November 11, 1931, London was greeted by an unusual sight. Of a dark, frail bespectacled Indian, wearing nothing but a voluminous white shawl against the cold and a dhoti, going to meet the head of the British Empire, King George V; at Buckingham Palace. The invitation reluctantly given to Gandhi and all Indian delegates to the Round Table Conference irked Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who noted contemptuously, “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious middle-temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir… striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace… to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-emperor.”
Decades later, the head of another former British Colony flouted British royal etiquette by refusing to bow to Queen Elizabeth on his visit to her palace, shook hands with her against protocol and walked ahead of her, disregarding custom. Then he posed for pictures sitting in Churchill’s favourite armchair. The incensed British public and press went ballistic. “How Dare You!” ran the front page headline in one newspaper, with a full page photo of a smirking, seated Trump.
Donald Trump is a bully, a coarse amateur politician infamous for his unpresidential tweets and politically incorrect, bigoted behaviour. His conduct towards the Queen is typical of his graceless nature—pushing aside other world leaders at a NATO meet, keeping G7 leaders waiting for a photo op—tacky and immature. However, his absence of decorum and unconventional behaviour towards America’s closest ally sent out an unintentional message to decolonised nations; the Empire’s legacy has been significantly eroded by multiculturalism and the immigration wave. Gandhi would have chuckled at this karma backlash.
Trump is no Gandhi. He does not match the Mahatma’s gentle sarcasm (“His Majesty wore enough for both of us”), his compassion, moral fibre and grand vision. Being no Anglophile, Trump shares many racist characteristics with Churchill (who favoured using poisoned gas against “uncivilised tribes”) though he lacks the leadership qualities of the British premier. Yet contradictions unite the imperialist and the Anglophobe: Churchill, who vanquished the Nazis, had famously declared that the United Kingdom’s “Aryan stock is bound to triumph”.
Just as Trump is unapologetic about the brutal treatment of immigrants, Churchill mocked the victims of the Bengal Famine of 1943, calling it culling a population that bred “like rabbits”. At the core of both the British Empire and the Nazis was racism. Now, it is the pacemaker of Trump’s America. History is a graveyard of empires. Racism is the kryptonite of empires.
It is nationalism that fuels growing nations with the ambition to become global powers on the back of prejudice and stolen resources until history completes the cycle, overthrowing the conquerors with hostile nationalism. Mahatma Gandhi was a product of Indian nationalism, a prodigal son of the Raj who returned as an unexpected avenger armed with moral resources. Trump did inadvertently write Britannia’s obituary. But the legacy of hatred he will leave behind will create a new Martin Luther King. The Mahatma’s comment on Western civilisation was: “I think it would be a good idea”. For all civilisations, being civilised is the next best idea.