Ted Cruz is obsessed with Winston Churchill. The British Prime Minister is a staple of his stump speeches, debate performances, and foreign policy critiques of President Obama.
George W Bush famously kept a bust of Winston Churchill on his desk. It no longer adorns the Resolute desk. Therefore, in Cruz' mind, Obama is alienating other nations and precipitating the decline of American power as we know it. According to Cruz, the discarding of poor Winston is a symbol of all that is wrong with Obama's view of America. We know of course that Obama didn't make any decision to return the Churchill bust...it had been loaned for the duration of the Bush Administration. But it's worth considering Cruz' obsession in any case.
We know Churchill as the leader who rallied the British public to resist Nazi aggression in Europe, and indeed his rhetoric instilled a sense of pride in many Britons as they suffered bombing and material hardship during the Second World War. In other ways, Churchill's leadership was badly wanting, and accounts by his staff and military officials during the era demonstrate the lengths they went to keep Churchill away from serious war planning.
But Churchill represented other things to people beyond the Anglo-American elite. Born into a political dynasty in the making, Churchill cut his teeth reporting on the butchery of Britain's imperial wars. Those wars involved concentration camps and the deployment of maxim guns against spears in an effort to strip people of their land and sovereignty. Churchill entered politics, and in between switching parties over the years, served in a variety of cabinet portfolios, domestic and foreign.
Something of a radical in his early years--participating in the Liberal government's creation of old age pensions and the first iterations of a welfare state--Churchill's conservatism won out in the long run, largely because of his obsession with Empire and its authoritarianism. He saw the possession of vast overseas territories as key to Britain's might and special place in the world, and resisted all efforts to allow people in those colonies to determine their own futures.
Indeed, in a variety of cabinet posts and from a position of public prominence he advocated and sanctioned the use of spectacular violence against anyone he believed threatened Britain's Empire and global preeminence.
As Home Secretary he dispatched the British army against Welsh miners who sought improved social and material conditions. He admired the European strongmen of the 1920s and early 1930s, even though he saved his moribund political career by fighting them later on. He stabbed his wartime deputy in the back in 1945 when he equated his economic program with the Gestapo, ignoring the reality that Clement Attlee's Labour Party had been the strongest and most consistent British opponents of fascism and had been responsible for Churchill's ascendancy to the premiership in 1940. (The absurd comparison didn't stick, and helped to persuade voters to turn Churchill out of office.)
Churchill discussed Gandhi and other Indians in hideously racist terms and advocated the deployment of drastic and humiliating violence against them. As a wartime Prime Minister he presided over a man-made famine in Bengal that claimed as many as four million lives, a true demonstration of how little the lives of imperial subjects mattered to their British masters and the version of Empire they defended.
When he returned as Prime Minister in the 1950s, Churchill oversaw the colonial response to the Kenya Land and Freedom Army's fight for liberty in the 1950s. Under his watch, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were swept up into concentration camps where the use of torture and other forms of state violence became institutionalized as part of a systematic effort to "rehabilitate" Mau Mau fighters who the state regarded as deranged for attempting to free themselves from British rule.
I would like to think that if President Obama had the ability to weigh in on the Churchill bust in the Oval Office--which we know he did not, Cruz' lies aside--he would have returned it in any case, perhaps citing what Churchill's government did to Kenyans of his father's and grandparents' generation in concentration camps and in daily life under colonial rule. Victims of British torture and other violence from the 1950s recently had their day in court, and successfully sued the British government for its colonial atrocities.
These and other examples of imperial violence are what many of the world’s people associate with Churchill. Even to Franklin D Roosevelt, the British Empire and Churchill’s imperial obsessions were a liability and an embarrassment.
But I understand his appeal for an authoritarian like Cruz, who believes that the state should create economic conditions that benefit elites, and who has advocated carpet bombing Syrian and Iraqi cities, the deliberate mass and indiscriminate killing of people in those areas. The violence of Cruz’ imperial foreign policy advocacy went even too far for the American military, which distanced itself from the methods he proposed, noting that they would violate U.S. practice and international law.
And so when Cruz lies about the Churchill bust, but embraces the man who advocated the killing, humiliation, and disenfranchisement of hundreds of millions of people, he offers a glimpse into the world he would like to create. It is truly frightening.