Back in 1951, Herman Wouk published the definitive book about the Trump administration. He set it in the 1940s, during the war in the Pacific, aboard a destroyer-minesweeper skippered by a paranoid man with a compulsion to blame others for his mistakes. The captain was named Philip Francis Queeg, his ship was called the USS Caine, and the novel was “The Caine Mutiny.” It won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a dead certainty President Trump never read it.
But maybe he saw the movie , in which Humphrey Bogart plays Queeg, a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, or the Broadway play, “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” — but none of that is likely, either. The character of Queeq would have been too close to home for him and the mutiny too terrible to contemplate.
In seizing command, Queeg’s fellow officers invoked Article 184, which is the Navy’s version of the Constitution’s 25th Amendment. I wrote about this amendment — which provides for the removal of a president if he is incapacitated — in early January, convinced that the Trump presidency, like a winged pig, was an oxymoron that was bound to crash. The man was not yet president, but he had revealed his character over the years in his business dealings and his public pronouncements. It was enough for me that he had insisted that President Barack Obama was not American-born. Trump had no evidence — just a lack of scruples. Nothing has changed.
In “The Caine Mutiny,” our first hint that Queeg is unbalanced comes when he tries to cover up a serious mistake — running over a towline in a gunnery drill. Later, when the Caine has to participate in an invasion of a Pacific island, Queeg cuts and runs and then demands his officers support his decision. They choose instead to keep silent.
We have many such similarities with Trump. Maybe the most psychologically egregious occurred right after the inauguration when he sent out Sean Spicer to lie about the size of the crowd. This was seemingly a small matter, but the inability to distinguish between the trivial and the consequential is, we now know, a Trump character malfunction.
In Queeg’s case, the telling incident has to do with some missing strawberries. The captain orders an investigation and has the ship laboriously searched for a nonexistent duplicate refrigerator key. “They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, with geometric logic, that a duplicate key to the ward room icebox did exist,” Queeg says when he takes the stand at the court-martial of his mutinous officers.
But the actual mutiny is yet to come. It occurs when the Caine gets engulfed by a typhoon. Queeg seems unsure how to handle the boat in the storm. He does not come around into the wind, and the ship starts to founder. It is then that his officers take over — mutiny. They had already researched Article 184: “It is conceivable that most unusual and extraordinary circumstances may arise in which the relief from duty of a commanding officer by a subordinate becomes necessary.”
Trump has yet to have his monster storm. But his behavior is unmistakably Queeg-like. It could be that the allegation that he or someone close to him dealt with the Russians to corrupt the election, or that the allegation that his tax returns, if ever revealed, will show a zealously uncharitable man with dubious business associations — any of the many accusations — will come to nothing. We have the apparition of Billy Bush, dead but walking, to prove that Trump is a lot luckier than he is smart. No jury will convict Trump of competency.
The crunch will come with the ordinary — not a crime, but erratic or irresponsible behavior in a crisis. We have already seen modest examples of that — his loose lips with the Russian foreign minister, which may have exposed an Israeli intelligence asset.
The officers of the ship of state, members of the president’s own party, have to be prepared for such an eventuality — maybe not a constitutional coup via the 25th Amendment, but a determination to stand up to a president who is temperamentally and intellectually unsuited for the office. From the GOP, Trump needs pushback and criticism, not sycophantic applause.
The reason “The Caine Mutiny” was successful in many forms is that it spoke the truth about character and competence. Queeg was a fictional creation, but especially in Bogart’s interpretation, he oozed a sloppy humanity, a man who foundered long before his ship did. The same is true of Trump. His typhoon is coming.
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