The movement that propelled Donald Trump into the White House is not isolated to the United States. It is a global phenomenon. All over the West, a populist backlash is brewing against the elites of society. And that backlash all too often takes the shape of authoritarianism and ethnonationalism.
If so much weren’t at stake in this matchup between these two warring factions, I’d be tempted to reprise Henry Kissinger’s infamous phrase about the Iran-Iraq War: “It’s a pity both sides can’t lose.” The global elite has been on an extended vision quest up its own derrière. It has been responsible for countless dramatic failures, and still seems unable to question itself and its own failed paradigms. At the same time, the special mix of fear mongering, incompetence, and corruption that the Trumps and and Nigel Farages and Marine Le Pens of the world promote is just as bad, if not worse.
Which is why we desperately need a world leader who can articulate a vision of what’s true, good, and beautiful, and can serve as an alternative to Trumpism. And there’s a man who’s made for the role: Pope Francis.
In many ways, these two men are perfect foils for each other; if Trump is a right-wing populist, I don’t think it would be an insult to call Pope Francis a left-wing populist. He has little time for elites, is constantly berating “clericalism” in the church, likes to skewer ideological opponents with bon mots, and fancies himself an advocate of the little guy. While Francis dutifully restates the complex social theology of the church, the issues he has chosen to champion are associated with the progressive left: greater acceptance of divorce, solidarity with migrants, business-bashing, and environmental protection.
But here lies the peril within the promise of Pope Francis as the anti-Trump: Antagonists drawn into a conflict with one another can quickly become indistinguishable.
Francis has a priceless opportunity to use his megaphone to promote a happy and healthy populism, one that recognizes the countless failures of contemporary society, without turning anyone into scapegoats.
But he seems to have a public relations problem. Catholic social doctrine is bigger than any party and ideology, and includes elements that please (and anger) both the left and the right. Francis does try to see “both sides” of a situation, but has become a darling of the left with a communications style that makes progressive points in ways designed to capture attention. And he does so at the expense of his larger conservative message, which becomes more of an afterthought.
When Francis snidely and passive-aggressively attacks Trump by proclaiming that people who “build walls” cannot be “Christians” — a statement as vacuous as “Make America Great Again” — he is sinking to Trump’s level, and embarrassing himself in the process. Francis is absolutely right to remind Christians, and all people of goodwill, of the moral imperative of solidarity with the stranger. But his suggestion that the only motives anyone could possibly have for skepticism towards large movements of foreigners over borders are bigotry or heartlessness turn him into the caricature of the insufferable empty-headed do-gooder, just as Trump long ago turned himself into a caricature of something even uglier. With regard to those tempted by the darker sides of populism, Francis’ goal should be conversion, not harangue.
Yes, Catholic social doctrine repeatedly emphasizes that nations should be generous in their immigration policy, but it also unambiguously states that nations have the right to secure their borders and to preserve their cultural and national identity when shaping immigration policy. When Francis talks about immigration, he dutifully includes the latter points, but they’re buried. And amid his countless photo-ops with migrants, is it any wonder those important points are overlooked? This strategy is deliberate. It allows him to flatter progressive prejudices while his supporters can, at the same time, tut-tut conservative Catholics by pointing to the incidental points and say “See? He’s also saying the stuff you like, so stop complaining,” and then use them as punching bags for supposedly not sharing Francis’ big-hearted generosity. But this is disingenuous, and popes should not talk out of both sides of their mouths.
This cheapens Francis’ — and the church’s — message. There is a fine line to walk, especially in the era of social media, between engaging in the kinds of grand symbolic gestures and phrases that make history, and becoming an avatar of a politics of dumb tweets and snappable photo-ops. Nobody can get it right every time, but Francis has tended to err too much on the side of the latter.
With his popularity and his PR instincts, Francis can become the anti-Trump voice the world needs. But he needs to remind himself not to sink to Trump’s level.