Twins, certainly. Both represent frightened and fed up electors rejecting their own respective establishments. Both Roman Catholic Cardinals and American voters have pinned their hopes upon unlikely figures snatched from the sidelines in what amount to leaps of faith. A Jesuit Pope has remained an oxymoron until now and a presidential candidate not anointed by the two party hierarchy nearly so. The desperation driving these selections also shares a common cause and in another similarity, neither savior seems likely to deliver their supporters’ hopes.
Francis, “The Man Who Had To Be Elected Pope” is caught between an increasingly post-Christian Western population and incipient mutiny from his more conservative clergy. The chasm between his supportive social justice warriors and the opposing heirs of ancient, unalterable doctrine seems unbridgeable as Trump’s no man’s land between his political base and his establishment opponents. Both men are pinned in the gap between women claiming rights to free sex, divorce and abortion and those who deny them. The Pope’s task is simply defined: all that he need accomplish is reconciliation of ancient doctrine with current scientific advances amidst present political realities. The President must reconcile a less ancient, essentially Judeo-Christian Constitution with today’s post-Christian, entitlement mentality amid increasing corruption and economic decline using a fraught political process. Any beta?
Both Pope and President have entered a political battlefield with recently advanced weapons: instant, massive, targeted and personalized communications plus a highly partisan mass media that functions increasingly as a propaganda machine. Francis has updated Vatican communications and built upon Pope John XXIII’s road campaigns as Trump has fully embraced his predecessor’s governance by campaigning, plus tweets. Whether these newly efficient connections between leaders and followers will produce the social changes our Pope and President pursue will have to be seen; they do seem likely to obsolete some middle management..
Both of these leaders are men of their time, populists and progressives who look to the collective as their primary tool and to the individual more as material to be shaped and guided. Both also seem to see that shaping and guiding properly shared between Church and State. Francis published his exhortation: “Aoris Laetitia” in support of his public remarks on marriage, family, homosexuality and other concerns only to arouse immediate, hostile reactions from conservative Cardinals and scholars. His seeds of greater charity regulating human sex and reproduction seem to have landed upon somewhat stony ground.
President Trump has proposed a $54 billion hike in military spending, a trillion dollar infrastructure program including his border wall, a large tax cut and reduction of the national debt. If our Pope and President appear to be speaking from both sides of their mouths, that is no accident; both must somehow balance between incredibly divided followers. An elected Pope is no less a politician than an elected president; when they are forced to address unreconciled constituents in public, politicians resort to double speak. Popes do have one advantage: They can do it in Latin.
In President Trump’s U.S. the average family’s share of the Federal debt is some $166,000; that family’s share of all American debt is about $866,000. And that half of U.S. households have less than one month’s income available for emergencies. How will all that debt be repaid? The E.U. and other places have debt issues too. Western Christianity and finances are mutually unsustainable. Recoveries from such severe conditions have historically involved great pain, drawn out long enough to permit the necessary alterations of attitudes, followed by reorganization under revised rules. Elderly Popes and term-limited presidents in power when such societal dam breaks occur are more often blamed for the pain than able to preside over any eventual recovery. Our Pope and the President have to know that. So what may they hope to accomplish?
High-ranking churchmen defending traditional Catholicism have advertised made the Pope’s dilemma enough; he can jettison either a couple of millennia of church doctrine or increasing numbers of the modern faithful instead. Francis hardly wishes open schism. He has referred to his advanced age and his short time on stage. About all he can safely attempt is to point the way with enough obfuscation that his conservatives cannot find an excuse for public schism. He can try to open a door through which his successors may lead the faithful when – and if – that moment comes. However revolutionary this Pope’s ideas, he can’t afford to open the revolution. Still, if it is delayed too long, his revolution may not save his church. Vive Francois!
President Trump heads a government that de facto abandoned its founders’ Constitution some time ago while pretending de jure for political reasons to respect it. While Trump maximizes his personal influence via the new communications tools, his political opponents use those too with mass media reinforcement. The President is massively vilified, his actions regularly protested and taken to court, his minions urged toward disobedience and his allies prompted toward boycotts against him. Trump’s opponents are trying to deprive his administration of the ability to govern.
After the Trump Administration’s Constitutional emplacement by America’s voters, this attempted mutiny by Trump’s opponents is not only an attack upon the President but one upon the Constitution and upon the principle of democratic government. Trump’s opponents accuse him of absolutist tendencies but it is they who are displaying them at the moment.
In search of a conclusion, any return toward small, limited, originalist Constitutional government seems unlikely under Trump and still less likely under his opponents. Trump, like Francis, captains a mutinous ship of state. He too will be limited in his accomplishment, the more so if the inevitable financial crunch materializes on his watch, as it did for another GOP president, Herbert Hoover.
So no, Pope Francis and President Trump are no revolutionaries; they are both but modern political populists, moderately progressive iconoclasts who are stuck leading organizations evolving out of social, political and economic patterns no longer accepted by enough people. Both have been scooped up by threatened voters like old style mail sacks scooped up by a passing train. Both see the dangers on the track ahead and neither can be sure of their train’s ultimate destination. Some of us wish that these men were less certain of the efficacy of government in the accomplishment of their goals, given the troubled history of that approach. Both seem men of good will and at least the Pope is a pro at prayer.
Hang on for these rides; in another railroad analogy, our Pope and President may find that while they can start and stop well enough, steering is limited.