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A lesson Trump could learn from Churchill (but won’t)



In the early Fall of 1938, the leaders of Great Britain, France and Italy met in Germany with Hitler, where they acceded to his demand that Czechoslovakia be dismembered, its Sudetenland region to pass to German control. This was the famous Munich Agreement, to which the Czechs themselves were not even invited, even though their country was being destroyed by others.

This Munich Agreement came to be understood as “appeasement,” now a dirty word in politics. But at the time, following the ghastly slaughter of World War I, Europe was horrified by the prospects of another war, and the Munich Agreement was seen by most as a wise and careful keeping-of-the-peace on the Continent.

No one saw it this way more than the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. When he came back to London bearing the signed protocol, he declared, to a cheering crowd, “I have returned from Germany with peace for our time.” It surely was one of the more unfortunate statements any world leader ever made.

At least one British politician wasn’t buying it. Winston Churchill then was not in the government; he merely represented his district, Epping, near London. For the previous four or five years, Churchill had warned Parliament, his fellow countrymen and anyone who would listen of the growing Hitler menace. Few cared. The period 1934-1949 has been called Churchill’s “years in the wilderness” because, out of power, disliked by many in Parliament, a bit of a showboat, he was perceived as a rather excitable, cranky and dangerous old man, ranting (albeit in memorable phrases) about a Germany few Englishmen felt any reason to fear.

After Chamberlain returned from Munich, Churchill, on Oct. 5, 1938, gave a remarkable speech in the House of Commons. It was a scathing indictment of the Prime Minister. Churchill’s best biographer, Roy Jenkins, calls it “a speech of power and intransigence.” Among its more memorable phrases: “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat…the utmost [Chamberlain] has been able to gain for Czechoslovakia…has been that the German dictator, instead of snatching the victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course…All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness.”

 Churchill suffered immediately from the speech. Even his Parliamentary friends thought it intemperate and unfair to “the Prince of Peace,” as many were calling Chamberlain. His re-election prospects in Epping dimmed. Churchill himself called this episode “one of the major political crises” he had ever experienced (although he was returned to office). Jenkins, the biographer—no political slouch himself, he rose to be Chancellor of the Exchequer–in analyzing this period writes with insight of the balancing act Churchill had at that time to perform: he must respect his constituents’ views, on the one hand (and his Epping constituents were pro-peace and pro-Chamberlain), while on the other hand remaining true to his ideals and beliefs. Churchill chose, in that speech, to side with the handful of militants who believed Chamberlain had sold out a tiny country in the name of appeasing a menacing dictator.

“Politics,” writes Jenkins, “could hardly function without militants. But the difficulty of sustaining enthusiasm without giving militants excessive power has been one of the perennial problems of democratic government.”

Meaning that the wise politician, who aims to be re-elected while simultaneously and hopefully making a mark in History, needs his militants to provide the energy of political support that wins elections. But that politician has to recognize that militants may contain the seeds of their, and his own, destruction. Churchill, throughout his long (55 years) career in Parliament, was not always the most cautious politician, and often found himself in trouble, McCain-like, with his own party. But he did manage successfully to negotiate the shoals of the political vicissitudes that blew in England during his turbulent years of service. Whenever he tacked too far one way, he corrected course, and this kept him alive.

We have now, in America, a leader decidedly not in the Churchillian mold, either rhetorically, or with anywhere near the same political skills not to mention basic human decency. Trump would have profited from reading Jenkins’ advice to keep your militants close but not allow them to write his entire playbook. I understand, as a student of history and politics, that Trump had to play to the Tea Party, evangelicals and neo-nazis, in order to get elected. But once he did get elected, he ought to have realized z fundamental principle of politics: When you have your base by the short hairs, move to the middle. Where else could his white-nationalist right flank go, if he turned in a more moderate direction? He might even broaden his base. Bill Clinton understood this implicitly when, for instance, he criticized Sista Souljah. He knew that some Lefties and African-Americans would be pissed. But who else did they have?

Donald Trump needs a Sista Souljah moment but he’s not going to have one, because he can’t allow any daylight between himself and the cult of Fox “News,” Breitbart, Limbaugh and the rest of the right wing propaganda machine. He doesn’t understand what a great favor he’d do for himself if, say, he supported the recounts in Georgia and Florida, or if he condemned Steve King’s overt racism, or if he had a few kind words to say about transgendered people (probably, Ivanka could dig up a few), or if he admitted that he’s been wrong, climate change is a big problem and is exacerbated by human activity. If he did any of these things, the Right would howl, but stick with him, while Democrats would have to publicly praise him. He might even salvage a few independents.

But he can’t, for two reasons. First, he doesn’t possess the political skills. Secondly, and more importantly, he can’t repudiate the more egregious sins of his base, because he believes in the same things. He really is a racist. He really is a homophobe. He really does support white nationalists like Alex Jones, and he really does believe in suppressing minority voting. Trump is no Churchill, obviously. He isn’t even a Bill Clinton. He isn’t like anything we’re known before. But he is like, or aspires to be like, the man whom Churchill, in his wilderness, warned the world about.

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