Of Democratic Greatness and Infamy

Gary Oldman recently received an Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual awards ceremony for his 2017 portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. The film depicts Churchill as he began his tenure as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister in 1940 and focused partly on his political battles with those seeking to avoid conflict at virtually any price. But perhaps principally, the film shown a spotlight on his determination, humanity and greatness. While much else might be said of the movie, it surely captured a democratic leader and state at a moment of gathering resolve in the face of the menace and might of human darkness and tyranny as embodied by the Third Reich. While viewing the film, I found myself considering its implications for today’s American political situation in which a demagogic Donald Trump, awash in allegations of personal corruption and purveying vague, hate and lie-filled rhetoric at every turn, nonetheless has maintained the support of the bulk of his political party and millions of Americans. These individuals have accepted and rationalized his assaults on personal and civic virtue and democratic norms as “fake news” or the product of supposed partisan enemies who should be “locked-up” for false fantastical misdeeds.  Given this continuing domestic reality, it is interesting to compare Trump’s stances and actions to those of Churchill, as the English leader embarked on his role as a signally important world figure in the battle to overcome the Nazi threat to civilization. As many historians have argued, and as the Darkest Hour memorably recounts, while hardly flawless, Churchill rightly has a secure place in the pantheon of great leaders and defenders of the power and possibility of human freedom.

To gain his footing and lead his nation in its time of peril, Churchill had first to confront many members of his party who sought to avoid conflict, including the dying and disgraced Neville Chamberlain, still the chair of the new prime minister’s party. Chamberlain and others in Churchill’s War Cabinet and coalition were prepared to do whatever was necessary to undercut Churchill, whom they feared might mobilize Great Britain to seek to defend its borders, rather than negotiate terms with Germany. Their stance required that Churchill not only find ways and means to fight the tyranny at his nation’s doorstep, but also simultaneously address successfully those willing to rationalize that Adolf Hitler, the megalomaniac who had created that situation, could now readily be appeased.

By comparison, in Trump, the United States has a President and political party (the GOP) prepared not only to accept documented Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 national American election, but also to celebrate their architect, the autocratic tyrant Vladimir Putin, as a model leader. Trump has likewise lionized skinheads and racists and engaged in coy anti-Semitic rhetoric to mobilize those sharing such nativistic and racist views to his banner. In these polarizing stands he has behaved very unlike Churchill who sought to unite a disparate people to defend their nation with little to promise them except, “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,”[1] as he stated in his maiden speech as Prime Minister to Parliament on May 13, 1940. In contrast to this tough-minded call to principled moral courage, Trump has behaved as a spoiled child and unreservedly criticized all who might question him. More, as many other past demagogues in history, Trump has promised his supporters he will ensure them employment by vilifying immigrants and refugees. He has also assured his followers that withdrawing from international agreements designed to protect them from environmental degradation, or to provide stable global commerce and secure against corruption, will provide solace for their fears of continuing economic and social change. All of these claims are lies, and each has appealed to the worst in the natures of the audiences Trump has targeted.

Churchill worked to mobilize the citizens of the United Kingdom to counter tyranny and he did so by telling them truthfully that their choices and the days before them would be deeply difficult. In contrast, Trump has lied to his supporters repeatedly and promised that solipsism and cruel avarice are all that can or should matter in their lives. Churchill rallied his nation on the basis of the values and principles their imperfect nation nonetheless stood for: freedom of speech and of the press and the rule of law. In an almost unspeakable paradox, very like those Churchill sought to rally his nation around shared purpose and comity to confront, Trump has routinely called on humans’ capacity for hatred, cruelty, avarice and smallness. He has argued that Americans expressing their views in protests should be imprisoned, has constantly attacked the press as purveyors of “fake news” when those institutions point out his lies and persistent mockery of democratic values. He has dubbed himself “above the law” and has terrorized his Attorney General for not ensuring that he and his campaign operatives were protected from investigation for apparent corruption and wrongdoing.

As far as rhetoric is concerned, Churchill spoke with ringing clarity and unparalleled grace of the dangers to freedom posed by the Axis powers, and of the value of democratic governance they threatened. Here is an excerpt from his speech of June 18, 1940 as England stood alone in Europe against the coming onslaught of the Wehrmacht:

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. 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.’[2]

The United States does not have a tyrant’s armies at its doorstep, but it nonetheless  confronts a peril of its own making. The country is today endangered by the choice of a share of its citizens to support its president as he lurches from one hate-inflected speech and stance to another and persists in daily rhetorical barrages that undercut the nation’s most vital principles and norms. Economist and commentator Paul Krugman has lately christened Trump’s approach to the world as one of “belligerent ignorance,” an apt descriptor of his continuing uninformed bellicosity, which rests foremost in a willingness to despise, to belittle and to other those who dare disagree with him.[3] The Republican party has aligned around its titular demagogic leader and the nation now confronts a possible usurpation of its most precious values by a share of its own leaders and citizens. This is an onslaught predicated ultimately on fear, hatred and ignorance, a powerful multipronged weapon aimed squarely at freedom and hope for self-governance. No Wehrmacht imminently threatens the shores or skies of the United States. Instead, and very like another threat to England that Churchill confronted in 1940, many U.S. leaders are now willing to rationalize evil in their pursuit of power, ideology or spoils. The danger for freedom and self-governance is obvious and palpable. It remains to be seen whether an American leader as determined as Churchill proved will emerge to lead their fellow citizens to confront that peril.

 

Notes

[1] Churchill, Winston. “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat Speech,” May 13, 1940, ThoughtCo., https://www.thoughtco.com/blood-toil-tears-and-sweat-winston-churchill-1779309 Accessed March 11, 2018.

[2] Churchill, Winston. “Their Finest Hour,” June 18, 1940, International Churchill Society, Inhttps://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/their-finest-hour/  Accessed March 12, 2018.

[3] Krugman, Paul. “Oh, What a Trumpy Trade War!” The New York Times, March 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08/opinion/trump-trade-tariffs-steel.html Accessed March 8, 2018.