In Andrew Roberts’s fine new biography of Winston Churchill, I found a letter the great man wrote to his wife, Clementine, just after the Titanic sank in 1912.
Churchill remarked that the behavior of the male passengers “reflects nothing but honour upon our civilization.”
He wrote: “I cannot help feeling proud of our race and its traditions as proved by this event. Boatloads of women and children tossing on the sea safe and sound—and the rest—silence. Honour to their memory. . . . How differently imperial Rome or Ancient Greece would have settled the problem. The swells, the potentates would have gone off with their concubines and pet slaves and soldier guards . . . whoever could bribe the crew would have had the preference and the rest could go to hell. But such ethics could neither build Titanics with science nor lose them with honour.”
The passage is majestic, Churchillian and, on close inspection, not quite accurate in its understanding of what happened that night. Some male passengers behaved badly, and it might have been only the ship’s officers directing the loading of the boats who kept the male passengers back until the women and children were seated. The captain froze in dismay but had the good grace to go down with the ship; the chairman of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, got onto one of the lifeboats and survived, somewhat to his shame.
Still, bearing Churchill’s chivalric version in mind, it’s hard to resist wondering how men and women in 2018 would behave if their ship were to strike an iceberg. Women and children first? Stiff upper lip as the cold North Atlantic closes over gentlemen in dinner jackets? “Nearer, My God, to Thee”?
Churchill’s Kiplingesque reference to “our race and its traditions” would seem offensive now. Would the social evolutions of the past century, including recent politics of gender, have any bearing on the behavior of men and women and on the life-or-death choices they made on the deck of a sinking ship? Or is human behavior in these matters—courage or cowardice, selfishness or sacrifice—an unchangeable basic over the centuries, unaffected by politics or ideology?
Would men today feel the same imperative of self-sacrifice as they did in 1912? Would female passengers be inclined to reject such male selflessness as sexist? Or is ideology moot once you hit an iceberg? Would today’s women—to prove they can die as selflessly as men—offer their places in the lifeboats to men? Would such a gesture parse ideologically?
Or, in the absence of the old gentility—under which men were expected to hold the door for women, to rise when they entered the room, and to give up their seats in lifeboats—would the simpler principle of dog-eat-dog assert itself? Would men and women fight tooth and nail on an equal basis over the chance to go on living? Is it possible that the doctrine of equality has, among other things, relieved the male of his duty to behave like a gentleman and left him free to be a cad?
At the time the Titanic went down, William Howard Taft was president—a good and sweet-natured man who weighed more than 300 pounds, enough to sink a ship by himself: a white elephant of the old decencies. Taft undoubtedly would have seen to the safety of women and children and then retired to share the fate of John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and other gentlemen who went down that night. Taft’s predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, would have been gaudily masculine in his martyrdom. Taft’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, would have slid beneath the waters—a saint of gothic countenance. Those three presidents had been raised in the ideals of bourgeois knightliness. The man’s duty was to give his life, if necessary. The woman’s duty was to live, for the sake of the children.
When I read Churchill’s comment on the behavior of the men on the Titanic, I could not help thinking of Donald Trump. The Titanic was launched on a wave of Trumpian hyperbole in 1912 as the greatest, most luxurious, most beautiful liner ever built—and the safest. It sounded like a Trump project. Mr. Trump could have imagined himself at the helm of the great ship setting forth—“glorying in his glory,” in Homer’s phrase.
But what next? What if his great project were hull-gashed and sinking? How would Mr. Trump behave? (How would you? How would I?)
Noblesse oblige is not an entirely obsolete moral style, but it has been to a degree discredited as elitist preening and even as a form of oppression. It was a borrowed British reflex anyway, never an absolutely American one, except as preached by Groton’s headmaster, Endicott Peabody, to boys like Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Of Mr. Trump, who can say? He has become a litmus and a Rorschach test. His enemies are certain he would push women and children aside and claim the biggest lifeboat for himself. Drowning, after all, is for losers.
But that’s the predictable answer. Mr. Trump’s reflexes are unusual. In a previous life, he was Stanley Kowalski. He comes from a different part of the American forest—from somewhere beyond the mountains, so to speak, a region of American defiance more authentic and primitive and disreputable than the instincts of the bien-pensant.
He has a talent—a compulsion—to surprise. His election was a wildly unexpected American evolution and his political apotheosis has bent American presidential history toward magic realism—a game in which he makes his own rules and plays the Tasmanian devil. It is at least possible that, in an ultimate gesture of effrontery, he would choose to go down with the ship. Even in death, the pleasures of confounding one’s enemies may be delicious—metaphysical.
Mr. Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a former essayist for Time.