The Caine Mutiny: The Movie GOP Leaders Need to Watch

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tags: election 2016, Trump

Robert Brent Toplin taught at Denison University and the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Since retirement from full-time teaching, he has taught some courses at the University of Virginia. Toplin has published several books and articles about history, politics, and film. Contact: rt2b@virginia.edu

Republican leaders who are worrying about Donald Trump’s erratic behavior may find ideas about dealing with him by watching an old Hollywood movie. The Caine Mutiny (1954) features Humphrey Bogart as the skipper of an American ship during World War II. Lieutenant Commander Queeg appears rigidly authoritarian and emotionally unbalanced. Queeg wants to change the ship’s operations radically. He is headstrong, doesn’t seek advice, and quickly loses the men’s trust. Queeg feuds with crew members over petty matters, as in the case of missing strawberries. During a storm at sea, officers come to the conclusion that Queeg’s faulty leadership puts the ship and crew at risk. They relieve Queeg of command. During a court martial, Queeg’s nervous testimony leaves an impression that the officers’ rebellious action was appropriate. The officers are acquitted. Later, in a riveting scene, a lawyer that successfully defended the officers confesses to a guilty conscience. He blames the officers for turning on Queeg rather than helping him. They took advantage of Queeg, he charges, and had a role in his downfall.

Much like the officers who wrestled with the idea of removing Queeg from command, many Republican kingpins now would like to remove Trump from their party’s ballot. In view of Trump’s recent actions, their case for rebellion looks stronger than the Navy officers’ justification for mutinous behavior. Humphrey Bogart’s movie character has some redeeming qualities, including long-term experience in naval operations. Donald Trump lacks experience in governance, as his stumbling on the campaign trail has repeatedly demonstrated. Many Republicans now agree with conservative columnist David Brooks, who claims Trump lacks the temperament and emotional stability to serve as President and commander in chief of the armed forces. Rumors are circulating in Washington, D.C. about private meetings aimed at replacing Trump with a more acceptable candidate.

The reaction against Trump within the GOP is still in development. Most Party officials presently hope for a solution that is less extreme that replacement. They want to convince or force Trump to stay on-message and become more disciplined. But there is growing concern within the GOP’s ranks about the negative impact of Trump’s provocations on Republican candidates in national, state, and local elections. If party officials sense that Trump’s presence on the ticket is likely to deliver control of the White House, Senate, and House to the Democrats, interest in mutiny will grow.

The act of removing a candidate from the race for high national office seems unprecedented in modern U.S. history. Only a few cases bear some resemblance, but in those situations the candidates quit of their own initiative. Trump may not agree to step aside.

One notable example of concern about emotional stability occurred in 1972 after Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern nominated Thomas Eagleton for Vice President. After Eagleton’s history of depression and hospitalization came to light, the candidate resigned. Another example occurred in 1992, when third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot suddenly quit the race. Perot returned to campaigning later in the year, but his puzzling behavior undermined the cause. Perot justified his surprising decision to step away by suggesting President George H. W. Bush’s campaign had schemed to smear his daughter.

            The reasons for growing disaffection with Trump’s candidacy are abundantly evident. Donald Trump’s comments have alienated women Hispanics, blacks, and Muslims. He has been vindictive in dealing with prominent individuals who criticized or displeased him. Especially troubling, Trump engaged in a days-long public feud over remarks made by the father of a fallen Muslim American soldier. Trump’s organization has refused to admit journalists to campaign rallies because they had written critical articles. Recently Trump alarmed GOP officials by appearing to punish two prominent Republicans, Senator John McCain and Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

Donald Trump’s controversial statements about domestic matters are troubling enough, but his recent comments on foreign policy intensified the sense of alarm. Trump raised questions about US support for NATO, seemed unaware of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and appeared to justify Russia’s takeover of Crimea.

Worries about Trump’s capacity to serve as commander in chief relate especially to his comments about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare. TV host and former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough reports that Trump asked a military adviser, “If we have [nuclear weapons}, why can’t we use them?” Trump said he will not rule out nuclear strikes in Europe or the Middle East, and he wants Japan and other nations to possess nukes. Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter for Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, offered a shocking assessment based on a lengthy business relationship with Donald Trump. “I genuinely believe,” said Schwartz, “that if Trump is to get the nuclear codes, there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

            At the foundation of these criticisms is speculation that Trump is emotionally unstable. In recent weeks pundits have conjectured about a “narcissistic” or “paranoid” personality. Some prominent figures, including President Barack Obama, took the unusual step of calling Trump “unfit” for the job. Liberal columnist Eugene Robinson said he used to think Trump was “being crazy like a fox,” but now Robinson is “increasingly convinced that he’s just plain crazy.”

Commentators associated with right-oriented politics have sounded warning bells as well. Like the Navy officers in The Caine Mutiny, they are claiming that the Queeg-like candidate should not have his hands on the Ship of State’s steering wheel. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer says Trump exhibits “an infantile hunger for approval and praise, a craving that never can be satisfied.” Krauthammer notes that prominent figures are now questioning the candidate’s “psychological stability, indeed sanity . . .” Robert Kagan, a foreign policy analyst who advised Republicans, characterizes Trump as “dangerously unstable.” If Trump becomes president, warns Kagan, his “self-destructive tendencies would play out on the biggest stage in the world, with consequences at home and abroad that one can hardly begin to imagine.” Fifty senior Republican national security officials recently signed a letter that warned Trump “would be the most reckless president in American history.”

            Like officers in The Caine Mutiny, discontented Republicans face huge challenges. If they back a rebellion, there will be severe repercussions. Donald Trump received enthusiastic support from millions of voters in the primaries. If he is removed, angry partisans will say party elites stole their votes. Trump might support their claims about a conspiracy. The resulting dispute could tear the Republican Party to pieces.

            In The Caine Mutiny’s fictional crisis Navy officers took controversial action in an emergency. Republicans now face a related crisis that is far more complex than the one depicted in the movie. If the critics are right, Donald Trump is a much greater threat to the Ship of State than the well-meaning but emotionally troubled Navy commander was to his ship.

Does the movie’s final message about broader responsibility for a leader’s behavior have any relevance to the GOP’s current situation? In The Caine Mutiny Commander Queeg is not the sole threat to the ships security; top officers on the Caine also are to blame for the crisis in leadership. Regarding the Republican Party’s present turmoil, several pundits charge the GOP’s movers and shakers with creating a political environment in which a candidate like Trump could flourish. Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. makes that case in an op-ed. Trump “is first and foremost the product of a Republican Party that has exploited extremism since President Obama took office,” argues Dionne. Many among the GOP’s elite failed to denounce Trump’s nativism, racism and sexism, notes Dionne. Furthermore, for too many years the Party’s elite promoted an economic message favorable to big business leaders. They gave inadequate attention to the economic struggles of ordinary Americans. Dionne suggests the GOP’s problem is larger than Trump, and it will remain significant long after the 2016 election.

A reconsideration of messaging, policy-making, and candidate selection will be central in Republican Party deliberations after the election. The most immediate challenge for GOP leaders and partisans is to decide how to deal with their deeply flawed presidential candidate. The denouement of that real-life drama is not clear. Anything seems possible in this year’s unprecedented political situation.

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