Trump: The view from Rome

This article appears in the Transition to Trump feature series. View the full series.

Being away from Washington for five days, not reading The Washington Post first thing, and speaking with Italians and ex-pats, as well as other Americans in town for the consistory who came from other parts of the country, this was a good chance to think about the election of Donald Trump and what it means not just for the country but for the world. Those conversations led to two different perspectives which I have not yet been able to reconcile entirely.

On the one hand, America's leadership in the world is in flux in a way it has not been since the U.S. Senate debated the League of Nations treaty, finally rejecting it in 1920. Then, as now, America stood for a set of ideals as much as it did for a geographic location, those ideals articulated most clearly in President Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points." Only in the aftermath of World War II did America assume the mantle of world leadership through a variety of treaties and alliances from Bretton Woods to NATO to the United Nations.

No one knows what to expect from Donald Trump, but they remember him disparaging the importance of NATO, and they remember his trading compliments with Vladimir Putin. You can imagine this did not sit well with our friends in Ukraine and the Baltic States, and of all the people I met, it was a priest from Lithuania who seemed the most alarmed at what could happen.

"How?" he said dejectedly. To a number, everyone I talked to about the situation in Eastern Europe was agreed that they expect Putin to move to restrict, if not obliterate, the sovereignty of some of his neighbors and that Trump would look the other way. I could not help wondering if the Clinton campaign had even thought to take out ads in the foreign language newspapers that can still be found in parts of the Midwest focusing on this threat.

Among the ex-pats, there was deep concern about whom Trump would nominate to assist him in leading the government. People are rightly concerned that Steve Bannon, formerly of Breitbart News, would be playing such a central role in the administration. We Catholics have our own concerns about Mr. Bannon, whose comments about the Catholic church were far worse than anything found in the emails of John Podesta by Wikileaks. It seems like the early speculation that Rudy Giuliani would be named secretary of state has faded, bringing relief to many.

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The funniest story I heard was from an American currently teaching in France: He recalled that the late great Jimmy Breslin once described Giuliani as "a little man in search of a balcony."

There was concern, especially among more progressive Catholics and Vatican officials about the effects of Trump's election on the pressing, clamant need to combat climate change. Here we can expect no good news for four years, and many scientists warn us that four years can set back efforts to heal the planet in ways that are difficult to calculate but which are overwhelmingly negative. Climate change, like the federal debt, is not something you can fix overnight; the key is to get the trend lines moving in the right direction. We can anticipate that both sets of trend lines will be going in the wrong direction for the next four years and that a future president will be starting to fix the problems from a worse point than where we are now.

There was widespread disagreement about the degree to which nationalism played a role in Trump's election. This is key: The answer to the question tells us not only about Trump, but, even more, about the people who elected him. American nationalism has always been made less obnoxious by our demographic history and present: Whatever it means to be an American, it has never been too closely tied to bloodlines. Yet a nativist has won the presidency. I am inclined to think that the prospect of right-wing nationalism becoming a dominant force in our political life remains less a threat than in, say, France or Britain. We are simply too varied. Here may be the first backlash Trump faces if he pursues mass deportations. It was comforting to find the U.S. prelates in Rome and in Baltimore last week more or less united in the conviction that the Catholic church must defend immigrants, the debate being mostly about how to do that. Some bishops and other Catholic leaders think they need to send a warning shot to Trump, not only to put him on notice, but to make sure that our Latino Catholics know the church is going to stand with them. Others think it wiser to wait for Trump to make a mistake. My worry is that there will be slow drip of increasingly hostile policy changes that has the effect of normalizing deportation: First he goes after "the criminals," highlights those few immigrants who have committed a heinous crime, and subsequently tars an ever larger group of immigrants with the label of criminality. Nationalism in the U.S. is, presently, different and less dark than in Europe, but that does not mean it will be that way forever.

Those of us who believe significant structural and moral changes are needed in the economy are in for a bad four years. The core problems of inequality and a lack of moral sensibility in economic policy making are likely to get worse. Already, British Prime Minister Theresa May promised the U.K. would not be underbid when it comes to corporate tax rates, raising the prospect of a race to the bottom in setting low tax rates for those who need them the least. Like climate change, needed change is not only deferred, but the change will be more painful when it comes because of the additional harm we can expect in the next four years as a White House committed to crony capitalism directs economic policy.

All in all, a grim picture, uncertainty and fear mixed together, demanding moral fortitude and resistance.

The other dominant impression I had, which contradicts this uncertainty and fear, first dawned on me when walking along the Tiber and thinking of all the changes in human governance that this ancient city of Rome had witnessed. At the Pantheon, the altars to the Blessed Virgin and the martyrs competed for architectural attention with the massive tombs of Kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto: Italian nationalism and Catholicism were once at each other's throats, but they worked it out eventually. Later, standing in the Vatican museum and looking at a massive tapestry of the murder of Julius Caesar, I was reminded that republics can be lost, and lost for a good long time, but you have to wonder what difference that loss made to the lives of common people. The impression is that while we are right to focus on the political life of our nation, and right, too, to entertain fears about the damage that Trump can do, there is an appropriate equanimity about changes in human affairs that we cannot forget.

That equanimity is, for us Catholics, reinforced by the belief that we celebrated on Sunday's feast: It is Jesus Christ in whom everything was created and in whom all will be reconciled, and there is not, pardon the expression, a damned thing the ferociously secular Donald Trump can do about it. Especially in the Gospel, in which Dismas' contrition paves his way to the kingdom, we see how different the reign of Christ is from the self-assertion of Trump, and not only Trump.

The election results were an indictment of U.S. culture. Who better than Pope Francis and the Catholic church to point to an alternative vision, one that cares for the environment and the poor, one which pursues dialogue relentlessly and avoids war with concrete acts of reconciliation, one that reminds us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, one that seeks to insinuate mercy into the administration of justice and gratuitousness into the workings of the economy.

These two differing perspectives are inherent in the life of a Christian. They are not in conflict but are always in tension, and those tensions will work themselves out in specific, historically conditioned moments. We are called to be morally astute, which leads in the case of Trump to an oppositional stance. And, we are called to spiritual equanimity despite the challenges the Trump years will pose.

Whatever else happens in the next four years, we know that American culture needs the Gospel now more than ever, and that the fears we hold must be combated with that equanimity that comes from faith. Not the neo-con Jansenist gospel that has distorted perceptions of the Catholic faith in the public square for too long, but the real Gospel, the one that is good news to the poor. The church can never be first and foremost a political actor, but I expect the opposition to Trump will come, quickly and forcefully, from the church, both from its leaders and from the people in the pews. That expectation is a little less certain than the hope that animates it: There will be some cranky culture warrior bishops who cling to Trump and excuse his destructive policies. But, by and large, the bishops and lay Catholics I met, while not spoiling for a fight, are not afraid of one either. Neither am I.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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