Donald Trump and the ‘Rivers of Blood’

Sarfraz Manzoorjan, New York Times, January 22, 2016


When Mr. Trump speaks of barring Muslims from entering the United States, I hear an echo of a British politician from another age, one who is largely forgotten here but whose views on race and immigration were as polarizing in their time as Mr. Trump’s are now. Enoch Powell was a politician whose career spanned most of the postwar period, first as a Conservative and later as an Ulster Unionist. He had grave reservations about mass immigration and frequently spoke in apocalyptic language about its consequences.

Mr. Powell was hardly an obvious demagogue. The Labour politician Denis Healey once compared him to the Athenian statesman Demosthenes. He was a classical scholar and gifted linguist, and his speeches were renowned for their erudition. Examples from Roman history are not part of Mr. Trump’s rhetorical repertoire.


By 1968, he had become the opposition’s chief spokesman on defense–if largely by virtue of the fact that, as a talented maverick, he was regarded by the Conservatives’ new leader, Edward Heath, as too dangerous to leave out. Speaking in Birmingham, England’s second largest city and one already changed by extensive immigration, Mr. Powell argued that “we must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents.”

This policy, he warned, “is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.” In the most often quoted line–an allusion to the poet Virgil–Mr. Powell said, “as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ ”

The Times of London called it “an evil speech,” and the first direct appeal to “racial hatred” made by a senior British politician. Mr. Powell was summarily dismissed from his post by Mr. Heath.

Yet his lurid warning about the dangers of mass immigration resonated with many Britons. He received tens of thousands of letters of support for what became known as the “rivers of blood” speech. Three days later, as a Labour government bill against racial discrimination was debated in Parliament, 1,000 dock workers marched from London’s East End to protest the “victimization” of Mr. Powell.

There are parallels between the way Mr. Powell gave voice to white working-class anxiety and Mr. Trump’s primary campaigning. And like Mr. Trump, Mr. Powell discovered a ready audience: A Gallup poll a few weeks later found that 74 percent of those surveyed agreed with what Mr. Powell had said. For immigrants like my father, who arrived in Britain from Pakistan in the early 1960s, it wasn’t Mr. Powell’s words that were frightening so much as that so many seemed to agree with them.


In recent years, the target of nativist anxiety about otherness in Britain has shifted from black to Muslim. From my background in Luton, I always looked to the United States as a place where almost everyone was “other,” from somewhere else; I imagined it as a nation that offered a welcome to all, regardless of color or creed.

That faith has been sorely tested by Mr. Trump. Like Mr. Powell, he demonstrates the appeal of a charismatic leader who presents himself as a principled truth-teller, the only man brave enough to break with the establishment consensus on immigration. As Mr. Powell did, Mr. Trump connects with voters–especially among the economically insecure white working class–who feel they’re being lied to by the political elite.

The difference between them is that the “rivers of blood” speech effectively ended Mr. Powell’s political career (he never again held high office, though he remained a member of Parliament until 1987), whereas Mr. Trump has been rewarded so far for his harsh words. Mr. Trump has drawn some criticism from other Republicans, but he is certainly not the pariah that Mr. Powell became.

Mr. Trump, like Mr. Powell before him, speaks for those convulsed by fear. In his 1968 speech, Mr. Powell quoted a constituent who dreaded a future when “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” That paranoia–an ugly delusion that inverts the actual history of slavery–was unfounded. Yet what is striking today is that though Mr. Powell was cast into the wilderness for his views, arguably his warning about the challenges to social cohesion from immigration was prescient.

Thankfully, the rivers of blood he foresaw never flowed. But nearly five decades later, Britain’s long experience of race riots and domestic terrorist attacks suggests that the countervailing doctrine of multiculturalism has not made for a land of milk and honey either.


In Britain, Powellism was eventually defeated as a political movement in part because politicians across the divide united against his views, in part because his dire predictions proved exaggerated and, not least, because people of good will mobilized to stop groups like the National Front from intimidating immigrant neighborhoods and winning elections. But Mr. Powell’s legacy was long and bitter–a lesson for both Britain and America that the price of not confronting the fears that fuel this antipathy could be severe: Whether or not Donald Trump wins his immediate political battle, he may, like Enoch Powell, win the war of ideas.

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