Revolutionary Measures

Thomas Paine vs Donald Trump

“It is an affront to truth to treat falsehood with complaisance.” Not the words of a modern commentator on fake news, the utterances of a modern politician or the rhetoric around the Brexit debate, but of 18th century radical, philosopher and a Founding Father of the United States, Thomas Paine.

Thomas Paine1

Paine certainly lived up to his words, which are engraved on his statue in Thetford, Norfolk, where he was born. He migrated to the United States where his pamphlet Common Sense supported US demands for independence from England, then left for revolutionary France, was tried for seditious libel in England, before being imprisoned in Paris during the 1790s and finally returning to the US. Only six people attended his funeral after he criticised both Christianity and George Washington in his later years.

Clearly, he didn’t believe in mincing his words, and he came to mind when I watched the excruciating press conference between Theresa May and Donald Trump last week. This happened less than a day after Trump launched a major attack in The Sun newspaper on May for her policies, questioned her Brexit plans and publicly praised Boris Johnson. It was marked by braggadocio on one side and embarrassment on the other. And no guesses which leader was which. He even branded The Sun interview as ‘fake news’.


So how would Thomas Paine have dealt with Donald Trump? Ironically, by giving him a taste of his own medicine. He was a master at combining fiery rhetoric with language that was understandable to all, and wouldn’t take a perceived insult lying down. He was indiscreet, and didn’t believe in keeping information secret, which got him sacked from the US Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs, for example. He mastered the communication channels of the age, even reducing the price of his pamphlets to guarantee they could be read by the masses. In short, he would have thrived in the age of Twitter, unless he was kicked off the social network for overstepping the mark.

But where he differs from Trump and many other politicians was that he had a clear set of beliefs that ran through everything he did and said. And, he didn’t hide them when they were inconvenient to his career or standing. He didn’t court popularity, but wrote the one of the all-time best selling works published in the US.

It feels like we’re in a time of enormous political and social confusion, with plenty of parallels to the late 18th century. Therefore it’s a good time to return to Thomas Paine and follow his ideas about being honest, open and continually calling out falsehoods – whatever your political beliefs.

July 18, 2018 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Many thanks for this post, Chris. Thomas Paine is a hero. As you say, many American soldiers in their war of independence carried copies of ‘Common Sense’ with them on the battlefields.

    Comment by Andrew POWYS | August 13, 2018 | Reply

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