Trump’s Churchill Moment
Stephen Michael MacLean pursues an instructive parallel
Donald Trump ‘explained’ Churchill to me. And, after the first Trump-Clinton presidential debate, Churchill reciprocated the favour.
The fame of Sir Winston Churchill, who served in several Cabinet offices and was twice prime minister, left me cold, for which I harboured feelings of shame and regret. His life and times certainly fascinated, but I was by no means a Churchill aficionado. Why did I not revere this Conservative hero as so many others did? Why did I not honour him as the greatest statesman of the twentieth century?
Definitely the man had a flair with words — his political speeches are highly quotable and his numerous biographies and histories written with a compelling simplicity. Indeed, Churchill was awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature for his multi-volume histories of the Second World War and of the ‘English-Speaking Peoples’.
Yet his political record was chequered. In 1900, Churchill entered Parliament as a Conservative representative, crossing the floor four years later to join the pro-free-trade Liberals. Not to be outdone, he re-crossed — and re-joined the Conservatives in 1924, saying famously: “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”
Fluid party identity was the least of Churchill’s sins. His achievements in government were blemished by failure: inept tactical planning during World War I; returning post-war sterling to the gold standard at unrealistic convertibility; helping to precipitate the General Strike; opposing independence for India; and even losing the 1945 election after denouncing Clement Attlee’s Labour platform for requiring ‘Gestapo-like’ measures. Oxford historian and sometime Tory MP, the late Robert Rhodes James, in his Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900–1939, chronicled the general public’s ambivalent assessment of Sir Winston’s early career. Why, I wondered still, the universal acclaim?
During this presidential campaign season, the full import struck me. In 1939-40, Churchill got the big question right. The major issues facing the American voter are jobs, debt, and national security by way of immigration, border security, and terrorist threats. For the United States, these issues approach the level of existential threats; for Churchill’s United Kingdom, the threat to its existence was also very real and came in the guise of Adolf Hitler’s annexation of Europe.
Britain in the 1930s, like much of the West, was tired. Less than a generation earlier, it had fought the Great War resulting in vast human carnage and spent resources; now it contended with a Great Depression that likewise ruined lives and wasted energies. Hints of Nazi persecution in Germany were whispered, but no one listened; reports of Nazi rearmament and revanchism circulated amongst Whitehall’s highest offices, but no one wanted to hear. Britain was tired of war and hadn’t the matériel to fight one. Could Herr Hitler be bought off? Was there some way to accommodate lebensraum?
One man in particular, among a few, did notice and listen: Winston Churchill. He had heard the whisperings, read the reports, and had warned of Nazi war planning to a deaf and blinkered House of Commons. Yet as Poland, the Low Countries, then France fell to the German blitzkrieg, King and Country turned to Churchill for leadership. Through all the setbacks and the triumphs, over five long years, Churchill ‘kept buggering on’ and roused his nation and its allies to glory and ultimate victory.
I now ‘got’ the secret of Churchill’s success — no secret to anyone who lived through the Blitz and had been bolstered by Sir Winston’s words after the evacuation of Dunkirk in May-June 1940:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender . . .
Donald Trump’s first presidential debate against Hillary Clinton brought him back into focus. Churchill intruded on my thoughts as I mused, in despondency, over Trump’s lacklustre performance. Political economist Steven Kates shared my mood. “Trump ought to have put her away with so many issues opened up for which there are answers aplenty.” Benghazi, Libya, the Clinton Foundation, pay-to-play State department encounters, secret Wall Street speeches, lost e-mails and a private server and recurring health issues — plus much more, and all left unchallenged.
But Kates sees promise. “I think Trump is conscious of the Romney experience. Mitt Romney won the first debate, then didn’t win the election.” Why did Trump let Clinton off scot-free? Was he luring her into a false sense of security? “I don’t know if it was deliberate but, on purpose or not, he will be back for the second and third events,” Kates writes. “What did Hillary learn from this? Nothing that I think can help her, while Trump learned a lot.” Was this a Churchillian ploy of laying groundwork for a further offensive?
This flicker of hope was enflamed by Newt Gingrich’s debate analysis. Trump’s adversaries “felt good after the debate because their side was glib, articulate, and said things they and their friends believe to be true,” Gingrich opined. ‘Trump wins strategically because in a blunt, clear style, he is saying things most Americans believe.” (The near dozen on-line polls Gingrich quotes give credence to Trump’s assertion he speaks for the silent majority of America’s forgotten men and women. Continuing positive polls and Trump VP- pick Mike Pence’s impressive debate performance simply reinforce this narrative.)
Lest anyone think that I protest too much on behalf of The Donald, simply read this searing cri de coeur, ‘The Flight 93 Election’, which may be likened to a twenty-first century Common Sense (also published under a pseudonym). ‘Publius Decius Mus’ believes that, like that fatal 9/11 airliner whose passengers fought back against the terrorists, American voters must ‘charge the cockpit’; if they don’t, America and the Republic are lost. “A Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto,” Decius avers. “With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
Decius, responding again to Trump critics, takes issue with the depiction of him as a ‘buffoonish tyrant’ (no doubt Churchill faced such epithets, too). “One must wonder how buffoonish … when he is right on the most important issues while so many others who are esteemed wise are wrong.” Trump is thus “more prudent — more practically wise — than all of our wise-and-good who so bitterly oppose him.”
And in one interview, Decius is particularly intrigued by Trump’s visceral identification with the American ideal:
It is not that Trump really understands or has thought deeply about the Constitution, but he is trying to do something fundamentally constitutional in my opinion. He wants to assert the right of the sovereign American people to control their government, which is the core constitutional principle. I think he understands this in an instinctive rather than intellectual way. But that’s OK because, one, most of the people who claim to understand it, don’t; two, most of those (very few) who do understand it are ineffectual at defending it; and three, nobody has really tried to do what Trump is doing in a generation. So who cares if his understanding is flawed?
Ultimately for Decius, as for countless Americans, the presidential race can be summed up by two choices: “the colorful loudmouth with the sensible agenda or the corrupt, icy careerist with the radical agenda”.
For me, Donald Trump’s presidential-run reveals why the British people revered Sir Winston Churchill: when politicians were offering appeasement to the evil of the hour, Churchill rebuffed the tide and stood firm for them. Now, as Trump campaigns against the errors of Establishment America, regardless of personal foibles and failings, Americans stand firm with him. This is Trump’s Churchill moment.
[Editor’s Note – The Donald is evidently a quick learner. In the second presidential debate he landed some very heavy blows on his opponent, who is not looking quite so smug and self-satisfied now]
Stephen MacLean maintains the weblog The Organic Tory