The rolling disaster that is Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination certainly has made the last few months difficult for conservatives. Many, I suspect, are beginning to panic; a few cast about for the possible upsides to Trump’s insurgency; and most fritter away their time trying to convince us that every third place finish for Marco Rubio actually is a triumph. But amidst their gloom the right has discovered one way to turn Trump to their purposes: as an excuse to disparage Pope Francis.
Last weekend not one but two articles appeared comparing Francis to Trump. The first was from Matthew Schmitz in the Washington Post; the second, perhaps not surprisingly, from Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Both follow the same rhetorical pattern: you might think the two men couldn’t be more different – one is a thrice-married businessman, the other a champion of the poor and marginalized – but actually they are quite similar. Yes, they differ in substance, but focusing on the fact that they support such divergent ideas and causes merely obscures their deeper affinities. They have “much in common,” according to Schmitz, while Douthat declares them to be “strangely alike.”
It’s a curious move to begin an article by bracketing much of what Francis and Trump actually believe and advocate. But it’s necessary for the Schmitz and Douthat thesis. Only then can they latch onto matters of style and affect, which allows them to argue in terms so vague that it becomes difficult to know what their claims really are, let alone refute them. It’s not just that what Schmitz and Douthat claim is false, though they make a number of dubious assertions; rather, their manner of argument is analytically empty, a kind of pseudo-commentary that adds precisely nothing to our understanding of Francis or Trump. Their stilted observations are, finally, perhaps as much useless as they are wrong.
Take, for example, these claims from Schmitz’s article:
Both [Francis and Trump] are outsiders bent on shaking up their establishments. Francis challenges a hidebound Vatican bureaucracy and flirts with revising settled Catholic doctrine. He denounces institutional maintenance, demanding “a church that is poor and for the poor.”
Trump attacks conventional Republican politicians and violates every conservative orthodoxy. He calls George W. Bush a liar and praises Planned Parenthood. His every electoral success deals another blow to a political class that is already reeling during a primary season marked by populist passions.
There are rhetorical similarities, too. Barton Swaim, a former speechwriter, notes that conventional politicians “rely … heavily on abstractions” and “avoid concrete nouns.” By contrast, writes Swaim, Trump addresses potential voters in a vivid and snappy way, using simple words and arresting statements. Much the same could be said of Francis.
They’re both outsiders who use snappy language – got that? It’s a description so broad that you could shoehorn any number of public figures into it. By adding a few vague “details” – Francis “challenges...Vatican bureaucracy,” Trump “calls George W. Bush a liar” – the trick is complete.
But does this stand up to scrutiny? When you move beyond empty generalities, the comparison falls apart. Take Schmitz’s assertion, noted above, that Francis and Trump are both “outsiders bent on shaking up their establishments.” In reality, Francis’s relationship to the church is strikingly different than Trump’s relationship to the GOP or the political establishment more broadly. Francis was a Jesuit provincial and then the cardinal archbishop of a major diocese. He arguably had more administrative and institutional experience “running things” than his predecessor Benedict XVI did before becoming pope.
Moreover, one reason in particular Francis was chosen to be pope was to reform the church’s bureaucracy, especially the Roman curia. Here’s how George Weigel described the situation on the eve of the 2013 papal conclave: “There were, as there are before every conclave, concerns about the Vatican bureaucracy in 2005. But today there is a widespread and firmly held conviction that the central administrative machinery of the Church is broken.” Francis was not an outsider insurgent, then, attempting a Trump-style hostile takeover of the Vatican; he was specifically selected by the most elite members of an institution – an institution to which Francis had committed his entire life – to help reform it, precisely because many of those involved were fully aware of just how much was broken. There is all the difference in the world between that and Donald Trump using the Republican party as a vehicle for his own ambitions. And it is just such differences – between necessary reform and angry destruction – that the glib moniker “outsider” papers over so easily.
Here’s another example, this time taken from Douthat’s column:
This mirroring extends to their rhetoric, where both men have a fondness for, well, name-calling that’s rare among presidential candidates and popes. The insults differ: Trump calls people “low energy,” “liar” and “loser,” while Francis prefers “Pharisee” and “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian” (though he’s not above “whiner” and “sourpuss” as well). But their pungent language reflects a shared mastery of the contemporary media environment, in which controversy and unpredictability are the great currencies, and having people constantly asking Did he really just say that? is the surest ticket to the world’s attention.
Even at a superficial level, Douthat’s argument is basically self-refuting. Should we really view the schoolyard bully’s taunt of “low energy” as being of a piece with “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian,” which references both Greek mythology and a famous heresy in just a few words? And moreover, does intent and context matter not at all? Trump singles out individuals for withering, often unfair, and frequently vulgar attacks: if Douthat had wanted to, he could have chosen far worse examples from what Trump has said. Francis, on the other hand, might speak harshly of, say, the Roman curia or “fundamentalists,” but he rarely goes after a specific person.
Is Douthat really unable to distinguish between Trump’s personal attacks and Francis’s fairly standard, if occasionally stinging, religious exhortation? It’s worth recalling that Trump’s “low energy” attacks took place in mocking ads, talk show appearances, and debates; the line Douthat plucks from Francis is taken from Evangelii gaudium, the pope's apostolic exhortation on proclaiming the Gospel in today's world. If you read the rest of sentence Douthat cites, it continues on to issue a warning to "those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past." I understand why this sentiment might rankle a certain kind of conservative moralist, but it can't really be understood as being of a piece with Trump's rhetoric.
(At this point, I can imagine a critic of Francis claiming, as Douthat seems to at the start of his column, that Francis’s tangle with Trump over Mexican immigration was in some measure the pontiff’s fault – and an example of his mean-spirited rhetoric. But that’s nonsense. A reporter asked Francis about Trump at a press conference during the pope’s plane ride back to Rome. Here’s what Francis said in response, a response Douthat misleadingly shortened to just three words: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”)
There’s no need to go through the rest of both articles, though it’s tempting. In a number of places, I’m not sure what Schmitz’s and Douthat’s peculiar critiques of Francis are supposed to mean, or why they should be raised in the context of Donald Trump. For example, I don’t really understand why it lacks “coherence” for Francis to urge the church to prayerfully discern how best to minister to divorced and remarried Catholics, while also being against abortion. Schmitz admits that Francis isn’t “a down-the-line liberal” – which is telling. Why should Francis’s coherence be tested against the ideological divisions of American political life?
The most you can say for Schmitz and Douthat is that they are right to draw attention to our “populist” moment, a moment in which people are distrustful of inherited institutions and longing for change. It probably is true that the “neoliberal” consensus of the last few decades, if that’s really what it was, is unraveling. But that argument certainly can be made without juxtaposing Francis and Trump in such a distorting way. You can’t help but feel that their point was not to illuminate present conditions but to malign Francis. The pope certainly is not beyond criticism – far from it. It's just that whatever you deem his limitations and failings to be, you won't understand them by casting your gaze on the man who wants to Make America Great Again.
Let’s be honest: the only reason to compare anyone to Donald Trump is to make that person look as bad as possible. There is nothing you can learn about Pope Francis by contemplating the antics of Trump. Juxtaposing the two is an exercise in obfuscation and deception. It would be nice, to borrow a phrase from Douthat, if Schmitz and Douthat owned that.