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The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap

Photo by bill_comstock | CC BY 2.0

Photo by bill_comstock | CC BY 2.0

 

As the red ink of incrimination between Trump and the Axis figureheads grows thicker, there are those on the Right who wish to draw our eyes away, and to loftier heights. An immigration speech of his is described as “Churchillian” (Ann Coulter); his resolute determination brings to mind the British leader’s, writes Jerry Falwell Jr.; and Robert Davi, in an open love letter, exclaims that Winston Churchill’s very essence is now part of The Donald (occupying in the interim in – you’ve guessed it: Ronald Reagan).

On the face of it it’s – as so much of it is – absurd. One employed great oratory skill, and helped rally a sizeable number of those nestled between Ireland and Indochina against the Nazi war machine. While, for the other, the simplest of sentences prove to be just impossible.

“I will be… the greatest jobs president that God ever created, I tell you that.”

It’s odd that Churchill’s name crops up with such regularity in American debate; and in what deferential tones its recycled. When a president is imagined to be courageous or proficient at smiting evil, he’s “Churchillian”. While there is seldom a wrong-headed, “dovish” foreign policy that doesn’t trigger a chorus of Munich!, followed by allusions to the intransigent canine. The US has her own home-grown stock of political metaphors, so what’s with the reliance on this particular old dog?

Much, perhaps, comes out of Churchill being an explicit advocate of Pax Americana just when Rule Britannia was becoming less than an echo – a long story best left for another time. Right now, I’m going to take Trump’s fawners at face value, for no other reason than amusements are hard to find in this circus of horrors.

How Does Trump Compare?

In the United Kingdom, our former prime minister is seldom dragged out of the ground for the purposes of prop, and when he is, it is often with the understanding that we’re dealing with someone complex and irritatingly contradictory. Sure, the man had a mastery of the language, and he did more than most to end the British Establishment’s complacency toward Hitlerism. But, we remind ourselves, as high and as large as his Zeppelin-like legacy may fly, there’s an unmistakable, sun-starved underbelly.

Churchill only turned his spluttering jowls toward, and exercised them against, the Third Reich after it had helped cannibalise Spain’s Republic and was well on its way to eradicating German Reds. So too, his views on women and class were abhorrent; those on race reactionary in the extreme – dated even for someone ‘of his time’… So wait, surely Falwell’s onto something? Well yes, but no, not really.

Communication is an obvious deficit – he possesses the vernacular of a 4 grader, literally – but Trump also lacks the wit and insight of the British patriarch. Can you imagine Trump ever responding to the charge, “you are drunk, and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk” with:

‘My dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.’

Not only would he be incapable of stringing that many words together, we learn from his GP that Trump, very much unlike the other, doesn’t drink. If you weren’t already convinced of his inability to hold office, this ought to do it.

Trump’s father Fred was a self-made millionaire (well, as singular as these things can be), and a racist. A witness to both, Woody Guthrie used to sing: “Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower / Where no black folks come to roam.” And so it seems that his son inherited the big bucks and bigotry without picking up any of Old Man Trump‘s guile or business sense – things that made Churchill such a successful politician of the Right. Deborah Friedell of the London Review of Books writes,

Bloomberg puts Trump’s current net worth at $2.9 billion, Forbes at $4.1 billion. The National Journal has worked out that if Trump had just put his father’s money in a mutual fund that tracked the S&P 500 and spent his career finger-painting, he’d have $8 billion.

So what about politics?

There are two great themes which, I think, we can take from Churchill the Statesman. The first, even with his garbled “I love war” declaration earlier this year, is difficult to see in Trump: war and empire. Empire – a word which has a sort of Lord Voldemort quality in the States – is loved most of all, and mostly, by Neoconservatives. Their spokesmen have either denounced the Republican nominee, as is the case with Wolfowitz and McCain, or very reluctantly joined him. Reluctant because for every pro-war and -expansion remark Trump has made, there have been three contrary statements. Inconsistency may be fine on most issues, but not on the most important question of all. No, “you’re either with us or against us”. Churchill could be equally stubborn of questions of imperialism.

The second aspect is where Coulter and co. are on safer ground: racism and nationalism. Churchill initially welcomed the National Socialists and their blood-and-soil rhetoric, though was wary of their habit of finding and identifying with Germans beyond their borders. He even came to admire Josef Stalin’s sense of national purpose – it was resulting in plenty of dead communists. Although he could never overcome his fear of the Soviet experiment and those who took inspiration from it.

We see in Trump the same instinct to align with reaction. He has put in a good word about Saddam, Assad and Putin – staunch defenders of the Fatherland all – and, according to an ex-wife, kept a collection of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside. (In his defence, it’s unlikely that he ever read past the 140 character mark.) If you’ll allow me an aside: would it be outlandish to suggest that someone who has championed torture, the police state and the un-peopling of minorities, may, upon incumbency, allow admiration to become emulation?

But even here a comparison would be strained. Churchill sided with reactionary elements out of racial solidarity or reasons of state, not because he personally found the authoritarian inherently appealing or aspiring. He famously said that he thought democracy was the least worst form of government… whereas Trump,

“I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all the people of the United States that I would totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election if I win”

Not Quite Dead Right

Trump is not trying to channel Churchill (from what I can tell he isn’t even aware that the latter existed, or of anything B.T. for that matter). But his imported mentor certainly tries to. Nigel Farage went to the US following the first presidential “debate” to tutor Donald in the ways of greatness a la Truman at Fulton. Again, an Englishman playing the wise old Greek in the new Rome. Churchill’s heirs have repudiated Farage – “he’s like Donald Trump without the charm” – but there is a tradition of xenophobia and racism that can tracked back from UKIP to old man via the Tory right, the National Front and other undesirables.

In his time, Churchill promised the people of Britain they would always possess an empire headed up by responsible Anglo-Saxons. Under such tutelage the sun would never set on Pax Britannia. And he was honest enough among friends and to his readers, if not publicly, to include Ernest Jones’ appendage: neither would the blood ever dry, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…[It] would spread a lively terror”.

There was no way he could keep this promise, even with, or possibly because of, American stewardship. To believe it required a distorted view of reality, and a dread that irrelevance was looming. Similarly, Trump’s pledges to bring back manufacturing jobs, a racist police state and good ol’ conservative values (couldn’t quite add “family” to that) rely on suspensions of disbelief. So here, finally, are we onto something concrete – a shared trait between bulldog and ferret?

Both men have made promises they couldn’t – or can’t – possibly keep to adoring crowds which are fearful, not just of their future, but of their present. Or to put it in the vague terms the comparison deserves, both are vertebrates revered by the invertebrate.

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