Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.

Ross Douthat: Trump, Pope Francis employ ‘say what?’ moments

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The Book of Daniel predicted it. The Book of Revelation confirmed it. The Necronomicon spelled it out in language too terrible for human ears to hear. And if you read “The Art of the Deal” backward in the original Sanskrit, you’ll find it foretold there as well: Before the seventh seal is opened, before Famine and Pestilence are loosed, the Man in White must do battle with the Combed-Over Titan, amid the ravening shrieks of Twitter and beneath the unblinking eye of Cable News.

Or, for the less mystically inclined: It was only a matter of time before Pope Francis tangled with Donald Trump.

Their war of words came about the way you would expect. It began with a rambling news conference on the papal plane, where Francis suggested that Trump (or at least his zeal for an amazing border wall) “is not Christian.” It escalated with a rambling news release from the mogul turned presidential candidate, which Trump-splained to the pope that only a Trump administration can protect the Vatican from ISIS.

Then came the inevitable downplaying from Vatican officials, the inevitable turnabout from Trump (“the Pope is a wonderful guy,” he told CNN), the inevitable debates about whether the Vatican’s own walls are un-Christian, whether Protestant voters in the South Carolina primary are still suspicious of popery, and more.

The obvious drama of the collision lay in the contrasts between the two men: The celibate and the lecher, the ascetic and the billionaire, the mystic and the frank materialist. But their similarities are also fascinating. For all the ways in which Francis and Trump differ, as figures on the global stage they are also strangely alike – in the forces that they are channeling, their style of public salesmanship, and their relationship to the institutions they either head or aspire to lead.

This resemblance begins, as Matthew Schmitz pointed out in The Washington Post, with their status as “outsiders bent on shaking up their establishments,” which they (and many others) deem sclerotic and corrupt. When Trump attacks Republican elites and breaks with party orthodoxy on trade or foreign policy or campaign finance, Schmitz noted, he is mirroring the way that Francis “challenges a hidebound Vatican bureaucracy and flirts with revising settled Catholic doctrine.” Both messages appeal to the same exhaustion with institutions, the same desire to somehow “make a mess” (as Francis likes to put it) and start anew.

This mirroring extends to their rhetoric, where both men have a fondness for, well, name-calling that is rare among presidential candidates and popes. The insults differ: Trump calls people “low energy,” “liar” and “loser,” while Francis prefers “Pharisee” and “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian” (though he is not above “whiner” and “sourpuss” as well). But their pungent language reflects a shared mastery of the contemporary media environment, in which controversy and unpredictability are the great currencies, and having people constantly asking “Did he really just say that?” is the surest ticket to the world’s attention.

The public style that produces these “say what?” moments can get them both into a kind of trouble.

But the billionaire and the pontiff both seem to believe – on some evidence – that a little troublemaking is the best way to make the disaffected pay attention.

And by reaching people who usually tune out churchmen and politicians, they have become leading populists in our increasingly populist moment.

The popular constituencies they speak for are very different, of course.

Trump is a nationalist, speaking on behalf of the unhappy Western working class, while Francis is a Latin American and a globalist, speaking for the developing world’s poor – which is why immigration policy naturally puts them at loggerheads.

But they nonetheless share a common enemy: Not just specific guardians of business as usual, whether Catholic or Republican, but the wider Western ruling class. Whether it is the Donald attacking “the very, very stupid people” making policy in the United States, or Francis deploring the greed and self-interest of rich nations and wealthy corporations, the pope and the mogul are now leading critics of the neoliberalism that has governed the West for a generation or more.

But for now, the last thing they have in common in this: Everything that makes them interesting makes them dangerous as well.