Trump using kind of 'racist language and terrifying expressions of popular nationalism' that helped start First World War, historian Dan Snow warns

Exclusive: Leading historian questions the purpose of Brexit, criticises the way the US President is talking about great power conflict and warns: 'We should remember that those young men who marched away to war in 1914 did so because morose old men were worried about national status'

Adam Lusher
Friday 02 February 2018 19:53 GMT
The 39-year-old said the President might benefit from reading the works of soldier and poet Wilfred Owen
The 39-year-old said the President might benefit from reading the works of soldier and poet Wilfred Owen (Alamy)

Donald Trump is using the same kind of “overtly racist language” and “terrifying expressions of popular nationalism” that helped start the First World War, a leading historian has warned.

Dan Snow, who has presented numerous history documentaries for the BBC, cautioned that Mr Trump was “talking again about great power conflict almost as if it was desirable, almost as a cleansing experience that would be good for American manhood”.

As he helped launch a poetry competition inspired by the poets who exposed the horrors of the First World War, Snow told The Independent: “When Trump merrily talks about nuking North Korea, when he threatens violence and talks about the size of his nuclear arsenal, we absolutely should remember the war poets.

“We should remember that those young men who marched away to war in 1914 suffered the most appalling things you could ever imagine – and they did so because morose old men were worried about national status.”

Snow also suggested that the US President might himself benefit from reading the works of war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

“Donald Trump,” said Snow, “Can benefit from sitting down and reading any book, but he can certainly benefit from reading Wilfred Owen.”

Snow also said that because of the way in which “the norms of democracy and rule of law are being eroded” in the US, Mr Trump presented a “huge problem” for Brexit.

Questioning the value of leaving the EU instead of working towards closer co-operation with Europe, the historian added: “When you read the war poets, you are not left with a huge affection for a world in which very powerful nation states quarrelled with each other for economic, political and social gain.”

Snow will chair the panel of judges for the new A Poem to Remember competition, which is inspired by the poets of the First World War and seeks to discover the next generation of poets who can reflect on humankind’s ability to triumph over adversity.

Open to anyone over 17, the competition will celebrate the opening of the new Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre for wounded Armed Forces personnel. The winning poem will be read out by Prince William at the opening of the new rehabilitation centre and will also receive £2,000.

It is being launched 100 years after the end of the 1914-18 conflict, but Snow said there were similarities between Mr Trump’s rhetoric and the late 19th and early 20th century nationalism that helped push the world into war in 1914.

The war poets, he said, had taught that “We should be very wary about answering the call from aged male politicians to hurl ourselves into battle. Frankly if we had seen more of that and less nationalism in Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union address, I would have been happy.

“Like his inauguration address, it was a terrifying expression of popular nationalism.”

Snow said that parts of Mr Trump’s State of the Union address were “straightforward 19th century nationalism”.

“I find that very worrying,” said Snow.

Donald Trump falsely links violent crime to immigration in State of the Union address

He added: “There are important similarities with 1914. One is [Mr Trump’s] use of overtly racist language. He has called Mexicans rapists. It was absolutely normal before the outbreak of World War One to regard Slavs and Teutons and these various groups made up by 19th century nationalists as inferior human beings.

“You have got Trump questioning the legitimacy of a judge because he is of Mexican descent. He is ‘othering’ Mexicans in a big way and people with brown skin: ‘s***hole countries’ and all that sort of stuff. That use of racist language is very similar to 1914.

“That doesn’t mean we are about to have another First World War, but it does mean we should be vigilant.”

Professional historians, he explained, may be devoted to studying the past, but they still had a duty to warn about what light it might shed on present concerns.

He said: “I think some historians have forgotten the purpose of why we study these things. We all sit around at these remembrance services. We all talk about the importance of remembering and making sure it never happens again.

“Part of that, presumably, is saying ‘I am a bit concerned about this’.”

While clarifying that Mr Trump was not a fascist, Snow compared the US President to Benito Mussolini, Italy’s dictator during the Second World War and said: “We need to talk about Trump within the context of right-wing populist supermen – and that means mentioning him in the same sentence as Mussolini.

“No-one is saying he is about to invade North Africa [as Mussolini did when he sent Italian troops into Abyssinia in 1935]. But there are concerning tropes there.”

Snow added: “It is grotesque that despite all the advances humankind has made, despite us having the ability to land a robot on a comet and communicate with it, our politics are still being conducted as they were 2,500 years ago.

“It is very easy to imagine Trump as a demagogue in the Athenian assembly, preying on people’s prejudices, appealing to their baser instincts, showing them a false vision.”

In a reference to Mr Trump’s avoidance of the draft for the Vietnam war, Snow added that when you heard the President talking about sacrifice, “remember that his family has never sacrificed anything at all. Despite being given ample opportunity to serve or go into battle, they have always declined”.

What Mr Trump was doing to the US, the historian said, also presented great difficulties for those trying to push through Brexit.

Snow said: “Trump is a huge problem for Brexit. An America First ethno-nationalist state in which the norms of democracy and rule of law are being eroded is a big problem [to] the whole idea that we would always have this Anglo-Saxon, liberal free-trade America to fall back on.

“It’s kind of embarrassing if, as it seems, we actually have more in common with [Angela] Merkel and [Emmanuel] Macron.”

Questioning the purpose of Brexit, Snow added: “Britain is – or was – the fifth largest economy in the world.

“What is the crushing problem that the very well-heeled and wealthy Brexiteers want to solve?

“It seems to me that in a very unconservative way they risk radical destabilisation of what is – from a historical point of view – an incredibly secure and stable society, and, even weirder, a society in which fantastically rich people have got total legitimacy. No-one goes down Jermyn Street in London firebombing shops.

“What do these fantastically wealthy people – on both sides of the Atlantic – want?”

To the suggestion that they were determined to secure British sovereignty, Snow replied: “If you are on a desert island, you have absolute sovereignty, but no ability to do anything with it at all.

“When you are a smaller player, albeit one that is sovereign, you have less power.

“We will be even more vulnerable to corporations and big lobbies. It comes down to the old classic: why does Rupert Murdoch hate the EU so much? Because they listen to him in London, but they don’t listen to him in Brussels.”

“British policy makers,” the historian added, “Have spent 2,000 years trying to interfere in Europe because they have realised that what happens in Europe affects us.

“We got Protestantism, physics and the printing press from Europe.

“You have two choices with Europe: one is to get on the front foot and go into Europe and try to influence it, as Alfred the Great, Elizabeth Tudor, William Pitt the elder and Margaret Thatcher did.

“Or you sit and wait for Europe to resolve these things and they hit your shores whether you like it or not.”

A Poem to Remember is a new national poetry competition to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Anyone wishing to enter can go to

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in