Trollope’s Melmotte Anticipates Trump

Augustus Melmotte from "The Way We Live Now"

Augustus Melmotte from “The Way We Live Now”


I have been an Anthony Trollope fan for some years now, but he surpassed even my expectations with The Way We Live Now (1875), which I’ve just finished. More of a pure social satire than his other novels, to me it compares favorably with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

It is also very timely because there is a Donald Trump figure at the heart of it. Augustus Melmotte is a shady financier, always making deals and succeeding through sheer audacity. He gets people to believe he has more money than he really does, and they sell their souls to get close to this supposed money, even though they consider him crass and middle class.

While reading the novel, I gained insight into why the American media is so drawn to Trump: As long as Melmotte is shaking up stuffy British society, we can’t turn our eyes away, and a lot of the novel’s energy dissipates with Melmotte’s exit near the end. His success, like Trump’s, shows how grifters take advantage of society’s obsession with money.

Melmotte even makes money in ways similar to Trump. He will acquire property but not entirely pay for it, offering instead vague promises. These have credibility only because of his reputation for wealth. Once he has in hands on someone’s property, he will use it as leverage in other transactions. Here he is operating on a clueless member of the gentry, one Mr. Longestaffe:

It was a part of the charm of all dealings with this great man that no ready money seemed ever to be necessary for anything. Great purchases were made and great transactions apparently completed without the signing even of a cheque. Mr. Longestaffe found himself to be afraid even to give a hint to Mr. Melmotte about ready money. In speaking of all such matters Melmotte seemed to imply that everything necessary had been done, when he had said that it was done. Pickering [a family estate] had been purchased and the title-deeds made over to Mr. Melmotte; but the £80,000 had not been paid,—had not been absolutely paid, though of course Mr. Melmotte’s note assenting to the terms was security sufficient for any reasonable man. The property had been mortgaged, though not heavily, and Mr. Melmotte had no doubt satisfied the mortgagee; but there was still a sum of £50,000 to come, of which Dolly [Longestaffe’s son] was to have one half and the other was to be employed in paying off Mr. Longestaffe’s debts to tradesmen and debts to the bank. It would have been very pleasant to have had this at once,—but Mr. Longestaffe felt the absurdity of pressing such a man as Mr. Melmotte, and was partly conscious of the gradual consummation of a new æra in money matters. “If your banker is pressing you, refer him to me,” Mr. Melmotte had said. As for many years past we have exchanged paper instead of actual money for our commodities, so now it seemed that, under the new Melmotte régime, an exchange of words was to suffice.

Like Trump, Melmotte’s major leverage is his brand. He is reputed to be rich and whether he’s honest or not is immaterial:

It was at any rate an established fact that Mr. Melmotte had made his wealth in France. He no doubt had had enormous dealings in other countries, as to which stories were told which must surely have been exaggerated. It was said that he had made a railway across Russia, that he provisioned the Southern army in the American civil war, that he had supplied Austria with arms, and had at one time bought up all the iron in England. He could make or mar any company by buying or selling stock, and could make money dear or cheap as he pleased. All this was said of him in his praise,—but it was also said that he was regarded in Paris as the most gigantic swindler that had ever lived; that he had made that City too hot to hold him; that he had endeavored to establish himself in Vienna, but had been warned away by the police; and that he had at length found that British freedom would alone allow him to enjoy, without persecution, the fruits of his industry. He was now established privately in Grosvenor Square and officially in Abchurch Lane; and it was known to all the world that a Royal Prince, a Cabinet Minister, and the very cream of duchesses were going to his wife’s ball. All this had been done within twelve months.

One of Melmotte’s most lucrative schemes involves selling shares in a railway from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz which may never get built. Fisker is his American connection:

The object of Fisker, Montague, and Montague was not to make a railway to Vera Cruz, but to float a company. Paul thought that Mr. Fisker seemed to be indifferent whether the railway should ever be constructed or not. It was clearly his idea that fortunes were to be made out of the concern before a spadeful of earth had been moved. If brilliantly printed programmes might avail anything, with gorgeous maps, and beautiful little pictures of trains running into tunnels beneath snowy mountains and coming out of them on the margin of sunlit lakes, Mr. Fisker had certainly done much. 

This bubble begins to burst and railway stock prices plummet once people begin to doubt whether Melmotte has things under control. His reputation is the only thing holding everything together:

Nevertheless, Melmotte is elected to Parliament before his reputation altogether tanks. He sounds more than a little like Trump:

There was one man who thoroughly believed that the thing at the present moment most essentially necessary to England’s glory was the return of Mr. Melmotte for Westminster. This man was undoubtedly a very ignorant man. He knew nothing of any one political question which had vexed England for the last half century,—nothing whatever of the political history which had made England what it was at the beginning of that half century. Of such names as Hampden, Somers, and Pitt he had hardly ever heard. He had probably never read a book in his life. He knew nothing of the working of parliament, nothing of nationality,—had no preference whatever for one form of government over another, never having given his mind a moment’s trouble on the subject. He had not even reflected how a despotic monarch or a federal republic might affect himself, and possibly did not comprehend the meaning of those terms. But yet he was fully confident that England did demand and ought to demand that Mr. Melmotte should be returned for Westminster. This man was Mr. Melmotte himself.

Fortunately for England, Parliament is solid enough institution and can survive Melmotte, who is shown to be out of his depth once he takes his seat. The job of governing Britain, boring though it may be, takes precedence over bloviating. This is something we in America need to keep reminding ourselves as Trump seeks to persuade us that the presidency is all show biz.

Futher thoughts:

Matt Yglesias of Vox explains how Trump pulled a Melmotte with his Atlantic City holdings:

Trump made money in Atlantic City through two primary means. First, he extracted management fees from companies he was involved with, and second, he transferred personal debts to companies he controlled:

  • The pattern started with his very first Atlantic City venture, a partnership with Harrah’s for which he was paid a $24 million construction management fee.
  • Over the years, the Times reports, Trump “collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments.”
  • In 1993 the Trump Plaza casino sold more than $100 million in junk bonds, and “more than half of the new money went to pay off Mr. Trump’s unrelated personal loans.”
  • In 1995 the company staged an IPO, and then a week later “the new company began using some of the almost $300 million it had raised to clear Mr. Trump’s personal debts.”
  • Trump’s casinos paid $300,000 a year for the right to use Trump’s jet to transport celebrities to gigs.
  • Trump appears to have bilked the shareholders of Trump casinos and resorts out of the opportunity to share in a $1 million profit related to the sale of shares in Riviera Hotel and Casino, keeping the money for himself instead.
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