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On COVID-19, We Needed Winston Churchill. We Got Neville Chamberlain

We know, not just from Bob Woodward’s book Rage, but from tapes of interviews by President Donald Trump himself that even as he knew from science briefings how serious COVID-19 could wreak havoc on the U.S. economy and kill many people, he chose to publicly dismiss the threat, claiming he didn’t want anyone to panic over a deadly virus spreading through the US.

Amazingly, Trump has decided that he’s a lot like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. ““[W]e’re doing very well. As the British government advised the British people in the face of World War II, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ That’s what I did…. We have to be calm. We don’t want it to be crazed lunatics. We have to lead. When Hitler was bombing — I don’t know if you know this — when Hitler was bombing London, Churchill, great leader, would oftentimes go to a roof in London and speak and he always spoke with calmness. He said, ‘We have to show calmness.’”

But there’s a calm from false reassurance, and a calm from telling the truth.

Before he became Prime Minister in 1940, Winston Churchill warned anyone who would listen that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were threats to the U.K. But the British people were “reassured” by their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the Conservative Party leader in the late 1930s. Chamberlain chose to go to Munich to sign a deal with Hitler that Nazi Germany would get the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, in exchange for not taking any more territory.

While Chamberlain boasted before crowds that his Munich Pact was “peace for our time,” Churchill denounced the pact. But Churchill and his allies were drowned out by Chamberlain, and even the royal family. Nobody wanted “an alarmist” like Winston Churchill.

When Hitler proceeded to take all of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain gave a response described as “feeble.” He also said little about “Kristallnacht” calling for more peace with Hitler, while the British started to become alarmed by Nazi tactics. Chamberlain chose not to prepare the British industry for war because he didn’t want Hitler to think the United Kingdom was breaking the Munich Pact deal. His response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland was an ineffective “blockade.”

You probably know the rest of the story. Hitler invaded Norway, and Chamberlain resigned, replaced by Churchill. Nearly every country in Europe was attacked and absorbed into the Nazi regime. The British army barely escaped Dunkirk, and the UK barely survived the London Blitz.

Rather than reassure people that there was no danger, as Chamberlain did, Churchill told the truth that there was a threat, and developed a plan to win. “Keep Calm and Carry On” is very different from hiding your head in the sand, denying the danger of Hitler and Nazis.

Sadly, our current president is a Conservative in the mold of Chamberlain. He publicly downplayed the threat. He didn’t put in travel restrictions from China until the end of January, after most airlines already suspended flights. His ban only included China nationals, not all people coming from China (leaving open asymptomatic foreign nationals to come to the U.S.). Budgets abandoned health programs set up under Obama to combat such lethal viruses abroad.

Trump refused to implement a similar European ban until mid-March, even as cases poured into the United States earlier than that, falsely claiming “he had shut down the virus from China.”

Trump’s greatest damage came from telling Americans there was no threat. Now we have legions of Americans who deny the existence of COVID-19, helping spread the lethal virus, hampering our economic recovery, because their president told them there was no problem. We clearly don’t have a Winston Churchill in the White House. But we could sure use one.