We’ve been told over and over again that Winston Churchill is one of President Trump’s heroes. While we doubt that Trump’s worldview has room for any heroes other than himself, he certainly has made a show of Churchill idolatry.
As one of his first acts upon assuming the presidency, Trump signed an executive order restoring a bust of Churchill to the Oval Office. (During the Obama administration, it had been supplanted by a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. and relegated to a spot in the private residential wing of the White House, giving rise to one of the right wing’s ginned-up controversies of the Obama years.)
Trump is said to be a great admirer of “Darkest Hour,” the 2017 film about the earliest stage of Churchill’s term as prime minister and his challenge to Adolf Hitler. During Trump’s last visit to Britain, his hosts tried to impress him with a state dinner at Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace. On this trip, the Queen gave him a first edition of the abridged version of Churchill’s history, “The Second World War.” (What, he couldn’t be expected to read all six volumes?)
Yet what seems to be missing from Trump’s skin-deep admiration of Churchill is any awareness of the iconic British political leader’s actual policies. Nothing illustrates that as well as their divergence on the issue of tariffs.
Churchill established his political career partially on opposition to tariffs. At the turn of the last century, trade protectionism favoring goods from the British Empire at the expense of every other exporting nation had become central to the platform of the Conservative Party, of which Churchill was a rising figure.
After having first aligned himself with a splinter caucus within the Tories devoted to free trade, Churchill, in a spectacular parliamentary step in 1904, “crossed the floor” of the House of Commons to sit with the anti-tariff Liberal Party.
Churchill attacked the Tory program of “imperial preference” with all the oratorical vigor he would become famous for. He predicted that it would lead to “commercial disaster.” He saw tariffs clearly as a tax on the working class.
“High protective tariffs, although they might increase the profits of capital, are to the poor and the poorest of the poor a cursed engine of robbery and oppression,” he said in a 1904 speech. (These quotes and others by Churchill are drawn from the superb new biography by Andrew Roberts, “Churchill: Walking with Destiny.”
The tariffs helped no one but the entrenched manufacturers whose goods were sheltered by the tariff barriers, Churchill said, levying a withering broadside at the protectionist argument that the benefits would trickle down to the rank and file. “To think you can make a man richer by putting on a tax is like a man thinking that he can stand in a bucket and lift himself up by the handle.”
Churchill predicted that “tariff reform” — that is, the abandonment of free trade in favor of protectionism — would mark the end of a Conservative Party built on principled governance. “A new party will arise like perhaps the Republican Party of the United States of America — rich, materialist, and secular — whose opinions will turn on tariffs, and who will cause the lobbies to be crowded with the touts of protected industries.”
He described the pro-tariff Conservative wing as “a party of great vested interests….; corruption at home, aggression to cover it up abroad; the trickery of tariff juggles, the tyranny of a party machine; sentiment by the bucketful, patriotism by the imperial pint; the open hand at the public exchequer…; [expensive] food for the million, cheap labor for the millionaire.”
As Churchill had seen, the Tories’ protectionist program brought them electoral disaster though it never was implemented. The end of Arthur Balfour’s Conservative government in 1905 ushered in 17 years of Liberal Party rule.
To be fair, however, Churchill proved to be flexible on the tariff question, as he was on many other issues in his political life. In 1924, with the Tories back in power, he was lured back into the party by being offered the post of chancellor of the exchequer, the second most powerful position in the government, with the expectation that he would back off his position on free trade.
This he did, introducing what Roberts calls “very modest” tariffs to protect producers in the empire — sugar from the West Indies, tobacco from Kenya and Rhodesia, wine from South Africa and Australia — as well as tariffs on luxury imports including cars, silk and movies. His rationale for the latter was that the government desperately needed the money: “We cannot afford to throw away a revenue like that.”
He threw in his lot with the pro-tariff side even more during the Great Depression. As Roberts observes, “with unemployment reaching 2.5 million … he put reality ahead of economic dogma.” In 1931 a coalition government placed tariffs on all imports, part of an economic recovery program that also included suspending the gold standard.
The protectionist period ended in 1942 under pressure from the U.S., which demanded its reversal as part of the price of the lend-lease agreement, which provided Britain, then at the very end of its fiscal rope and facing the threat of invasion by Hitler’s Germany, with the war materiel — and funds — needed for its defense.
Churchill’s about-face on tariffs can’t be taken as an endorsement of Trump’s policy of picking fights with every major trading partner of the U.S. and imposing tariffs via tweet-fueled fiat.
Churchill comprehended the economics of tariffs perfectly well; he never displayed Trump’s ignorant view that they’re a tax on the exporting country, rather than on one’s own consumers. When he abandoned his free-trade convictions, he did so when confronted with a genuine geopolitical and economic disaster — the worst, in fact, that Britain ever faced.
Is America in the same fix today? Obviously not. If there’s an economic crisis, it’s entirely of Trump’s making. If there’s an economic rationale for Trump’s tariffs, it’s invisible. If there’s genuine principle underlying Trump’s economic policy, he hasn’t set it forth.
Churchill understood the damage protectionism could wreak on the world order and on domestic politics. His description of a political party hollowed out by corruption, sanctimony and faux patriotism, determined to impoverish the working class in order to enrich its rich patrons, was as prescient a description of today’s GOP as a soothsayer’s.