Winston Churchill seems to have been on the President’s mind since he took office, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine two more different leaders.Photograph by Brendan Smialowski / Getty
Churchill seems to have been on the President’s mind since the moment he entered the Oval Office, where he moved a bust of the former British Prime Minister, to replace one that Barack Obama, in what used to pass as a scandale, had returned to the British Embassy, which owns it. Later, Trump, on the eve of passing his tax cut, invited key members of Congress over for a special showing of “Darkest Hour,” the film, from 2017, about Churchill and the Blitz. But it was this week’s trek across the street, past a plaza tear-gassed free of peaceful protesters, that really allowed Trump’s Churchill fantasies full play. As the White House press secretary semi-coherently told reporters the next day, the President had acted “like Churchill—we saw him inspecting the bombing damage and it sent a powerful message of leadership to the British people.”
As it happens, I’d been reading “The Splendid and the Vile,” a fine new account of Churchill and the Blitz, by Erik Larson. It could be argued that the world is in no great need of another Churchill biography—indeed, I might be inclined to argue it, since there’s much about the man to dislike. He was, among other things, a stone racist, able to regard the greatest leader of his century, Gandhi, and see a “malignant subversive fanatic” and a “half-naked fakir.” But Churchill’s long career offered a year, from 1940 to 1941, of unparalleled courage and meaning, and Larson’s account of it, constructed from diaries of some of Churchill’s intimates, conveys just how remarkable—and how utterly not Trumpian—that season really was.
There were a few similarities. Churchill had a great desire for quick fixes, and spent countless hours indulging his science adviser’s absurd schemes for laying “aerial mines”—call it his hydroxychloroquine. Also, Churchill was undisciplined in his diet, though his tastes ran more to champagne and oysters than to Diet Cokes and hamburgers.