The Churchillian Mr. Trump

The Churchillian Mr. Trump
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Story Stream
recent articles

In a country tired of protracted war, its global position and power in question, its government in the hands of the far left, a well-known figure long derided by elite opinion stood to argue for a new brand of nationalism. It was time, he said, for his nation to step down from its war footing and place new emphasis on the home front, specifically the domestic, private economy.

“Of course,” he proclaimed, “if you keep one and a half million men drumming their heels, when they should be recreating our vanished wealth, it is easy to cast away the public treasure.”

At stake was the national competitive edge, under assault by savvier world powers. One of these foreign powers, by the accounting of its president, expected a “two and a half times” increase in metalworking from before the time of war. But at home? There, “not a single peacetime manufactory … will be producing 100 percent, and many will be far short of 60 and 70 percent” of prewar output by the same date.

The man making this comparison and issuing this warning? Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister, still a member of Parliament in December 1945 but ousted from Downing Street by a stunning Labour victory in July of that year. The competitor to which he referred, and the president he cited? The United States and Harry Truman.

It may come as a surprise to many today, but the great wartime leader Churchill was no simple militarist. Military power was, for him, but one tool the statesman might employ—and reluctantly so—in defense of the national interest. Churchill did not seek war. He instead sought, through a long and storied career, to do nothing less than put Britain, and the British Empire, “first.” Even the alliance, the “special relationship” he so valued with the United States, still had as its aim the good and welfare of the British people.

After his inauguration last year, President Trump famously returned a bronze bust of Churchill—unceremoniously removed by President Obama—to the Oval Office. It now stands on an ornate side table and overlooks the Resolute Desk, itself a gift of Queen Victoria. The symbolism of this is powerful. In certain profound ways, Trump is the living heir to the politics and vision of Winston Spencer Churchill.

Laugh if you wish. It would be appropriate. Both men endured plenty of laughter in the years before their ascents. Both were questioned, and mocked, along very similar lines—for lack of “judgment,” for having bad “temperaments,” for being “extreme.” This is because both had similar opponents and enemies, and for similar reasons—despite the gulf in time, space, and context separating the political lives of the two men.

Churchill continually sought, through a 60-year political career, to protect and defend the national interest—regardless of the establishment views of his party and regardless of whether charges of inconsistency might be lodged against him. His positions were subject to change or, in modern parlance, to the occasional “flip-flop.” But changing means were always, for him, placed in service of consistent ends: putting Britain, and the British Empire, first.

So it was that Churchill abandoned the Conservative party itself as a young MP in 1904, refusing, as an ardent free trader, to assent to its new, protectionist platform. But so it was also, in the early 1930s, in the midst of the Depression, that he would come to embrace an economic “girdle” protecting the empire and its trade—a system known at the time as “Imperial Preference.” Churchill, like Trump, understood that national wealth was central to national strength and thus to the projection of power and the maintenance of peace. As Churchill declared at the time, “It is when Empires begin to break up and fall to bits; when their approaching dissolution fills the air, that appetites are excited, ambitions roused, and plans of aggression are set on foot.”

Churchill’s concern with the rise of a new economic competitor—the United States—led him to call for something very much like Trump’s vision of “fair trade.” Where Trump speaks routinely, and in negative terms, about America’s tremendous trade deficit, or the “one-way street” of money and industry flowing out of the country, so Churchill was concerned in the 1930s about “an immense flow of wealth” escaping Europe for America for “sixty years to come.” It was, as Churchill announced in a radio broadcast to America in 1932, up to Britain and the United States, “the two great creditor nations, the two great anti-communist nations” to “take counsel together” on matters of economics and monetary policy. They needed to “revaluate commodities ... secur[ing] a price level which will give a fair return to the prime producer and thus enable him to buy again the manufactures of our cities and workshops.” Churchill, like Trump, sought—by government imposition if necessary— to bring a new balance to an increasingly imbalanced (and to Britain, disadvantageous) international economy.

Churchill’s argument was not simply about trade or economics, however. It was about the importance of Britain maintaining its power and global relevance given the rise of the United States. A strong, competitive Britain was key to the maintenance of the special relationship—key to Churchill’s vision of ever closer Anglo-American ties. This alliance, he reasoned, would be good for Britain, and for the world, but could be so only if Britain were taken seriously in it, only if Britain put itself first and made itself strong at the outset. Donald Trump clearly agrees. Not only has he called for a stronger America that puts itself first, he has also called upon other nations of the world to do likewise. As he said at the United Nations last year, “As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.” For Trump, as for Churchill, true strength always starts at home.

It is, specifically, Trump’s embrace of Brexit—Britain’s vote to reclaim its sovereignty from the bureaucrats in Brussels—that positions him as the true heir to some of Churchill’s greatest hopes. In Churchill’s vision of English-speaking, Anglo-American unity, union in Europe was merely a fallback position, a Plan B. As Churchill stated in 1935, a partnership of wealthy, powerful English-speaking allies was to be preferred above all other systems for the maintenance of the global order:

Of course the first and surest of all methods for maintaining the peace of the world would be an understanding between Great Britain and the United States whereby they would together maintain very powerful air forces, and navies decisively stronger than those of other countries put together; and secondly that they would use these forces, as well as the whole of their influence and money power, in support of any state which was the victim of unprovoked aggression. ... Everyone can see the arguments against the English-speaking peoples becoming the policemen of the world. The only thing that can be said upon the other side is that if they did so none of us would ever live to see another war. ... It is, however, vain to expect such commanding foresight and prudence from modern governments.

“Failing this grand solution,” Churchill allowed that “we must fall back upon the less certain but nevertheless effective measures which are open to Europe alone.” And so now, with Trump, with the Brexit vote, the question arises: Will the British government, as it leaves political Europe, show the “foresight and prudence” to move towards America? Does Britain, in putting itself first, recognize the opportunity to fulfill Churchill’s grander ambition—to join, as a mighty creditor nation, with the United States in furtherance of prosperity and peace? Trump has already made clear, in a reversal of President Obama’s assertion, that post-Brexit Britain will be at the front of the queue for a great trade deal. Could establishing a fair, mutually beneficial, bilateral trade agreement between America and Britain also lead to stronger military and even cultural ties between the great English-speaking, cousin nations? If so, such a new deal might help fill the global leadership void left by an increasingly impotent U.N. and a hapless, technocratic EU. It could allow the United States, along with the United Kingdom, to provide a greater check against a rising China, an aggressive Russia, and the threats of terrorism and North Korea.


Churchill, the grandson of a duke, his father a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, his mother an American heiress, was a member of the British establishment by right of birth. But, continually through his life, he would make political choices that placed him at odds with that establishment and its consensus opinion. In the 1930s, though he remained a member of Parliament, he was marginalized from the Conservative government of the day: first, because he disagreed with his party’s willingness to relinquish imperial power in India, and second, and more famously today, because of his hawkish approach to a rearming Germany. Even when Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he did not automatically become leader of his party, which remained for a time under the control of Neville Chamberlain. The analogy to Trump and the power structure of the Republican Party is clear enough.

Donald Trump, his father a real estate millionaire, his mother a Scottish immigrant to America, has a less straightforward lineage. He is Queens, not Manhattan. He grew up, and is proud to have grown up, around construction sites. He is also a billionaire, and in the American system—a system without a peerage or noble titles—such wealth alone usually qualifies one as establishment. But Trump, like Churchill, has chosen to fight the establishment from within. He discounts its trade orthodoxies. He discounts its military and foreign policy orthodoxies. Taking a page from Churchill’s playbook, when he called upon America in 1943 to embrace “the long arm of destiny” and participate in world affairs, Trump calls upon other nations to live up to their financial and military commitments. Both leaders rejected the default posture of their respective elite contemporaries: the desire for a managed economic and military decline in exchange for vague notions of “progress” or “enlightenment.” Both men argued, to the contrary, that progress is only possible when a nation is strong, when its people and its trade alike are outward looking, when its writ and its values are backed by the hard currency of overwhelming military might.

Left-wing academics and critics will likely say that the true commonality between Churchill and Trump is their “nativism.” Churchill, to be sure, was a staunch defender of the British imperial system, and he held views towards colonial populations that would fall afoul of modern political standards. Trump has been misquoted and routinely denounced as “anti-immigrant,” when all along he has been clear in his desire for an immigration system that serves America, rather than an America that simply serves the world from the long buffet of the welfare table. Both men understood clearly: a great nation can never be a welfare magnet, or an inward-gazing society content simply to consume its own, ever-diminishing store of resources. Greatness cannot mean subsidizing imported, low-skill labor with welfare while, at the same time, dismantling one’s domestic workforce and pushing it onto the dole as well.

Populism, for both men, is hardly the inward gaze. It is, instead, the belief that only by putting its national interests first can a nation engage the world with strength and purpose. Contraction and inwardness are, by contrast, the constituent ingredients of a managed decline. As the historian Niall Ferguson demonstrates, one need look no further than the waning years of the British Empire for an example of this precise dynamic: “The great creditor,” wrote Ferguson, “became a debtor. In the same way, the great movements of population that had once driven British imperial expansion changed their direction in the 1950s. Emigration from Britain gave way to immigration into Britain.”

Churchill’s defeat—both his political defeat in 1945 and the defeat of his vision for a strong Britain acting with coequality in the Anglo-American alliance—was and is celebrated by the declinists of his nation. The opponents of Trump, the denizens of the establishment left and right, likewise desire his defeat more than the defeat of their nominal opponents on either side of the aisle. A strong, emboldened America, acting with might on the domestic and world stages, is antithetical to their declinist agendas. They need a country on the decline – either, on the right, to offshore manufacturing and import cheap labor or, on the left, to fuel ever-increasing demand for the welfare state and thereby enshrine indefinite left-wing political power. 


Eliot A. Cohen recently wrote in The Atlantic that Churchill’s long experience in government, his “unremitting effort, organizational skill” and his “eloquence ... so utterly removed from the squeals and barks of the current American president” make any comparison to Trump a false one. Surely a parliamentary system allows for someone to hold a succession of high executive offices over many years in a way that the American system does not. But Cohen, in reciting the long and impressive list of Churchill’s ministerial appointments, seems to dream of an American deep state where only insiders can or should rule. He fails to recognize that Churchill’s elevation to the premiership was due precisely to the failure of that deep state in Britain: While Churchill had held many offices, by the 1930s he had no expectation of another, or higher, one until the actual commencement of hostilities with Nazi Germany—that is, until the architecture of the establishment collapsed into global catastrophe.

Nor is it fair to discount Trump’s considerable life experience, his business acumen, his own “unremitting effort” and “organizational skill.” Trump won the presidency, against all odds, almost by himself. And he did so with his personal brand of eloquence. Working in a different era than Churchill’s, and within a decidedly different idiom, Trump nonetheless became a master of language, of the pithy statement and the clever put-down. Mr. Churchill would most likely have been proud.

While Winston Churchill’s modern reputation seems to have devolved into a caricature of sorts—the fading great man who spouts quasi-Shakespearean aphorisms at dinner parties, or who produces soaring arias from the dispatch box—the reality is that he was a shrewd, realist statesman who understood well the power of language, when wedded to serious policy goals, to move events. He did not waste words. Each had a purpose. And where Donald Trump is portrayed by his critics as some sort of late-night (or early-morning) tweeting madman, he knows what Churchill knew: With far fewer words than lesser politicians require, he can discombobulate his opponents, inspire his supporters, and seek to enact a real, substantive program of national renewal. He has positioned himself, as Churchill did, as a modern tribune of the people—standing in the elite halls, but against the easy consensus of the elites. Whether the Churchillian Mr. Trump will prevail, where even Mr. Churchill could not, will be for the people to decide.  

Augustus Howard, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, holds a B.A. from Williams College, an M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge for his dissertation “Churchill and America: The Concept of the English-Speaking Peoples,” and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law. He has also served as a law clerk on the United States Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Show commentsHide Comments
You must be logged in to comment.