John Charmley: A Churchill or a Nero?

President Trump: hard choices (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The “good clean tradition of [our] politics has been weakly surrendered to a half-breed American whose main support was that of inefficient but talkative people of a similar type”. This is not, as you might think, the reaction of a member of the Washington political establishment to President Trump, but that of a member of the British political establishment to Churchill becoming prime minister in 1940.

The contrast with Neville Chamberlain’s business-like chairing of the Cabinet and its committees was often made, and never to the new prime minister’s advantage. He was arrogant, autocratic, impatient and erratic – and that was just according to his wife, who wrote to him a few months later to warn him of the effects all of this was having on his colleagues.

Except, that is, for those maverick friends such as Lord Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken, whom Churchill insisted on appointing to offices for which their only qualification was their association with himself. Only an exceptional set of circumstances could have brought Churchill, in his late sixties, to office; unconventional times bring forth unconventional leaders.

For all the complaints that modern politics has become a profession, it has always been so at the very top. Only two 20th-century prime ministers – Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Stanley Baldwin – had a business background, and they had both been to Trinity, Cambridge, where they obtained undistinguished Thirds.

In the past century and a half, only Disraeli, Lloyd George, MacDonald, Churchill and Major did not attend a university, and all of them were marked out by that experience. Their contemporaries noticed their ignorance of the rules of the political game.

Disraeli, MacDonald and Major compensated by trying to become as good at it as they could, Lloyd George and Churchill, brought to power by the exigencies of war, had a freer hand to act as their instincts and political experience suggested. But there was a palpable sigh of relief in Whitehall in 1945 when the efficient (and Oxford-educated) Attlee took over the running of the political machine.

Donald Trump is a rarity indeed in being both a businessman and someone who did not start a political career until his late sixties; it is hardly to be expected that such an experiment will proceed smoothly. Not only is he largely ignorant of the ways of the Washington political machine, he is also deeply suspicious of its operators and responds readily to his supporters’ desire to “drain the swamp”.

It is hard to think of any parallel in modern politics. Those usually mentioned in the same breath – Farage, Le Pen and Wilders – have all been in politics for years and are adept at playing the game, and are taking advantage of the failure of the existing political elite to replace them.

Trump is a product of a celebrity culture in which fame is its own reward. It is an ephemeral world where the boundaries between reality and fiction as known to most of us are blurred. We hear much of “post-truth” politics, but what is interesting here is what happens to celebrity when fame and money are not their own reward. Trump had plenty of both, and managed to turn them into high office thanks to a discontented electorate and the way the electoral college system works. But office has to be used, and it seems as though Trump has no idea what to use it for. This is why there is a concentration on those around him, such as Steve Bannon.

But again, the possession of an ideology and the ability to put it into political practice are not self-evidently identical. Democratic politics depends on a shared understanding of the limits of political discourse. Activists can dismiss such a consensus as a betrayal of the cause – this is the stock-in-trade of the Corbynista and the Brexiteer – but it remains to be seen how the work of politics can be carried on without it.

One reason for Mrs May’s current popularity is the sense that she is a “proper grown-up” politician in a world where competing male egos were in danger of becoming more important than the issues at stake. In that sense, she is the antithesis of the politician as celebrity.

It is one thing to win an election, another to govern. The architecture of Washington is replete with representations of the Roman Republic, but Trump brings to mind the theatrical self-indulgences of Nero, which very nearly destroyed the Roman system.

Nero enjoyed great popularity with the mob, who enjoyed his unconventional style and the way he scandalised the Roman establishment. He considered himself a great artist, and in so far as his art was his persona he had a point. But, as Charles de Gaulle said, to govern is to choose, and the irresponsible pleasures of opposition have to give way to the hard choices of office.

Professor John Charmley is Pro Vice-Chancellor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham