Trump’s Language of Hate

Why Don’t Our Bishops Say Something?
President Donald Trump is seen at the White House in Washington July 4, 2020. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

Cardinal Dolan’s expression of admiration for Donald Trump during an interview on Fox & Friends suggests very unfortunate parallels to Europe in the 1930s.

If you pull up the interview on YouTube, you see quickly that the cardinal is worried about institutional survival. Because of the lockdown, he fears that money may run out to support Catholic schools, charities, and hospitals. It seems President Trump told the cardinal in a telephone call that financial relief might be on its way.

In 1933, Catholic leaders in Germany likewise worried about institutional survival, though the pressures were more political than financial: the state was totalitarian. The Church therefore came to an agreement with the Nazi regime, a “concordat,” meant to ensure space for the teaching of Catholic faith, especially to young people, as well as survival of hospitals and other Catholic institutions.

After that point, despite frequent harassment and the arrests of scores of priests, the Church assumed a loyal attitude toward the German state. Steeple bells rang when Germany annexed Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia in 1938; and they rang after the victory over France in 1940. In 1941, Catholic bishops in Germany called the genocidal attack on the Soviet Union a “crusade” and priests ministered to the troops as they drove toward Moscow on a backdrop of scorched Russian villages.

Today’s German bishops have issued a statement of remorse in regard to the behavior of their predecessors. They recognize that after the concordat the Church permitted itself to become ever more “entangled” with the state, and call for rethinking the relation of Church and state: it should be one of “critical coexistence” (Kritische Zeitgenossenschaft).

The situation in the United States is different in all regards from that of 1930s Germany except perhaps in these two: our president, like Germany’s Führer, flagrantly exhibits unbridled disdain for fellow human beings; and many in the Catholic flock hope to hear prophetic words on what to make of a hate-spewing leader. Among the differences between then and now, the most important one is that Nazi Germany was a terror state, and criticism of the regime caused Church officials to suffer arrest, and sometimes torture and death. By contrast, clerics in the United States can speak their mind without fear—unless one regards a presidential tweet as persecution.

 

Trump possesses a disdain directed against difference as such, focused with manic intensity on all who disagree with him.

For those who have been sensibly hibernating these past three years, perhaps a little documentation is in order. The president recently labeled peaceful protesters “thugs” and “scum”; he has called Bette Midler a “washed up psycho,” and “sick scammer”; Elijah Cummings a “brutal bully”; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “wack job”; Rosie O’Donnell a “fat pig” and a “slob”; Arianna Huffington a “dog”; Kirsten Gillibrand a “total flunky” and “lightweight”; Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough “crazy” and “psycho.” He said Brzezinski was Scarborough’s “very insecure long-time girlfriend” and “a neurotic and not very bright mess.” He accused former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of being “dumb” and “lazy as hell,” called former Attorney General Jeff Sessions “weak,” “mentally retarded,” a “dumb Southerner,” and an “idiot.”

Having taught European history for three decades, I believe such words of disdain are unprecedented in the public utterances of an elected leader. They go far beyond reasoned criticism to what one might call spiritual annihilation: the enemies have flaws so ugly that the speaker wishes they did not exist. Students of history have to go far to the extremes of right and left to find language so drenched in hatred, up to and beyond the crazy fringes, into the realms of Bolsheviks and, yes, fascists. Soviet and Nazi leaders did not shrink from the vilest ad hominem attacks, calling their enemies insects or vermin.

To be clear: President Trump is not Hitler. For the time being our institutions seem strong enough to prevent him from becoming a fascist, but this is the first time the language of a U.S. president has brought him into the company of totalitarian dictators.

Should people of faith be concerned? What might a prophetic voice of concern about a leader unable to suppress deeply rooted hatred sound like? As it happens, those earlier episodes have left us words of witness. The survivor Elie Wiesel concluded from his confrontations that even victims should not succumb: “Hatred destroys the one who is hated, but it also destroys the one who hates.” Leaders who hated dragged down states and peoples. Anger, Wiesel told Bill Moyers, “has some positive attributes to it, hate has none. Even hate of hate is dangerous.” Another witness of political hatred at close quarters, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had this to say: “Whoever despises human beings is despising that which God loved, and indeed, is despising the very form of the incarnate God.”

Mollie Wilson O’Reilly writes that it does not matter whether Trump is personally prejudiced against non-whites. He indisputably uses racism. But there is a consistency in his remarks that suggests he is not a simple cynic, like his nearest European equivalent, Viktor Orbán. What he possesses in copious measure is an ingredient that goes into the hardest alloys of racism—namely, a disdain directed against difference as such, focused with manic intensity on all who disagree with him.

 

To return to today’s German bishops: they are not saying that there should be no relations between the Church and state power. That is never possible. Rather, in light of historical experience, they tell us that even in the best of cases—for instance, a liberal state that accords full toleration of creeds—the divide and distinction between Church and state has to be clear, for the sake of the faith.

Yet if you review Cardinal Dolan’s YouTube interview, and the reporting on the cardinal’s telephone call with the president, what we have is evident chumminess between prelate and head of state. Trump complimented the cardinal in the telephone conversation, saying he was a “great gentleman” and a “great friend of mine.” The cardinal responded: “The feelings are mutual, sir.” The cardinal added that he spoke to the president more often than to his mother. In the interview—which the cardinal prefaced by saying he was honored to be a friend of Fox & Friends—he “saluted” Trump’s leadership.

What is a believer to conclude? In contrast to bishops in Nazi Germany, Cardinal Dolan can say what he likes with no fear of penalty. Must a cardinal give up his prophetic voice in exchange for state funding for schools, charities, and hospitals? In Nazi Germany a few priests, such as Bernhard Lichtenberg and Alfred Delp, raised the alarm. They became martyrs. The overwhelming majority adjusted to the Hitler regime and the churches, charities, and hospitals survived. But to many postwar Christians these institutions seemed hollow, more material than spiritual, ancient houses of worship nicely sand-blasted and renovated, yet sheltering shrinking congregations, adorned by crosses that symbolized nothing relevant. No aid Caesar can render should matter when those who lead us in prayer contemplate what they must say to the world.

John Connelly teaches the history of East Central Europe at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, 2020).

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