Editorial: The gulf between Francis and Trump

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by NCR Editorial Staff

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Pope Francis and Donald Trump.

As unlikely as it is that these two men might share mention in the simplest of sentences except to demonstrate polar opposites, the case can be made that they were the two most electrifying personas to stir the U.S. public in the past year. It is safe to say that Francis was the only figure who could have supplanted (and did supplant) Trump for six days in September as an object of national fascination.

The two, side by side, and the swells of public support they inspire, are as good an illustration as any of the deep, competing perspectives at work attempting to shape 21st-century American culture. And perhaps the image also is as good an explanation as any of this very strange year in American politics.

Trump is utterly self-absorbed, bombastic, crude and unconcerned about appearing offensive toward minorities, religious groups and ethnicities. He would wall off the United States, ban Muslims and "bomb the hell out of" U.S. enemies. His idea of strength and power is inextricably tied to the use of force and the manipulation of the other to his desires and purposes.

He speaks only in transactional terms -- relationships either have value because of their worth to him or they are worthless. "Good people," in his universe, are those useful to himself. He has set the tone for this year's politics. He is the sensation against which all others are currently being measured and assessed.

Francis drew millions along the route of his visit by preaching humility, as well as mercy and forgiveness without end or expectation of reward. His idea of power is rooted in what Trump (and many others) would perceive as foolish powerlessness. His constituencies are the poor, those cast aside by society, and migrants seeking safety, security, work, a new life.

Francis speaks of encounter with others and transformation. He comes from that world outside that Trump wants to keep at bay. He speaks of the other's inherent worth and dignity. He personifies tolerance and passionately opposes war; he has worked in extravagant ways to protect the Earth, "our common home," and seeks a global economy that is more equitable and less deadly to those without the means to participate.

One can only hope that his message and the effect of his U.S. visit have far deeper and more lasting resonance in the population than the noise of candidate Trump.

Most of us, political candidates included, are situated somewhere in the wide gulf between what these two personalities signify. This is an election cycle when most are unlikely to be dazzled by any of the choices on either side of the aisle.

That the same country -- and some of the same people -- could find both Trump and Francis inspirational is at first mystifying. However, the case might be argued that their appeal emanates from the same source: an engagement with our deepest fears and frustrations as individuals and as a culture.

We are politically at sea. As a group of Washington Post reporters noted in a recent and masterful analysis of the politics of 2015, what once worked no longer does: "Television advertising moved few voters. Policy rollouts fell on deaf ears. Impressive political résumés proved not to be persuasive. What took on the Republican side was a new kind of politics, one built on emotion and visceral connection."

Trump is riding a thermal created by a general anger and disgust with politics and "big government." Disdain for "political correctness" has provided unlimited cover for language and attitudes that once would have rendered a candidate unacceptable across all boundaries, save for the most extreme.

The extremes, however, have gotten a firm toehold during an era in which politics has become crimped and narrowed, gerrymandered to the point where officeholders need not worry about contending with those who disagree. Politicians win elections. They get little done.

The contribution of religion, other than distorting its better purposes, has been of minimal consequence. It is applied like a thin glaze of gilt to give unremarkable positions, even some quite at odds with most major religious traditions, a sheen of respectability.

Our own bishops, corporately, have offered little difference from the contemporary political culture. Their uncompromising obsession with a few issues has painted them into the same corner of self-interested paralysis as that of the political system itself.

The temptation, in a political year roiled by the likes of candidate Trump, is to see it as a one-off, and to lunge at possible explanations. The pressure that has elevated his candidacy has been building for some time.

How the country as a whole -- and we do well to remember that as a whole the country twice elected a black man with an unusual name to lead us -- resolves the free-range anger flying about this election cycle remains to be seen.

Francis won't be on the ballot, but the longer-term answer to this season's anxiety resides in his reading of how religion should react with the culture -- a far more radical understanding of that relationship than we hear from the political stump. In practical terms, it means applying a more generous notion of the common good than we've entertained in recent decades.

A version of this story appeared in the Jan 15-28, 2016 print issue under the headline: The gulf between Francis and Trump.

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