Trump’s “Vermin” Crack: Nothing New Except the Reaction

Trump’s “Vermin” Crack: Nothing New Except the Reaction

Sev­en­ty-five years ago, Aneurin Bevan referred to British Con­ser­v­a­tives as “low­er than ver­min,” and nobody was very exer­cised. But when The Don­ald says it, dear oh dear. 

This arti­cle first appeared in The Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor on 21 Novem­ber. I reprise it here­in by kind per­mis­sion of the edi­tors, adding end­notes with lat­er appear­ances of the “ver­min” quote.

 Shocking? Not really

“Some­times I miss the good old days when Don­ald Trump could be shock­ing,” wrote Gail Collins in The New York Times, Novem­ber 15th. “It’s real­ly hard to imag­ine some­thing he could say now that would throw us for a loop.”

Ms. Collins and much of the media nev­er­the­less seemed thrown for a loop after Trump’s remarks on Armistice Day:

[He] cel­e­brat­ed the men and women who’ve fought for Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy by promis­ing to “root out” his lib­er­al oppo­nents. Oth­er­wise known as “the Com­mu­nists, Marx­ists, fas­cists and the rad­i­cal left thugs that live like ver­min with­in the con­fines of our country.”

Don’t know if any oth­er pres­i­dent has called peo­ple he dis­agreed with “ver­min”…. Of course, we don’t think of our men­tal health sys­tem the way D.J.T. seems to. He recent­ly pre­dict­ed that offi­cials like Jack Smith, the spe­cial coun­sel inves­ti­gat­ing him on sev­er­al fronts, would be diag­nosed as “suf­fer­ing from a hor­ri­ble dis­ease, Trump Derange­ment Syn­drome (TDS!)” and “in a men­tal insti­tu­tion by the time my next term as Pres­i­dent is suc­cess­ful­ly com­plet­ed.” Does this sound like a threat to you?

Well, no. I’ve just heard too many of Mr. Trump’s locutions—and those of his opponents—to feel par­tic­u­lar­ly threatened.

Not particularly new

Nor are the words “ver­min” and “dis­ease” polit­i­cal­ly sin­gu­lar. The famous Welsh social­ist Aneurin “Nye” Bevin used “ver­min” to describe half the British elec­torate 75 years ago. (Rather like Hillary Clin­ton describ­ing 60 or 70 mil­lion Trump vot­ers as “a bas­ket of deplorables.”)

Yet when Nye Bevan coined “ver­min” for con­ser­v­a­tives back in 1948, nobody was very exer­cised. Now, when Don­ald Trump says it—and envi­sions one of the ver­min in a men­tal institution—well, all hell breaks loose.

Pol­i­tics today lacks the enter­tain­ing repar­tee Bevan afford­ed us back then. And, when Win­ston Churchill paid him back in kind, every­body relaxed.

“Vermin,” 1948

The late Paul Addi­son described the “ver­min” and “dis­ease” episode in his mas­ter­ful book, Churchill on the Home Front (1992). It occurred in the House of Com­mons in July 1948, short­ly after Bevan launched the British Nation­al Health Ser­vice. It was, Addi­son wrote, one of the most bit­ter exchanges dur­ing the 1945-51 Labour social­ist government.

Reply­ing to Bevan’s “ver­min” speech, Churchill, Leader of His Majesty’s Loy­al Oppo­si­tion, retaliated:

We speak of the Min­is­ter of Health, but ought we not rather to say the Min­is­ter of Dis­ease? For is not mor­bid hatred a form of men­tal dis­ease, moral dis­ease, and indeed a high­ly infec­tious form? Indeed, I can think of no bet­ter step to sig­nal­ize the inau­gu­ra­tion of the Nation­al Health Ser­vice than that a per­son who so obvi­ous­ly needs psy­chi­atri­cal atten­tion should be among the first of its patients. [1]

Always thought­ful and judi­cious, Pro­fes­sor Addi­son not­ed that this was not an attack on the insti­tu­tion: “In case his assault on Bevan should be tak­en to imply hos­til­i­ty to the NHS, Churchill added: ‘I trust how­ev­er that no one will in any way relax his or her efforts to make a suc­cess of the new health scheme.’” [2]

Another age

Churchill was, of course, irked by the use of “ver­min” to describe his col­leagues, and quick­ly expand­ed Bevan’s tar­get to every­one who vot­ed Con­ser­v­a­tive. Some on Bevan’s side believe it cost Labour votes and seats. Con­ser­v­a­tives glee­ful­ly formed “ver­min clubs,” much as they formed “deplorable clubs” after Clinton’s remarks 68 years lat­er. Churchill deployed Nye’s remark a few more times. [3] But nobody was as exer­cised as they seem to be over Mr. Trump.

Nye Bevan died in 1960. Hear­ing the news in the House of Com­mons smok­ing room, Churchill launched into an impromp­tu eulo­gy: “A great man…a tremen­dous advo­cate for social­ism and his par­ty….” Then, paus­ing in mid-sen­tence, Sir Win­ston asked: “Are you sure he’s dead?” [4]

As between “bas­ket of deplorables” and “ver­min” there is not much to choose. But it’s sad that there are no Churchills—or Bevans for that matter—on the polit­i­cal scene today. Not even a Ronald Rea­gan or a Tip O’Neill. Such is the humor­less, strained and hate­ful atmos­phere of mod­ern politics.


[1] Paul Addi­son, Churchill on the Home Front (Lon­don: Jonathan Cape, 1992), 400.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Churchill’s lat­er ref­er­ences: “We did not regard [the Dunkirk res­cue ships] as ‘low­er than ver­min.’” (Lon­don, 1949). Bevan “has described mil­lions of his fel­low-coun­try­men as ‘low­er than ver­min.’” (Wood­ford, 1950). “Peo­ple are not nec­es­sar­i­ly ‘low­er than ver­min’ because by their skill and thrift they have earned and save enough mon­ey to buy a car…” (Devon­port, 1950). From Win­ston S. Churchill, In the Bal­ance (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1951), 108, 166, 194. For the polit­i­cal cost to Labour see Robert Blake, The Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty from Peel to Major (Lon­don: Eyre & Spot­tis­woode, 1970), 263.

[4] Richard M. Lang­worth, ed., Churchill by Him­self (New York: Roset­ta Books, 2016), 326.

Related reading

“Paul Addi­son 1943-2020: What Mat­ters is the Truth,” 2020.

“Nolan’s Dunkirk: Don’t Let’s Be Beast­ly to the Ger­mans,” 2017.

“Churchill’s Com­ing Sesqui­cen­ten­ni­al: When Eagles are Silent…” 2022.

2 thoughts on “Trump’s “Vermin” Crack: Nothing New Except the Reaction

  1. I can under­stand your his­tor­i­cal con­text of Trump’s “ver­min” remark but the big omit here, and the rea­son many Amer­i­cans like myself were offend­ed, is because its not just one insult Trump tossed out there. Its one of many that issue forth from his lips on a dai­ly basis. Some of us expect bet­ter from our Pres­i­dent. To pull a quote from 1948 and relat­ed, heat­ed insults in the House of Com­mons hard­ly san­i­tizes Trump’s con­sis­tent back alley behav­ior. This might not be a new crack, but added to hun­dreds of oth­ers it is most cer­tain­ly new ter­ri­to­ry and noth­ing to light­ly dis­miss. Such rub­bish talk has become the norm for many Repub­li­cans and has cheap­ened our democ­ra­cy. It cer­tain­ly has not strength­ened it. “Ver­min clubs” came and went but I doubt that this poi­soned atmos­phere will go away any­time soon.

    You make a valid point. I think the mes­sage of old par­lia­men­tary hands is to light­en up. Trump’s effu­sions are often dis­grace­ful, and so is that of his oppo­si­tion. Churchillian col­le­gial­i­ty is passé. —RML

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