It will be no surprise when Gary Oldman is nominated for an Oscar in a few hours for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. But the popularity of the film has as much to do with the reverence which Churchill inspires as Oldman’s superb performance. According to a BBC poll he was voted “the greatest Briton of all time”. Many historians regard him as the greatest statesman of the 20th century.
Yet in the course of his long career Churchill was so unpopular with his colleagues that he spent the 1930s in a political wilderness. He was hated by unionists, hated by Australians, hated by the Irish.
His disastrous Gallipoli campaign in World War I cost 46,000 Allied lives. After he pushed his country back onto the gold standard in 1925, economist John Maynard Keynes sneered that Churchill, had “no instinctive judgement to prevent him from making mistakes”. Even by the standards of the 1930s, he was regarded as a bit racist; he once described Gandhi as a half-naked Indian fakir.
In short, in the words of British journalist Simon Heffer, he had “a record of failure and misjudgement that in any other politician would offset even the most considerable achievements”.
What, then, accounts for his immense popularity?
It was his ability to unite the people of Great Britain. For six long years he inspired them, gave them hope, endurance, grit, valour. It wasn’t just his magnificent oratory, but his ability to channel to a stricken nation his own pugnacious and resolute character.
Reading the best of his wartime speeches, you are struck by how often he uses “we”. He speaks as the leader of all Britons, not just his own constituents.
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,
If Church set the bar for statesmanship, how does Donald Trump measure up after a year as President of the United States?
There’s no doubt that Trump’s fans can point to a solid and surprising record of achievement. It is the achievement of a conservative, but achievement it is.
The terrifying reign of ISIS has been terminated. He has forced the UN and China to take stronger action against “little rocket man” Kim Jong Un. He hasn’t built the Mexican wall. He pulled out of the Paris climate deal. He pushed through a US$1.5 million tax package.
His pro-life agenda is refreshing. Most American politicians have shrunk from openly supporting the rights of the unborn. Trump has given the pro-life cause his unequivocal backing and has supported the conscience rights of healthcare workers. Even if such actions are wound back by future Administrations, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, with the possibility of one or two more appointments as well, could even lead to a reversal of Roe v. Wade.
So, compared to pre-World War II Churchill, Trump is not scoring too badly.
But, unlike the wartime Churchill, he seems to have no ambition to unite he people he leads. His style is characterised by division and alienation. He mocks his enemies to ingratiate himself with his friends. He is not a racist, but in a country which is so sensitive to racial discrimination, he makes little effort to avoid looking like one.
The mainstream media have depicted him as an unhinged, racist, incompetent ignoramus – which he is not — but he has responded with the petulance of a schoolgirl bully on Facebook. It's no way to change the minds and hearts of journalists or the electorate.
Being a leader requires more than signing documents in front of cameras. If Mr Trump aspires to be just a CEO, he has a very low notion of his office. He ought to aspire to imitate Churchill (whose bust is in the Oval Office) drawing friends and foes together, inspiring his fellow Americans to meeting the gigantic challenges that face their nation. He ought to say “we”, as Churchill did, rather than “I”.
Perhaps Churchill had the easier job. The dire prospect of defeat at the hands of a foreign enemy, “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime” concentrated the minds of all Britons in 1940. Trump’s enemies live next door, in the swamp of Washington DC. But that’s no excuse for not trying.
So, despite the runs on his underrated scoreboard, no three cheers for President Trump, no two cheers. One, perhaps, and hoping for better in 2018.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.