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Trump Was Role-Playing Churchill -- What a Colossal Flop

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From New Yorker

WH says Trump's act was like Churchill.
WH says Trump's act was like Churchill.
(Image by YouTube, Channel: CNN)
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If the battle of Lafayette Park turns -- as seems possible -- into Donald Trump's most telling misadventure, part of the credit should go to Winston Churchill.

Churchill seems to have been on the President's mind since the moment he entered the Oval Office, where he moved a bust of the former British Prime Minister, to replace one that Barack Obama, in what used to pass as a scandale, had returned to the British Embassy, which owns it. Later, Trump, on the eve of passing his tax cut, invited key members of Congress over for a special showing of "Darkest Hour," the film, from 2017, about Churchill and the Blitz. But it was this week's trek across the street, past a plaza tear-gassed free of peaceful protesters, that really allowed Trump's Churchill fantasies full play. As the White House press secretary semi-coherently told reporters the next day, the President had acted "like Churchill -- we saw him inspecting the bombing damage and it sent a powerful message of leadership to the British people."

As it happens, I'd been reading "The Splendid and the Vile," a fine new account of Churchill and the Blitz, by Erik Larson. It could be argued that the world is in no great need of another Churchill biography -- indeed, I might be inclined to argue it, since there's much about the man to dislike. He was, among other things, a stone racist, able to regard the greatest leader of his century, Gandhi, and see a "malignant subversive fanatic" and a "half-naked fakir." But Churchill's long career offered a year, from 1940 to 1941, of unparalleled courage and meaning, and Larson's account of it, constructed from diaries of some of Churchill's intimates, conveys just how remarkable -- and how utterly not Trumpian -- that season really was.

There were a few similarities. Churchill had a great desire for quick fixes, and spent countless hours indulging his science adviser's absurd schemes for laying "aerial mines"call it his hydroxychloroquine. Also, Churchill was undisciplined in his diet, though his tastes ran more to champagne and oysters than to Diet Cokes and hamburgers.

In the main, however, it's nearly impossible to imagine two more different leaders. When protesters ventured too near the White House, Trump retreated to the bunker beneath it (in order, he now contends, to "inspect" the premises). Churchill had a bunker, too, as one might hope, since the Nazis were doing their utmost to concentrate their bombing on the Whitehall area of Westminster, where he lived and worked. However, as Larson writes, "no raid was too fierce to stop him from climbing to the nearest roof to watch." One cold night, "while watching a raid from the roof of the building that capped the Cabinet war rooms, he sat on a chimney to keep warm, until an officer came up to ask him politely to move -- smoke was backing up into the rooms below." When raids occurred, he dispatched his staff to the shelter beneath 10 Downing Street, "but did not himself follow, returning instead to his desk to keep working." (Another nontrivial difference is that Churchill did a lot of work.) When a large unexploded bomb was discovered right next door, in St. James's Park, he stayed put, "expressing concern only for 'those poor little birds' "the pelicans and swans...in the lake."

Courage, then, but also language. It's Trump's enemy: he's cursed with a limited vocabulary, and uses the same few words over and over. As Gail Collins pointed out, in the Times on Wednesday, "almost every word out of Trump's mouth" in recent days "seems to be some variation on 'dominate.' ... "If you don't dominate, you're wasting your time," he said in a call with the nation's governors, who must have been staring at their phones wondering how that was supposed to work in the streets of their cities. "Domination," he said, speaking of troops in Minneapolis. "It's a beautiful thing to watch."

Language, of course, was Churchill's greatest ally: when half his army was trapped at Dunkirk, when Britain alone was standing up to the Axis, when the Luftwaffe sent the greatest air armada in history against Britain's capital city, he had mainly words to rally his people. And -- although he was no orthodox believer -- he spoke in the unmistakable cadences of the King James Bible. Trump looks uncomfortable even holding the Bible; Churchill knew its intonations so well that his every formal sentence sounded like scripture. With the news that the French had signed an armistice with the Nazis, he told the House of Commons, "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: 'This was their finest hour.' "

But the greatest difference was the feeling that Churchill inspired in the hearts of his people. Larson's most moving chapters follow Churchill as he walks through one bombed district after another, often with the fires still raging, and always against the advice of his tiny security detail. When, in April of 1941, the Germans bombed Bristol with staggering effect, Churchill appeared there almost immediately for an unannounced visit, touring "the worst-hit areas on foot. He walked briskly. This was not the halting meander that might have been expected of an overweight 66-year-old man who spent many of his waking hours drinking and smoking." His single bodyguard "stayed close, one hand in his pistol pocket." When "engulfed by a crowd of men and women, Churchill took off his bowler and put it on top of his walking stick, then held it aloft so that those outside the immediate crush could see it and know he was there."

He moved on from there to a commencement ceremony at Bristol University, where "the building next door was still in flames," and where "people kept on arriving late with grime on their faces half washed off, their ceremonial robes on over their fire-fighting clothes which were still wet." When Churchill rose to confer an honorary degree to the Australian Prime Minister, he said, "Many of those here today have been all night at their posts and all have been under the fire of the enemy in heavy and protracted bombardment. That you should gather in this way is a mark of fortitude and phlegm, of a courage and detachment from material affairs worthy of all that we have learned to believe of Ancient Rome." As his car drove back to his waiting train, accompanied the whole way by throngs of men, women, and children, his daughter Mary described the scene in her diary: "These are not mere fairweather friends. Papa has served them with his heart and his mind always through peace and wars, and they have given him in his finest and darkest hour their love and confidence."

It's difficult to imagine a greater contrast with our current President, who needed police in riot gear and National Guard troops to clear the way for him simply to walk across the street. But it's not just Trump -- the G.O.P.'s harder-liners also love to cosplay Churchill. Tom Cotton -- the junior senator from Arkansas, who supports using U.S. troops against American citizens -- accepted the "statesmanship award" at the Claremont Institute's annual Churchill Dinner, in 2018, using the occasion to rally against the "cosmopolitan e'lites." The world, Cotton told the assembled conservative grandees, "is a struggle for mastery and dominance ... in which you run the show or the show runs you. Dictators organize their domestic order with force and violence and live in constant fear for their own lives and grasp on power, so they understand this all too well." Indeed.

 

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
 
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