So, yesterday was a momentous day. It is either the start of a new age, or the ending of civilization, depending on your point of view.
I want to say something different about Donald Trump.
It is on occasion a politician’s duty to let down his supporters. This applies doubly to a leader, a head of state. It may even be his noblest duty, the point at which he either cleaves to his democratic legitimacy, or shears off into tyranny. And he may have to disabuse both his supporters and his opponents of the true nature of their situation. If anyone doubts this, just consider Winston Churchill’s words of 13th May, 1940, as he stood before the House of Commons for the first time as the leader of the nation:
“As I said to those who have joined this Government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat“. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”..*
The oratory of that speech is magnificent, proceeding seamlessly as it does from a serious but brisk account of the urgent business of assembling a government to deal with an appalling situation, to a call-to-arms which would reach the whole nation, indeed an entire empire. A call which was cast in such dire terms that none could doubt either its brutal honesty, or the patent commitment of a leader to stand for and with his nation in what no-one could doubt was indeed its darkest hour. That description has long become a cliché, but it was nevertheless true.
And yet, if you look at what Churchill said, it was a concise but systematic demolition of the hopes of our nation at that time – hopes for a peaceful solution to the threat from an aggressive, ruthless, inhuman foreign power. Hopes for a solution which did not avoid endless and uncertain sacrifice. Hopes for a solution which preserved moral niceties against an enemy who accepted no such constraints on their own behavior. I believe he understood just what was coming, in a way virtually no-one else did. Churchill could only offer his own hopefulness, and assuredness that “our cause will not be suffered to fail among men”.
All politicians, if they aspire to greatness, must be prepared to disappoint, disillusion or disabuse. To be a great leader in particular, to accept a commission from the public, freighted with the hopes of your supporters, and simultaneously laden with the fears of your opponents, is to accept responsibility for guiding alike the terms of both their underlying hopefulness and their underlying fearfulness. It was Winston’s genius to do this, and we must hope that Mr Trump is capable of approaching greatness too.
It is all too easy to abuse the power given to you by the acclaim of a democratic expression of public choice. It is too easy to veer off into popular arrogance, the seeds of tyranny. It is too easy to be drawn into collusion with a subterranean network of egregious political advantage. No man is immune. Mr Trump is not immune. If ever there was a need for that bust in that White House, it is now.