Donald Trump, Captain Queeg, and paranoia

Trump vs. Queeg: One slight difference

“There will be no G.O.P. mutiny,” wrote Thomas L. Friedman in last Wednesday’s New York Times, “even if Trump resembles Captain Queeg more each day.” 

Bogart as Queeg: Who stole those strawberries? (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

With this throwaway line, the Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist joins a gaggle of less celebrated observers — like the Daily Beast, military author Jim Ridgeway, and Garnet News— who have lately seized upon similarities between Donald Trump and Philip Francis Queeg, the deranged commander of the U.S.S. Caine in Herman Wouk’s 1951 novel of World War II, The Caine Mutiny.

Before we get too carried away with Trump/Queeg analogies, please permit me this quibble: Any such analogy is an insult to Captain Queeg.

To refresh your memory: In Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (as well as the 1954 film adaptation, with Humphrey Bogart as Queeg), the U.S.S. Caine is a rusty destroyer/minesweeper commanded by an equally battered skipper. The fictitious Lieutenant Commander Queeg apparently suffers from a form of paranoid schizophrenia that often distracts his crew from the serious business at hand — fighting a war against Japan in the Pacific — to the point where it undermines the ship’s morale and jeopardizes its effectiveness and safety.

Strip search

During a gunnery-target-towing drill, Queeg becomes so preoccupied with scolding a crewman for his sloppy appearance that he ignores a helmsman’s warnings that the ship is about to run over its own towline. When it does cut the towline, Queeg blames everyone but himself. When strawberries go missing from the officers’ mess, Queeg orders the entire crew strip-searched to find a “duplicate key” to the food locker, a key he is certain some crewman has made. And when Queeg freezes during a typhoon, doggedly refusing to reverse course and take on ballast, his subordinate officers properly remove him from command in order to save the ship from foundering.

So far, Captain Queeg’s ravings may sound familiar indeed to anyone who has followed President Trump’s bizarre early-morning tweets, his claim that 3 million votes were fraudulently cast against him, his insistence that his apartment at Trump Tower was bugged by President Obama, and his refusal to acknowledge even the tiniest error.

Fighting Nazis

But the Queeg story plays out differently once the U.S.S. Caine limps back into port. At that point in the novel, the Caine’s officers — and the reader — learn Queeg’s backstory: Before the war, Queeg served in the peacetime Navy, protecting America when the Caine’s other officers were safe and sound at home. And once the war began, Queeg fought Nazis in the North Atlantic, commanding a succession of Navy ships sunk by German torpedoes.

So Queeg’s strange behavior aboard the Caine, while perilous, is at least understandable.

Trump, by contrast, has lived a sheltered and privileged life since childhood. He never saw military combat, nor did he serve even one minute in any branch of the U.S. armed forces. For that matter, he never had to answer to a boss, investor, or creditor, much less a German U-boat.

We know what drove Captain Queeg crazy. What’s Donald Trump’s excuse?

Our readers respond

Richard da Silva

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on May 25, 2017

What's President Trump's excuse? Good question. Perhaps only his hairdresser knows for sure. And as the Muslims say, "Only Allah [God] is all-knowing."


of San Jose, CA on January 05, 2018

The author is far from understanding the complexity of human nature. Actually, the resemblance between Wouk 's fictitious character and the real life paranoid schizophrenic who rules the U.S. is quite striking. Both the imaginary and the real character find themselves in situations that exceed not only their moral compass and intellectual capacity but also their capacity to withstand the psychological pressure of their positions in the corresponding situations. Queeg snaps in the face of the typhoon; Trump snapped in the face of the presidency. Otherwise, they are comparably vile and evil. But Trump seems to be indeed much more idiotic than the book character.

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