Hmm, let’s see here. . .Donald Trump, who appears poised to win his second Republican presidential primary, thinks Vladimir Putin is a “great leader,” admires the late Saddam Hussein for “killing terrorists” and is wowed by the “genius” and “toughness” of Kim Jong Ill, the mad dog oppressor of the North Korean people. On the other hand, the developer-turned-schlock TV character thinks Pope Francis I, defender of the poor and migrants, advocate of kindness and mercy, critic of wealth and privilege, is “disgraceful” and “a pawn” of corrupt political interests.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Everything, which also is what’s wrong with America’s politics in this tormented and chaotic electoral cycle.
Trump, as we must painfully recall, essentially announced his entry into the presidential race with nativist tirade against undocumented immigrants, singling out those from Mexico as “rapists” and thieves.” (We’ll pass, for the moment, on who cleans the rooms and makes the beds in Trump’s gaudy hotels, or tends the fairways and washes the dishes at his grotesquely lavish golf clubs.) The developer vowed to deport all the estimated 11 million immigrants without papers and to build a wall all along the U.S.-Mexican border, a barrier for he said he would compel Mexico to pay. Further down the road, he promised to exclude all Muslims from legally immigrating to America.
Pope Francis, who has made the needs of immigrants from North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America a moral centerpiece of his pontificate, ended his trip to Mexico this week by celebrating Mass in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso. In his homily, he repeated his frequent calls for justice on migrants’ behalf—and also for reforms in the corrupt and unjust economic systems in their home countries that force them to seek decent lives elsewhere. Earlier in the trip, Trump criticized the pontiff’s plans to celebrate Mass at the border, charging that Francis knows nothing of America’s immigration problems and that he was acting against American interests as part of a secret deal with the Mexican government.
Pope Francis: “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.”
During his traditional press conference flying back to Rome Thursday, a Reuters reporter put this series of questions to Francis: “Today you spoke a lot and eloquently about the problem of immigrants. On the other side of the border there is an electoral campaign that is rather hard. One of the candidates for the White House, Donald Trump, in a recent interview said that you are a political man, and indeed perhaps a pawn of the Mexican Government when it comes to the policy of immigration. He said that if he were elected president he would build a 2,500-km wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and, in that way separating families and so on. I would therefore like to ask, first of all, what you think of those charges against you, and if an American Catholic could vote for a person like this?”
The pope responded: “Thank God he said I am a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as an ‘animal politicus’ [a political animal]. So at least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to your judgement and that of the people. And then, 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 says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
The only way to characterize the pontiff’s response is erudite, good humored, principled, sober in his refusal to directly intervene in electoral politics and fair-minded in his characterization of Trump, since he had not heard the full context of the reported remarks.
Trump’s instantaneous “official” response was predictably ill-tempered, insulting and filled with the self-serving fantasies out of which he seems to construct the imagined world in which he lives a kind of “life as sales pitch.” This is the full text: “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened. ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians.”
Trump continued: “The Mexican government and its leadership has made many disparaging remarks about me to the Pope, because they want to continue to rip off the United States, both on trade and at the border, and they understand I am totally wise to them. The Pope only heard one side of the story – he didn’t see the crime, the drug trafficking and the negative economic impact the current policies have on the United States. He doesn’t see how Mexican leadership is outsmarting President Obama and our leadership in every aspect of negotiation.
“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” Trump added. “I am proud to be a Christian and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current President. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith. They are using the Pope as a pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing so, especially when so many lives are involved and when illegal immigration is so rampant.”
The Pope said of Trump: “Thank God he said I am a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as an ‘animal politicus’ [a political animal]. So at least I am a human person.
Trump’s spokespeople—who clearly attended his oh-yeah-so’s-your-mother academy of school yard invective—took to Twitter to point out the papal hypocrisy of living “behind high walls” in the Vatican. The Vatican is indeed surrounded by walls—most of which date from the 800’s and the newest from the 13th Century.
The question that this whole distasteful incident—simply the latest of a series in this campaign—should leave the serious minds among us to ask is: How could someone who behaves in this way become the frontrunner in one of the major party’s presidential selection process? It’s now a given that Trump is benefiting from a deep anger and hateful disaffection running through significant parts of the Republican base. In that sense, Trump is less a candidate than he is the political equivalent of a raised middle finger.
Using the vote to vent, though, always is a dangerous thing.
Do even Trump’s supporters—or most of them, at least—really want to put America’s government in the hands of a man who professes to admire the “qualities” of Putin, Saddam and Kim while disparaging those of Pope Francis?
What kind of country would be then?