Johnson, Trump…can we stop comparing everybody to Churchill?

Johnson, Trump…can we stop comparing everybody to Churchill?

Politi­cians, most often Boris John­son and Don­ald Trump at the moment, are often com­pared to Win­ston Churchill. In a way it’s nice PR for Sir Win­ston. Half a cen­tu­ry since his death, the Great­est Briton still dom­i­nates media. His Google hit count is 100 mil­lion. (Franklin Roo­sevelt, the West’s oth­er great war leader, is at 72 mil­lion.)

Right­ly or wrong­ly, every day on the Inter­net, Churchill is praised, lam­pooned, quot­ed and mis­quot­ed. But com­par­isons to mod­ern politi­cians have worn thin. They may emu­late him, but not be com­pared to him.

Johnson’s Day in the barrel

On 15 June the Wall Street Jour­nal focused on British prime min­is­ter in wait­ing Boris John­son. Colum­nist Peg­gy Noo­nan wrote a per­cep­tive piece about his prospects and chal­lenges: “Eng­land Needs a Slap, and so does Chi­na.” Aside from bad­ly mis­rep­re­sent­ing Churchill’s sobri­ety, she made good points. Boris Johnson’s friends, she wrote, are “have the grat­ing habit of com­par­ing him to Win­ston Churchill.” Grat­ing is a good word. Mr. John­son needs to talk to his friends.

Boris’s ene­mies adopt­ed the same tac­tic after he was appoint­ed Prime Min­is­ter on 24 July. In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, the Scot­tish his­to­ri­an Niall Fer­gu­son asked, “Is Boris John­son a Win­ston Churchill as rewrit­ten by Mon­ty Python?”

Joyce McMil­lan in The Scots­man used Johnson’s own descrip­tion of WSC in his Churchill biog­ra­phy to sug­gest they were peas in a pod: “He wasn’t what peo­ple thought of as a man of prin­ci­ple. He was a glo­ry-chas­ing goal-mouth-hang­ing oppor­tunist…. As for his polit­i­cal career—my word, what a feast of bungling!…he was thought to be con­gen­i­tal­ly untrust­wor­thy.”

The New York Times likened Johnson’s fre­quent allu­sions to the “Dunkirk spir­it” in Britain’s exit from the Euro­pean Union as a fetish: “The idea that Britain, act­ing alone, can exact favor­able terms from much larg­er pow­ers such as Chi­na, Europe or, indeed, the Unit­ed States, is a delu­sion… Britain will become a mid­dling provin­cial coun­try, whose for­tunes will be sub­ject to the whims of oth­ers… Churchill would have been hor­ri­fied.”

Since Britain is the world’s fifth largest econ­o­my, that is any­thing but a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Nor does it sug­gest what Churchill real­ly thought about a Britain with­in a fed­er­al Europe.

Next Mr. Trump

Johnson Trump
“Very Well, Alone”: David Low’s Churchil­lesque car­toon from June 1940.

Then there’s Pres­i­dent Trump. His sup­port­ers extoll his Churchill char­ac­ter­is­tics: pugnac­i­ty, con­vic­tion, diehard devo­tion to caus­es and poli­cies. Fans visu­al­ize him on Dover’s white cliffs, defy­ing oncom­ing Demo­c­rat Messer­schmitts and Dorniers. “We shall go on to the end…We shall nev­er sur­ren­der.” (As far as I know, the Pres­i­dent has not yet pro­claimed him­self a Churchill, though he some­times sug­gests he’s a Lin­coln or a Wash­ing­ton.)

“Do you see any com­par­isons to the Pres­i­dent?” I was asked recent­ly at a Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill lec­ture. I waf­fled and gave a dusky answer. The ques­tion seemed so pre­pos­ter­ous that it took me by sur­prise. Hav­ing now thought about it, yes, there are similarities—but also many dif­fer­ences.

Like Trump, Churchill said what he thought peo­ple should hear, strain­ing noth­ing through advi­sors or focus groups. “Tell the truth to the British peo­ple!” he thun­dered in the 1930s as Ger­many armed. In war, he explained, they are “the only peo­ple who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst.” (For some three years, the worst was all he could tell them.)

Parallels and Divergencies

Like Trump and John­son, Churchill often tack­led the media: “A few crit­i­cal or scathing speech­es, a stream of arti­cles in the news­pa­pers, showing…how incom­pe­tent are those who bear the respon­si­bil­i­ty,” he said in 1933, “these obtain the fullest pub­lic­i­ty.” When the BBC threat­ened to cen­sor his broad­casts he quipped: “We can pic­ture [BBC direc­tor] Sir John Rei­th, with the per­spi­ra­tion mantling on his lofty brow, with his hand on the con­trol switch, won­der­ing, as I utter every word, whether it will not be his duty to pro­tect his inno­cent sub­scribers from some irrev­er­ent thing I might say about Mr. Gand­hi, or about the Bol­she­viks…”

Abroad, how­ev­er, Churchill was far more care­ful than Trump—and his pre­de­ces­sor. In Lon­don before the Brex­it vote, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma said that if Britain left the EU it would have to go “to the back of the queue.” In Scot­land after the vote, Trump cheered. In Lon­don in 2019 he endorsed John­son for prime min­is­ter. (Anoth­er of his friends Boris needs to speak to?)

Churchill's Secret Trump Johnson
“Why don’t you make way for some­one who can make a big­ger impres­sion on the polit­i­cal scene?” Cum­mings in the Dai­ly Express, 29 Jan­u­ary 1954.

Churchill was very dif­fer­ent from Trump and maybe John­son.  “When I am abroad I always make it a rule nev­er to crit­i­cize or attack the gov­ern­ment of my own coun­try,” he said in 1947, when he was Leader of the Oppo­si­tion. “I make up for lost time when I come home.” Unlike Trump, Churchill abroad nev­er took sides between politi­cians. In Wash­ing­ton in 1954 he said, “I am not going to choose between Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats. I want the lot.” (No for­eign leader has said that for awhile.)

Forget the Comparisons

Let’s be seri­ous. We can’t com­pare Boris John­son, Don­ald Trump, or any­body else to Win­ston Churchill. Super­fi­cial resem­blances exist, but every­thing else over­whelms them.

My friend the col­lege pres­i­dent has the best answer when­ev­er any­body indulges in sil­ly com­par­isons. I warm­ly rec­om­mend it to you, con­scious that I intrude upon his copy­right. When asked if  “X” is like Churchill, Dr. Lar­ry Arnn usu­al­ly responds:

Win­ston Churchill served in four wars and wrote five books by age 25. He held every major office except for­eign min­is­ter.  Twice prime min­is­ter, he was polit­i­cal­ly promi­nent for fifty years. Writ­ing fifty books he won the Nobel Prize for lit­er­a­ture. He com­posed 4000 arti­cles and speech­es; in all he pro­duced 15 mil­lion words. His offi­cial biog­ra­phy is thir­ty-one vol­umes, and there are a thou­sand books about him. Sure, ‘X’ is just like Churchill.

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