Captain Ahab should have run for the American presidency.
We all know the story: driven insane by the loss of his leg, crazy Ahab chases the White Whale on a suicide quest, dragging all but one of his crew down to Davy Jones. Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” is a mad, metaphysical book about God, suffering, and the universe; but along the way, the novel also offers us a clear warning about some of the dangers lurking in our political process.
In his portrait of Captain Ahab, Melville depicts a dangerous and rising demagogue, who through political spectacle and skillful rhetoric wins the support of the masses and leads them to their deaths. As the 2016 elections approach, and as our political fever rises, we would do well to heed the voice of one of our own great American novelists before we cast our ballots.
Captain Ahab desperately needs the popular vote. In order to commandeer The Pequod for his personal revenge (instead of hunting whales like the ship’s owners intended), he needs the unquestioning support of his motley crew. To do this, he stages a rally on deck, and gives one of the greatest speeches in American literature.
In this speech, given in Chapter 36, Melville offers us a prophetic portrait of the American demagogue, and this piece of political spectacle might serve as a textbook for any unscrupulous politician today. To commandeer the ship of state, we might say, the aspiring demagogue should follow Ahab’s six-step method to rise to power.
1. Set the Stage and Create a Scene
The political spectacle actually begins with Melville’s unexpected use of stage directions at the beginning of the chapter: “(Enter Ahab: Then, All).” Melville is setting up the captain as the protagonist of a tragedy, but we can also see him signaling the demagogue Ahab’s careful theatrical staging of the event. Ahab begins with a shrewdly democratic gesture when he calls the crew to the quarterdeck, in the aft (rear) portion of the ship. Situated just outside the captain’s quarters, the aft section of the ship is the officers’ own turf. By setting the scene and addressing the assembled crew there, Ahab effectively welcomes them into his own space as equals.
Then, once the players of this little drama have gathered, Ahab makes them wait expectantly, while he paces back and forth in front of them: “and as though not a soul were nigh him resumed his heavy turns upon the deck. With bent head and half-slouched hat he continued to pace, unmindful of the wondering whispering among the men….” Nothing builds suspense at a rally like the long wait for a candidate’s late start.
When Ahab finally speaks to the men, he draws them into a powerful, call-and-response scene that whips up the crowd:
“What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?”
“Sing out for him!” was the impulsive rejoinder from a score of clubbed voices.
“Good!” cried Ahab, with a wild approval in his tones; observing the hearty animation into which his unexpected question had so magnetically thrown them.
“And what do you do next, men?”
“Lower away, and after him!”
“And what tune is it ye pull to, men?”
“A dead whale or a stove boat!”
Ahab’s question-and-answer style engages the crew, and gives his captive audience a sense of participation in the event—even as he carefully manipulates them. It works, as the crew members “began to gaze curiously at each other, as if marveling how it was that they themselves became so excited at such seemingly purposeless questions.” Caught up in spite of themselves, they begin to play upon this political stage according to Ahab’s rules.
2. Money Talks
Like all successful demagogues, Ahab holds out the promise of money in our pockets. Standing before the men, he shows them the prize for spotting Moby Dick: “Look ! d’ye see this Spanish ounce of gold?”—holding up a broad bright coin to the sun—“it is a sixteen dollar piece, men—a doubloon. D’ye see it?”
Ahab knows that money talks and that visuals matter, and he slowly polishes the doubloon on his jacket in front of the men, “as if to heighten its luster.” Then he nails the coin to the mast, where it remains in the sight of all—a tantalizing reminder of promised prosperity.
3. Incorporate the Opposition
Suddenly Ahab faces what every politician encounters at a rally: a protester. Starbuck, the clearheaded first mate, questions Ahab’s motives, asking, “But was it not Moby Dick that took off thy leg?” It’s a tense moment, as Ahab reacts defensively, “Who told thee that?” But then he pauses, and as the best politicians do, pivots and turns the protester’s disruption to his own advantage. He responds to Starbuck, but with a speech pitched to the ears and passions of the listening crew:
“Aye, Starbuck; aye, my hearties all round; it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye,” he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose; “Aye, aye! it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!”
What originally seemed a captain’s trophy hunt has now become the justified vengeance of a deeply wronged man, a distinction that further appeals to his impassioned crew.
4. Appeal to the Passions
Ahab’s response illustrates how the demagogue works to trigger a strong emotional response in an audience. His appeal to pathos reaches fever pitch, as he plays simultaneously on the sympathies and the bloodlust of his crew. After signaling his undeserved suffering and the disability that maims his identity as a whaler, he goes in for the kill: “And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase the white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.”
Here Ahab’s flattery and feigned brotherhood combine to break any contract between the men and the whaling company back in Nantucket. United now against the common enemy of Moby Dick, the enraptured sailors respond by “running closer to the excited old man” and crying out “A sharp eye for the White Whale; a sharp lance for Moby Dick!” They vote for Ahab now.
5. Show People You’re A Winner
Everyone loves a winner. As Ahab continues to work on the reluctant Starbuck, he pitches himself as both the top dog and a majority candidate. His revenge on Moby Dick will mean a kind of heroic act of independence from the Divine: “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” “Who’s over me?,” he continues, with Satanic autonomy.
He also has the support of the people. “The crew, man, the crew!,” he says to Starbuck, “Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale?” By sheer force of will, he stares down Starbuck, and convinces him that his power is inevitable. Ahab, it seems, is undefeatable precisely because he insists that he has already won.
6. God Bless America
Ahab has now captivated the crew and cowed the opposition; but as a quintessential American demagogue, he needs to close the sale by invoking religion. Although waging a blasphemous war on God in the person of Moby Dick, Ahab still cries out “God bless ye” twice to the inflamed crew. In a parody of communion, he orders grog for the men, and allows them to drink first: “‘Drink and pass!’ he cried, handing the heavy charged flagon to the nearest seaman. ‘The crew alone now drink. Round with it, round!’”
Like an ancient pagan or a modern fascist, Ahab blurs religious and civic rituals. While the crew drinks their grog, he acts out “a noble custom of my fisherman fathers before me.” As presiding priest over this ritual, Ahab makes his officers cross their lances, and has his harpooners drink communion from the “murderous chalices” of their harpoon sockets. Of course, when Ahab calls the grog as “hot as Satan’s hoof,” we should not be surprised: the demagogue’s rivalry with God is always a deal with the devil.
Sinking the Ship of State
It is no accident that Melville sets this political spectacle onboard a ship, since this diverse, melting pot of a whaling vessel stands in for the American ship of state. Scholars have noted that Melville in several places numbers The Pequod’s crew at 30—the number of states in the union when the novel was published in 1851.
At the end of the novel, Melville dramatizes the national consequences of following demagogues like Captain Ahab. When Moby Dick rams The Pequod, it sinks slowly into the ocean, as a stunned crewman accidentally hammers a bird of prey to the mast while nailing a flag there: “and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship…”
At the end of his book, Melville leaves Americans with a chilling symbol of national destruction: a dying bird of prey, folded into a flag, sinking into the ocean: where “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Elect a demagogue, Melville warns, and you will sink the ship of state.