It is impossible to respond to all the whacky things said by Donald Trump and his surrogates. But, Jerry Falwell Jr. published an op-ed in The Washington Post on Sunday under the headline "Trump is the Churchillian leader we need" and it warrants a reply. Falwell is the son of the founder of the Moral Majority, the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Jerry Jr. runs Liberty University, which Falwell Sr. began in the 1970s, while his brother, Jonathan, took over the ministry at Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Republicans often like to invoke Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, but they do not seem to know much about either man. I am no expert, but I have read several biographies of Churchill, I have read his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, his Marlborough: His Life and Times twice, and most of his six-volume memoirs of World War II at least half a dozen times. Half a dozen? Yes. I find myself looking for a quote, and the writing is so compelling, and the tale that is told so fascinating, it is well nigh to impossible to put the book down. Chamberlain is a murkier figure and he often is blamed for decisions more properly laid at the feet of his predecessor Stanley Baldwin. One thing is clear about Chamberlain: His problem was not weakness but judgment.
So while no expert, I know enough to recognize that Falwell's invoking the memory of these two British statesmen, and comparing Churchill to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama to Chamberlain is, from a historical standpoint, sheer lunacy.
Falwell Jr. writes: "The policies of Obama and Clinton have made the world unstable and unsafe and created a world stage eerily similar to that of the late 1930s. We could be on the precipice of international conflict like nothing we have seen since World War II. Obama and Clinton are the Neville Chamberlains of our time." He goes on to discuss, actually to misrepresent, the particulars of the Iran nuclear deal.
ISIS is nasty, to be sure. But, they do not control a nation-state in the heart of Europe, indeed the largest nation-state in the heart of Europe, with all the industrial and economic and military strength such size and placement afforded Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In terms of the ugliness of the motivating ideology, there is a comparison between ISIS and the Nazis, and of course many Arab nationalists made common cause with the Nazis. But, the fight against ISIS is not a total war. During the Blitz in 1940-1941, more than 1,000 civilians were killed in some weeks, and similar casualties occurred in 1944 when the V1 rockets began flying into London. Some months witnessed more than 5,000 casualties. The government exercised total control over the economy, over private property and, of course, there was a draft. Does Jerry Jr. think there should be a draft today?
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Nor was the Munich agreement anything like the Iran nuclear deal. Chamberlain walked away from his meetings with Hitler waving a piece of paper, while surrendering all the frontier fortresses along the German border with Czechoslovakia. The Iran nuclear deal led to on-site inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Chamberlain urged France not to mobilize along Germany’s Western frontier during the Munich crisis, even though the German Army had orders not to resist, and Hitler was prepared to de-escalate the crisis if France mobilized. Israel, powerful though she is, has no similar monopoly of power against Iran, and was not in the position France faced in 1939. There was no viable alternative to the Iran deal and there was a clear alternative at Munich: stand by the Czechs! And while I am no fan of the Iranian regime, the fact that they are a state sponsor of terror, though well known and significant, is not an exhaustive fact. Stalin was one of the greatest monsters of the twentieth century, a terrorist himself as well as a sponsor of terrorism, and Churchill jumped at the chance to make him an ally in the fight against the even worse monster in Germany.
If there is no analogy to be had between the times, what about the men? Falwell goes on to compare his man Trump with Churchill. He writes: "We need a leader with qualities that resemble those of Winston Churchill, and I believe that leader is Donald Trump. As Churchill did, Trump possesses the resolve to put his country first and to never give up in a world that is increasingly hostile to our values."
First, who is giving up? You may disagree with much of Obama’s foreign policy, as I do, but the differences between us are differences of approach and strategy, not values and objectives. This is the kind of slur that is so common on Fox News and other news sites that toe a singular party line. (You find it on the left too, albeit less often than on the right.) A disagreement about means is inflated into impugning a person's patriotism or character, in this case, suggesting that Obama somehow lacks the nerve to fight ISIS. Obama has the nerve. He has made the calculation that U.S. involvement, beyond its current parameters, has the likelihood of making the situation worse, not better. He may be right, and I think he largely is, and he may be wrong, which he sometimes is, but he is not a coward.
Second, Churchill brought a lot more than resolve to his office. For starters, he was a professional politician almost all of his life and had held many of the senior positions in government before becoming Prime Minister in 1940. He had been Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Admiralty (twice), Colonial Secretary, President of the Board of Trade, Secretary for Munitions, Secretary of State for War, and Home Secretary. (He did not build a single golf course or casino in his long life of service.) When he was not in office or running for it he had been a soldier, serving in India, the Sudan, and the Western Front, and had famously been a war correspondent in South Africa where he had escaped from a Boer prison. Churchill was very learned, especially about military strategy: He sometimes actually did understand more than the generals and the admirals, and not from watching television or consulting his own thoughts. On domestic matters, he did not share the abhorrence of today's Republican Party with nationalization of industry. For him, it was merely a matter of which worked better, privatization or nationalization.
On the issue at hand, of course, Churchill's approach to foreign policy was certainly not too different from Obama's. His main concern during his time in the wilderness was Britain's failure to maintain air superiority over any potential aggressor on the continent, just as Obama, and every president since FDR, has maintained the U.S. military as stronger than any other in the world. Churchill was committed to empire, to be sure, and believed in the exceptionalism of the Anglo-Saxon race, but I am confident he would have led the campaign against Brexit because he was deeply committed to the idea of collective security, first to the League of Nations and later to the European Union and NATO.
Another large difference between the two men is that Churchill was known for his magnanimous nature. Even during the war he told a group that was visiting him at Chequers that he felt he had not an enemy in the world, "except the Hun, and that is professional." He was a self-described "blubberer," who could not conceal his empathy for people in trouble and in need. His tribute to Chamberlain upon the latter's death was a masterpiece of funeral oratory. Only in the case of Baldwin was he churlish, saying upon learning of his predecessor’s death that he could not bring himself to write a tribute and that it would have been better for Britain if Baldwin had not been born. The harshness of the comment is not mitigated by its truth, but it is notable that this was a rare example of a lack of generosity of spirit, a generosity utterly lacking in Trump.
Relatedly, I have never seen Trump display the kind of humor Churchill did. Churchill's wit in private is now well known but his public wit was known at the time. Speaking to the House of Commons of Canada in 1941, he recalled that during a meeting with French officials in June of 1940, as France was collapsing under the Nazi onslaught, "their generals told their Prime Minister and his divided Cabinet 'In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.'" He paused and then said, "Some chicken!" The Commons erupted in applause and laughter. After it had died down, Churchill added, "Some neck!" I could cite countless other examples.
A last difference worthy of mention: Trump is a teetotaler, a moral quality that fills me with suspicion. Churchill almost always had alcohol in his blood stream, from his scotch with breakfast until his brandy at bedtime.
For people like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Trump himself, Churchill is shorthand for a strong leader, but they know so little about all that went in to producing that leadership and that strength. They undervalue his intelligence and wile, which are different from strength but were central to his leadership. And, Chamberlain is shorthand for weak leadership, which is inaccurate too. History is there to correct our prejudices, not to reinforce them. The prospect of Trump becoming president is scary. The fact that Jerry Jr. is the president of a university is scary too.
I will close by reminding my Republican friends of the treacherous waters that can overwhelm you if you invoke an historical analogy without knowing your history. This video shows Chris Matthew destroying a Republican operative using the same year of 1938 to try and make his point.