I recently saw Darkest Hour, the excellent biopic of Churchill’s first three weeks as Britain’s Prime Minister in the desperate summer of 1940. Although Hollywood — as is to be expected — took a few liberties with the story, it’s a decently accurate portrayal of Churchill’s impassioned struggle to maintain Britain’s stand against Nazi Germany.
After viewing the movie, I went to the Darkest Hour Facebook page to read the comments of other people who’ve seen it. Almost immediately, the number of individuals favorably comparing Donald Trump to Winston Churchill surprised me. Let’s state an unequivocal fact: Trump isn’t anything like Churchill. Equating the men is to make — in modern-day parlance — a “false equivalence.” As a Churchill biographer, I feel qualified to make this argument.
“The truth,” Churchill said in the House of Commons on May 17, 1916, “is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it, ignorance may deride it, malice may distort it, but there it is.” And the truth here is that as a man and politician, Trump doesn’t rank in the same league as Britain’s wartime leader. People who think otherwise are ignorant of history — or, perhaps, simply delusional.
Churchill dedicated his life to public service, was a voracious reader, a lifelong student of history, a veteran and former POW who saw action in five conflicts, master of the written and spoken word, authored more than 40 books and countless pieces of journalism, was an accomplished artist with 16 exhibitions to his name, wrote and delivered some of the most memorable and important speeches of the 20th century, and won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature. How does Donald Trump — a man who received five draft deferments and, by his own admission, doesn’t like to read — rank in the shadow of such accomplishments?
“A man’s Life,” Churchill wrote in My Early Life, “must be nailed to a cross of either Thought or Action.” Churchill, it can be argued, was a man of both. His dedication to public service spanned five decades as a Member of Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Secretary of State for Air, Secretary of State for War, Minister of Munitions, Home Secretary, and two terms as Prime Minister. Until he stumbled into the presidency, Trump dedicated his life solely to enriching himself.
While Churchill volunteered for military service and actively sought out combat zones, Trump avoided it (bone spurs). As a young man, Churchill saw the horrors of war up close. He came under fire for the first time on his 21st birthday as a correspondent covering the 1895 Cuban war for independence against Spain. Two years later, on the North-West Frontier of India, he fought against the ancestors of today’s Taliban and came close to death multiple times. The heroics and glory of war, he wrote after one particularly bloody battle, are nothing more than “the unsubstantiated fabrics of a dream.” In 1898, he fought at the Battle of Omdurman and took part in one of Britain’s last great cavalry charges. Again, the carnage he witnessed drove home the savagery of conflict. War, he wrote, “is a dirty, shoddy business, which only a fool would play at.” One must wonder what Churchill would think of Trump’s recent tweet boasting about the size of his “nuclear button.”
He fought in the Second Boer War in South Africa, where he was taken prisoner by the enemy. He escaped from a POW camp, trekked hundreds of miles across enemy territory, rejoined British forces, and took part in numerous battles — including the British bloodbath at Spion Kop (Jan. 23–24, 1900). “The dead and injured, smashed and broken by shells, littered the summit till it was a bloody, reeking shambles,” he reported. By the age of 25, Churchill knew full well war’s blood-cost. In 1916, when he was 41, he spent six months fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. The theme he assigned to war and life was simple:
In War: Resolution
In Defeat: Defiance
In Victory: Magnanimity
In Peace: Goodwill
When has Trump ever displayed magnanimity and goodwill? His ceaseless Twitter feed is a litany of insults against present and former political rivals, childish name-calling, boasting, and careless threats against other world leaders. “Criticism,” Churchill said on Jan. 22, 1941, “is easy; achievement is more difficult.”
Churchill is remembered for his moral courage and the strength of his convictions. In the 1930s, he spoke out against appeasement and the dangers of Nazism when it was not a popular thing to do. He did not believe those who marched beneath the Swastika were “very fine people,” as Trump declared the white supremacists in Charlottesville to be. Trump’s bellicosity and “little rocket-man” Tweets against Kim Jong-un is not equal to the solitary and near decade-long campaign Churchill waged against the rising threat of Hitler.
Churchill was extraordinarily articulate — a master writer and orator. His love and passion for history informed his words. “Study history, study history,” he said in a speech at Westminster Hall on May 27, 1953. “In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” Trump, ignorant of history, mistakes bluster and insults for meaningful communication. His lies are flagrant, and he seeks — daily — to undermine the institutions that uphold our way of life and civil liberties. He mercilessly criticizes all who oppose him and goes out of his way to tout his own greatness, insisting his way is the only way. Perhaps he would be wise to keep in mind Churchill’s words on national unity: “What does national unity mean? It surely means that reasonable sacrifices of party opinions, personal opinion, and Party interest should be made by all in order to contribute to the national security.”
As Britain’s wartime leader, Churchill used his words to bring people and nations together. Trump uses words to divide and sew distrust (at the moment of this writing, he’s unleashing a Tweet storm about “Fake News CNN”). Churchill, as a professional author and journalist, understood the purpose and importance of the media. “We sneer at the Press,” Churchill said in 1939, “but they give an extremely true picture of a great deal that is going on, a very much fuller and detailed picture than we are able to receive from Ministers of the Crown.”
This is not to say Churchill was perfect — far from it. He was on the wrong side of the debate regarding India’s independence; his thoughts on Empire are today anachronistic, as is his belief in the superiority of the English-speaking peoples. But even if you judge him by his faults alone, he still ranks supreme to Trump in every conceivable way. Trump is a shallow vessel — one who feels the need to let the public know he’s a “stable genius.” Churchill stood on a foundation of firm beliefs. Trump — by most accounts — believes whatever it is the last person he spoke to says.
Churchill’s public service spanned five decades and two world wars. Trump, at the time of this writing, has been in office less than a year. It’s idiotic to equate the two men. History will continue to remember Churchill as one of our most iconic leaders. It’s safe to say it will not pass the same judgment on Donald Trump.