The White Whale

Alan Zendell, December 22, 2020

No, the title is not a disparaging reference to Donald Trump, though many of his detractors and most stand-up comedians have described him that way. It’s a metaphor for his obsession with power and himself, but you probably guessed that already. There may be no better example of obsession-driven self-destructive madness than Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick. Captain Ahab was a whaling sea-captain whose first encounter with the giant white whale resulted in the loss of one of his legs. From that day forward, Ahab was obsessed with avenging his loss. Nothing would stand in his way, not the safety of his crew or the risk of losing his ship. If you don’t remember your high school literature class, Ahab eventually became completely irrational, and his madness cost him his life. The whale survived.

The idea of Captain Ahab as allegory for Trump has two bases in Moby Dick. Melville compared Ahab to the Greek God Narcissus, who was possessed of a handsome image that could not be matched by mortals. Narcissus’ self-love caused him to be mesmerized by his own reflection in a fountain, into which he ultimately plunged and drowned. Ahab’s obsessive drive for revenge on the whale, which he once viewed as a noble creature of great beauty, but later perceived as an evil enemy out to kill him, represents the psychological need to project his own obsessive characteristics onto his adversary, the whale.

Looked at from this point of view, Ahab’s descent into madness which resulted in his own destruction may well be seen as a parallel for Trump’s recent behavior. Ahab’s blind obsession risked his ship and his crew. Trump’s overriding compulsion to make everyone else pay for his loss risks the ship of state and all the Americans who populate it.

Everyone around him walked on eggshells whenever they had to interact with him. And like Ahab’s crew, they all became Trump enablers, whether willingly or out of fear. As his administration unravels into complete chaos, they are desperately trying to abandon the ship before it drags them down with it, the clearest example being Attorney General Bill Barr.

If we had any doubt that Donald Trump suffers from an extreme Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it was dispelled by the commentary of his niece, Mary Trump, a practicing PhD psychologist. The issue never was whether his mental illness (yes, that’s what it is) was real. The debate was whether it was simply an annoying quirk or something to be feared. I have always believed Trump was a danger to the country, his illness a ticking time bomb. I believe most of the people in his orbit sensed that too, but human nature rarely assumes the worst about someone until the evidence is incontrovertible.

These are not new ideas. In 2017, Yale University Professor of Psychiatry Bandy Lee published The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, a collection of essays by concerned psychotherapists. It became an instant bestseller, and ultimately, thirty-seven psychiatrists contributed their assessments describing the “clear and present danger” that US President Donald Trump’s mental health poses to the “nation and individual well-being.”

A year ago, in December 2019, Professor Lee was joined by 350 mental health professionals in drafting a letter to Congress, claiming “Trump’s mental health [was] deteriorating dangerously amid impeachment proceedings.” Last month, seventeen days after Trump lost the election, psychiatrist Kenneth Rosenberg and political scientist Norman Ornstein published: Trump history and behavior suggest destructive mental processes that put America at risk. And two days ago, Peter Wehner, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote Trump is Losing His Mind in The Atlantic.

Trump’s senior advisors and military leaders leak their fears daily to the media. In the West Wing, the Congress and the Pentagon, the people responsible for the stability of our nation continually express concern about what Trump’s deteriorating mental health might cause him to do in the month before President Elect Biden’s inauguration. The election, all Democrats, and every Republican who has been willing to speak out against him have combined to become Trump’s White Whale. All that matters to him now is killing it.

The only way to assure that the ship will not sink along with Trump is for Vice President Pence to step up and activate the 25th amendment. Our safety may depend on ridding ourselves of him before he blows everything up.

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