When Donald Trump was inaugurated last month and moved into the Oval Office, one of the first things he did was return a bust of former UK prime minister Winston Churchill, which his predecessor had moved to the White House residence, to its place in the president’s formal office. After his performance this weekend he might want to consider moving it back. At a minimum, he should have the courtesy to turn the British Bulldog’s face to the wall.
The new president has shattered so many norms and traditions that it is difficult to keep track of them, but one of the most egregious -- more damaging than a refusal to divest his assets or his insistence on bringing family members into the White House -- is his constant effort to sow fear among the American people.
Trump stoked worry about immigrants and terrorism throughout his campaign but over the weekend his campaign to convince the American people that they really ought to feel terrorized reached new depths, and demonstrated just how distant his style of leadership is from the kind the country has historically respected.
The veneration of Churchill by American presidents has its roots in the former PM’s leadership of a traumatized nation during the worst years of the Second World War. At the darkest moment of the battle, when British and allied troops were reeling from the disaster at Dunkirk, he spoke to the nation and urged fortitude and resolve. “We shall not flag or fail,” he promised. The British people would fight the Nazi menace on the beaches and in the streets. “We will never surrender,” he vowed.
Weeks later he urged members of Parliament to prepare for a great struggle. “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
The pantheon of American presidents has its own examples of leaders who urged the people toward courage in grim times. In Lincoln’s second inaugural, he pressed a war-weary nation to soldier on to the end of a long and terrible Civil War.
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
In the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously rallied a nation battered by economic devastation and uncertainty.
This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
Churchill, Lincoln, and Roosevelt were all addressing nations faced with literal existential threats. They responded with calls for unity, strength of purpose, and resolve.
Compare that to what President Trump offered the United States over the weekend. His effort to enact a ban of refugees entering the country and to bar the residents of seven majority Muslim nations from entering the United States had been overturned by a federal judge, and an appeal to have it reinstated was rejected.
As a result, the country had returned to the system of immigration control that has served it reasonably well for a long time. Refugees still face a years-long vetting process. Travelers from nations with a history of terrorism are still subject to extra scrutiny when they apply for visas.
But the reaction from the president bordered on pants-wetting hysteria. Blocking his new rules, he warned on Twitter, would lead to “death and destruction.” He said, “Because the ban was lifted by a judge, many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country. A terrible decision.”
The tirade of fearful tweets continued all weekend: “The judge opens up our country to potential terrorists and others that do not have our best interests at heart. Bad people are very happy!”
“Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
Of course, Trump’s claims were false. People are not “pouring in,” as a result of the ruling that struck down his travel ban. The country’s immigration system has simply returned to its status quo ante. But at this point, falsehood emanating from the Oval Office has become as predictable as the tides.
What’s more troubling at this point is the president’s evident desire to make Americans feel frightened and unsafe. This is not what good leaders do. Good leaders -- the ones who have their busts displayed in places of honor by their allies -- rally people to overcome fear in the knowledge that “unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
To be sure, there are leaders whose specialty has been trafficking in fear. History offers many examples of men who have risen to power by convincing the population that they are facing an imminent threat from some shadowy enemy. They have historically held onto power by convincing the people that they and they alone are capable of offering them safety and protection, even when the costs are civil liberty at home and respect abroad.
But those leaders aren’t typically memorialized with honorary busts. They’ve tended more toward erecting statues of themselves -- statues that are eventually, inevitably, torn down by an ashamed nation.