Mike Huckabee says Trump is like Churchill. Historians disagree.

  • Maggie Astor
  • The New York Times
6:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017 Politics
Nati Harnik/AP
In this Oct. 31, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, speaks at the Iowa GOP's Growth and Opportunity Party at the Iowa state fair grounds in Des Moines, Iowa. Chris Christie and Huckabee have been relegated out of prime-time and onto the undercard at the Nov. 10, GOP presidential debate.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas drew a swift and intense response with a provocative claim Tuesday: President Donald Trump, he wrote, is similar to Winston Churchill, one of history’s most iconic leaders. 

Huckabee had just watched “Darkest Hour,” a film about Churchill. It was, he wrote on Twitter, a reminder of “what real leadership looks like.” 

“Churchill was hated by his own party, opposition party, and press,” he tweeted. “Feared by King as reckless, and despised for his bluntness. But unlike Neville Chamberlain, he didn’t retreat. We had a Chamberlain for 8 yrs; in @realDonaldTrump we have a Churchill.” 

Likening modern leaders to Chamberlain and Churchill — something Huckabee has done before — is always a loaded proposition. Chamberlain, who preceded Churchill as prime minister of Britain, tried to appease Hitler by conceding Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region to Nazi Germany in the 1938 Munich Agreement, and his name has come to be synonymous with weakness in the face of evil. 

Churchill, by contrast, was an officer in the British army during World War I; led Britain through World War II as prime minister from 1940 to 1945; and handled several foreign policy crises in a second term as prime minister from 1951 to 1955. He was known for his skill as an orator and writer, and won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1953. 

So it was unsurprising that the comments by Huckabee, whose daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is the White House press secretary, stirred up Twitter. 

“Sure. Churchill served his country 55 years in parliament, 31 years as a minister and 9 as pm,” Kristian Tonning Riise, a member of Norway’s parliament, wrote in a tweet liked more than 19,000 times. “He was present in 15 battles and received 14 medals of bravery. He was one of history’s most gifted orators and won the Nobel Literature Prize for his writing. Totally same thing.” 

Huckabee did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening. 

Historians said that while Churchill and Trump shared certain characteristics, the broader comparison was unsupported. 

It is true that Churchill made many political enemies before World War II, said Susan Pedersen, a professor of British history at Columbia University. He was also “more self-regarding and less inclined to compromise than most successful British politicians,” she said, and “had a hard-right view of British national and imperial interest.” 

“He was basically in the wilderness in 1939, and had world history and circumstance not found him, that would have been the end of the story,” Pedersen wrote in an email. “Luckily for him, and for many of us, his peculiar attributes and the needs of the time came together. But that happened partly because, for all his idiosyncrasy, he had real intellectual and political strengths: He was intelligent, literate, well-versed in history, had long experience in government, and knew what he stood for.” 

The comparison to Trump, she wrote, is “ridiculous” — the same adjective David Del Testa, a historian at Bucknell University, used to describe the accompanying comparison of President Barack Obama to Neville Chamberlain. 

Timothy Riley, director and chief curator of the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Missouri, said that Churchill “was bold and passionate about his beliefs” and, much like Trump, “was not afraid to speak his own mind and ruffle a few feathers along the way.” But for Churchill, Riley said, “the greatest task, his ‘supreme task,’ was to bring countries together to support peace and prosperity and, during the Second World War, to defeat tyranny.” 

And Del Testa said that after World War I, Churchill’s “self-celebratory style” was tempered by a newfound humility. 

“He was trying to keep Britain strong and create a world order that was strong for Britain, but he was also conscious increasingly in the 1920s and 1930s of a world order that could be destroyed by populist dictators,” he said. “His own tendency toward self-celebration softened when he became aware of the larger world around him, that it really wasn’t a game, but it was humanly important.” 

Perhaps more significant than any of these specific contrasts, Riley said, is the timing of Huckabee’s comparison. It is much too early, he said, to try to draw a comparison between Churchill — whose career in public service spanned more than half a century and two world wars — and Trump, who has been in office for less than a year. 

Among the qualities Churchill is known for are “his perseverance, his resilience and his long-term view of history,” Riley said, and “all of those qualities, I think, are best judged after some time.”

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