Trump, you ain't no Churchill

One unexpected, and welcome, outcome of the Covid-19 lockdown, under which we’ve been living for almost three months, is that it’s given me time, and permission, to do some uninterrupted reading, and also let my mind wander, to fantasize even.  

And so, two weeks ago I finished Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile,” a 500-plus-page tome about how Churchill led Britain during the Nazi blitz. This book was the third Larson hand-me-down from Stew, who before that had read his “The Devil in the White City,”  “Dead Wake,” and “In the Garden of Beasts.” Both Stew and I seem to be Larson fans. 

Reading about Churchill got me to thinking about what made him such a great leader as he faced challenges that would have crushed lesser human beings. 

A couple of days ago, I also read David Brooks’ column in the New York Times, “If We Had a Real Leader,” in which the conservative columnist analyzes how President Trump has failed to lead the country, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis. 

Comparing the leadership qualities and accomplishments of Trump and the legendary Winston Churchill would strike most people as ridiculous, though a few of Trump’s most fervent admirers have tried.

In 2017, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee attempted just that and was pilloried for his efforts.

Just this year, Nick Adams, a “motivational speaker, life coach and business innovator,” pushed the frontiers of fictional hagiography with his “Trump and Churchill: Defenders of Western Civilization,” a 224-page book with a foreword by Newt Gingrich.

Adam’s thesis is that Trump could be for the twenty-first century what Churchill was for the twentieth, both valiant reshapers of contemporary history.

Stew burst out laughing at the notion, but you shouldn’t so you can go on reading the rest of this post.

Defining leadership is not as grandiose a task as it may sound at first; it’s mostly common sense. 

The first trait that came to mind was honesty. Effective leaders are not afraid to tell the people the unvarnished truth, based on facts, reality and principles. And likewise, most people don’t like being lied to, even though millions of Trump supporters don’t seem to be bothered by it.  

A fearless truth-teller, Winston Churchill warned the British in 1940 to expect nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” as the country faced “one of the great battles in history,” after Hitler’s hordes had gobbled up most of Western Europe. 

Churchill did not offer any quick solutions or try to dismiss the danger Britain faced, as a minor skirmish somewhere in France, that would sort itself out once the weather warmed up.

Second, after honesty, is the ability to rally people, to unify them to fight a common enemy—as in “we’re all in this together.” FDR did that during his Fireside Chats during World War II, and more recently, George W. Bush, immediately after 9/11, when he extended a hand of friendship to the American Muslim community and condemned any retaliation against American Muslims. It was a moving speech, as was the one he delivered to Congress nine days later.

That only makes sense. Fracturing the American public with divisive, partisan squabbling and scapegoating is not the way to solve any crisis that, after all, affects us all. True leaders don’t trivialize crises by using them as political ammunition.

Third quality that came to my mind is compassion, that is, a leader’s ability to empathize with citizens at a moment of deep pain and uncertainty—to project that he or she “feels his or her followers’ pain.”

Profiles in empathy (again): Trump (in El Paso, 
following the shooting that left 22 people dead); 
Obama; Bush; and New Zealand Prime 
Minister Jacinda Ardern.

During WWII, Churchill, in some eyes the epitome of a British stiff upper lip, was not afraid to be seen crying when visiting victims of bombing raids, as related by Erik Larson.

Perhaps the best image of compassion was Barack Obama’s eulogy at the black church in Charleston, S.C., where nine parishioners were murdered by a white supremacist in 2015.

As one British newspaper put it, on that day the “President’s job was not just offer solace to the people of Charleston, but to the nation.” Obama’s amazing speech concluded with his own hesitant rendition of “Amazing Grace.” (Read Obama’s speech here)

Empathy indeed is an essential quality in a leader, regardless of his political position. Lack of it hinders his credibility and along with it, his ability to lead.

In his column, Brooks writes, “[A] real leader steps aside his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump’s leadership—some would rather call it rabble-rousing—and more recently following the murder of a black man in Minneapolis by a policeman, has been anything but empathetic, as he has chosen, instead, to stoke racial and political flames of suffering and discord with a daily doses of lies, incitement and baseless accusations.

I would disagree with Brooks, however, that empathy and concern for others emanate principally from a solid education and “other spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.”

I believe that a certain degree of empathy, be it for the deaths of 100,000 people who have died as a result of the Covid-19, and their relatives, or at the sight of a helpless person lying under the knee of a policeman, is a built-in emotion in normal human beings, not something you learn in college.

It may sound incongruous, but I also added humility to the list of required traits in an effective leader, even if we think that hubris is essential for running for president or other high office. Being humble is not necessarily a reflection of personal insecurity, self-effacement or inability to make decisions.

On the contrary, “(h)umility benefits public officials by increasing openness to different ideas. It encourages individuals to freely reconsider beliefs when presented with new information, which is a requirement for good policy-making.” 

That necessarily involves tapping others’ views and expertise. For instance, Churchill delegated good chunks of his management of the war effort to people like Max Beaverbrook, whom he put in charge of warplane production. Beaverbrook performed brilliantly and doubled production. 

The flip side is being so enamored with your own abilities that you’re unable to delegate or recognize expertise in others that you might lack, and which could lead to better policies. Such narcissism is a self-defeating stance for the leader—and for his followers.  

So, woe is us if we should find ourselves in the midst of a period of racial chaos and a lethal pandemic, being led by a person who is dishonest; unable to put the public good above his self-interest; lacking in compassion for those suffering around him; and narcissistic to the point of being unable to factor in opinions from people who may in fact be better qualified to deal with a national crisis.

Woe is us indeed. 

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