville’s satire on America’s willingness to be taken in by disguises was set and published in 1857, just before the Civil War, but it anticipates modern anxieties regarding the recent electoral victory of a billionaire who sold himself as a man of the people. In Melville’s story about a group of passengers brought together on the steamboat The Fidèle, the confidence-man among them acts as a critique on America’s market-driven culture. This can be related to the neoliberal, cultural conventions that created the conditions for the rise of a figure like Trump.

Melville’s work concerns a confidence trickster, implied to be the Devil incarnate, who possesses the ability to change his form at will. He preys upon the Fidèle passengers, attempting at every turn to win their trust in his various swindles. In the most Satanic of his guises as the Cosmopolitan, he sells a disingenuous yet eloquent philosophy of universal love for mankind. Conversely, as Charles Noble, he provides a wildly exaggerated and unreliable version of a narrative originally told by the real-life writer Judge James Hall about the “Indian-hater” Colonel Moredock in Sketches of History, Life and Manners, in the West. Roy Harvey Pearce argues that in contrast to Hall and his contemporaries who attempted to justify the terror and isolation of Indian-hating via the rhetoric of progressive civilisational expansion, Melville focuses solely on its terror and loneliness. Melville’s Hall is caught up in the violence of Indian-hating that is committed for its own sake. Melville presents the Indian-hater and Hall in a grotesque light to bring us to an awareness of the terrors that inhere in instances of unadulterated hatred. In this respect I argue that his “Indian-hating section” satirises Indian-hating narratives and accounts such as those of James Hall, which repackaged a history of national expansion that involved the violent displacement of Native Americans in terms acceptable for the American psyche.

Two groups of American Indians fighting one another on horseback
The characters aboard the Fidele reveal their inner prejudices, such as hatred of Indians. Charles M. Russell, When Blackfeet and Sioux Meet (1908), via Wikimedia Commons.

In the episodic chapters that comprise the text, the characters reveal their inner prejudices, double standards and ideological assumptions as they react with either trust or distrust to whatever the confidence-man is selling. For example, at the start of the novel, the confidence-man attempts to win alms from the passengers as an African American named Black Guinea. Rather than resisting attempts to probe its myriad of meanings, the novel actively solicits the reader’s interpretation through the mystery of the confidence-man’s masquerade. This reinforces its satire on American politics and the questions it asks about how we place confidence in others and the limits of our knowledge about them. However, masquerade has a secondary function: it signifies a permanent political and cultural malaise in American life that has been wrought by inauthentic social relations. In this context, American identity is inferred to be a fabrication consisting of various discourses, projections and myths, and consequently its artificiality is exposed. This is particularly pertinent in terms of the Indian-hating section, which posits that the State cannot be a noble institution if it has been founded upon bloodshed and sustained through stories that legitimise this bloodshed. Thus, such principles are as much an illusion as the confidence-man’s disguises.

The confidence-man is arguably a grotesque reductio ad absurdum and condemnation of a nineteenth-century culture which was increasingly driven by profit and the maintenance of appearances. This is indicated when he states that “Confidence is the indispensable basis of all sorts of business transactions” and when he regrets that the “destroyers of confidence” wiped out the stock prices of the Black Rapids Coal Company. During the antebellum decades when Americans moved to cities and newly established communities, social roles were ambiguous. Success was linked to individual effort and so self-presentation became paramount due to the rapid social mobility that was cultivated by the rise of industrialism and market capitalism during this era. However, this led to anxieties about the true self behind the performance, which found its expression in nineteenth-century literary works such as The Confidence-Man.

From 1857 to 2017

37af72b100000578-0-image-a-12_1472480187057In many ways we can see parallels with an apparently “post-truth” hyper-capitalist America where the individual as a brand is valued over their authentic self. In Trump’s case, his self-presentation as an authentic “plain talker” who understood Middle America displaced issues of facts, policy and substance for his supporters. Hillary Clinton’s failure may be attributed to a collective resentment towards her inauthenticity and excessively professional, corporatised persona at the expense of any kind of relatability. In a more general sense this reflects how individuals in Western neoliberal regimes are often compelled to deny their true motivations, personalities and so forth in exchange for economic survival. Therefore such resentment directed at the rationalised, calculated nature of her campaign may be symptomatic of a reaction again neoliberal cultural conventions as they pertain to social relations and the self. Trump essentially played the paradoxes of this culture like a fiddle by ironically setting himself up as an authentic candidate in contrast to Clinton’s perceived falsity. If Melville’s confidence-man reflects upon antebellum America’s embracing of market capitalism, Trump is the personification of its endpoint in neoliberal capitalism where immediacy and the projected self lead to a perceptual distortion of reality.

If Melville’s confidence-man reflects upon antebellum America’s embracing of market capitalism, Trump is the personification of its endpoint in neoliberal capitalism

Turning back to Melville’s work, Gary Lindberg argues that Melville’s titular character constantly affirms his belief in the benevolence of men and nature whilst asserting the sincerity of friendship. This is a gambit to encourage his victims to reveal themselves for who they are. The confidence-man’s second strategy is to entertain the roles the other players give themselves and to test their ability to live up to the image they project. Therefore, the confidence-man highlights the dangerous duplicity  in the distinction the passengers draw between the positions they outwardly hold and their inner views which often run contrary to them (one is reminded of Hillary Clinton’s infamous remark that she had a public and private position of Wall Street reform). As the novel is in part a political allegory, it can also be argued that this distinction between the “official” projected selves of the passengers and their interior personas extends to a political critique of national attitudes and values, particularly regarding what is covered in the Indian-hating segment. Significantly this segment is located at the heart of the novel, which suggests that accounts like those of Judge Hall, which rationalised a violent history of territorial expansion, serve to whitewash the moral corruption associated with the American state since its founding. One may argue that Trump’s alleged corruption is symptomatic of a general decadence within the political-financial system in the United States, which  is also registered in Melville’s critique in a nineteenth-century context. Moreover, Trump’s nationalist and xenophobic political message plays into long standing discourses of bigotry epitomised by accounts such as that of Melville’s Judge Hall. Furthermore, in being written just prior to the Civil War, the nihilistic tone of Melville’s novel arguably reflects an anxious sense of an escalating political-cultural divide, one which has manifested itself again with the outcome of the 2016 election.

The final chapter is tellingly introduced by the epigraph “The Cosmopolitan increases in seriousness.” Whereas before the confidence-man may have played the role of a fool, it seems, in light of this epigraph, that the meaning of his actions now in the guise of the Cosmopolitan should now be taken in earnest. The chapter begins with a “perverse man”, namely the Cosmopolitan, being warned by the steward that it is “not becoming in a place full of strangers, to show oneself anxious to produce darkness” after he attempts extinguish the lamp belonging to an old man, who seems to be the embodiment of the nation’s founding ideals. The sense of impending doom that characterises this chapter is made explicit when another passenger interrupts the Cosmopolitan’s discussion of biblical apocrypha: “What’s that about the Apocalypse?”, to which the Cosmopolitan responds “He’s seeing visions now, aint he?” After conversing with his beleaguered, ancient acquaintance, the Cosmopolitan extinguishes the lamp in spite of the steward’s warning and seemingly kindly leads the old man away.

Banner saying Make America Great Again set against a bleak landscape
Make America Great Again banner in California (2016), by Quinn Dombrowski (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Before being led away by the Cosmopolitan, a boy persuades the old man to buy the traveller’s lock, performing a demonstration in which his mahogany door contraption leads to the imaginary “state room.” In this context, the state room is a metaphor for the realm of the confidence-man which the old man ultimately desires to see. By placing his trust in the Cosmopolitan, the old man surrenders himself and the national principles he embodies to this figurative hell. In symbolic terms, the boy and the Cosmopolitan work in tandem to purchase the old man’s soul and by inference the soul of the nation. The old man and the Cosmopolitan trickster personify two versions of America and the fact that the latter has supremacy over the former indicates that the America represented by the old man is as subject to falsity as the Judge’s account or any other spurious story in the novel. By implication, the founding narrative of the nation and the heroic age embodied by the founding fathers are suggested to be myths. Again, in this confidence-trick focused final chapter there is a total absence of faith in the State as a political and civil institution. The nation is therefore doomed by its present and the past that led to it. The final words of the text attest to this: “Something further may follow of this masquerade.” The masquerade aboard the Fidèle, rather than being finite, renews itself in perpetuity with this incantation by passing into the real world of 1850s America.

In this respect we may again identify a parallel with contemporary America. Trump as a modern day confidence-man has exploited both the widespread resentment that neoliberal policies have generated and a culture that is pathologically obsessed with appearance and marketing. In this way he has sold his supporters a convenient lie in his affirmation to “make America great again,” which holds the promise of a return to a past ideal which in many respects is merely that – a myth reconfigured for the uses of present nationalist demagoguery. The absolute, pessimistic verdict of Melville’s novel is a provocation that arguably leaves a space open for positive action on the part of the reader. One may hope that the triumph of Trump’s brand of politics and its association with the alt-right, rather than leading the American people into darkness, will instead provoke a progressive response. Questions remain however: have all the lights been “turned out”? is social, political and cultural collapse all but guaranteed? and is the inauguration of a Trump era symptomatic of a collective “suicide wish” for the American psyche in response to unassailable pressures and imminent crises on national and global levels? In other words in an age of climate change, grotesque inequality and rising international tensions, is the United States about to pass the event horizon of a “Melvillean” darkness?

Alexander Mcdonell’s recent PhD thesis Remembering to Forget: Native American Presences and the U.S. National Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century Euro-American Fiction is available to read now via Durham Research Online.


3 thoughts on “How Herman Melville Foresaw the Rise of Donald Trump

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  1. Herman Melville had an ability to sense Bull Sh/t and this article is a joke attempting understand Melville’s thoughts on Trump. Thomas Melville, Herman’s grandfather was part of the original tea party in Boston. I believe Herman was closer to his grandfather as a conservative patriot. The thought that Melville was a progressive is total liberal lunacy.


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