Is the Pope the Anti-Trump?

ONE emerged from a crisis conclave, the other was elected after the strangest campaign in recent American history. Both have upended traditions and reached outside the usual channels to speak to the concerns of ordinary people. Donald J. Trump and Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the president and the pope, are the world’s most famous populists. But they are in conflict.

To grasp why Pope Francis has become the flag-bearer of the global anti-Trump resistance, consider his Feb. 17 appearance at a university campus in Rome, where one of the students who asked him a question was a Syrian woman, Nour Essa. The pope knew her well. Hers was one of three families, all Muslim, he had brought back with him on the return flight from his visit to a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. He has helped dozens of refugees make new lives in Italy. Two families live in the Vatican itself, whose high walls and fortress features are these days at odds with the border-dissolving pope within.

In the courtyard of the university, Roma Tre, where Ms. Essa has won a scholarship to study biology, she asked Francis to respond to Europeans who believe migrants threaten the continent’s Christian culture. Migration, he told her, is not a danger but a challenge, a spur to growth that has expanded Europe’s culture, not weakened it.

“When there is this welcoming, accompaniment, integration, there’s no danger with immigration,” he said. “A culture is received and another offered. This is my response to fear.”

The pope’s populism is not intended for popularity — a fickle thing, and anyhow, his soars far above any politician’s — but proximity. This is a pope who likes to come in close.
As Europe’s borders stiffen and nativist movements gain footholds in elections, such bold assertions of universal humanity, backed by action, have made Francis a bridge maker in an age of wall building. In part because he anticipated the current political crisis long before it happened, his Greek-chorus commentary on the upheavals matters.

“In moments of crisis, discernment doesn’t work,” he told the Spanish newspaper El País in January, around the time of Mr. Trump’s inauguration. “Discernment” is an important word for the pope; it is key to his Jesuit spirituality. He meant in this case the capacity to detect the “spiritual motions” — the presence of good and evil — in events. In times of crisis, that capacity disappears, and projection, scapegoating and hysteria take over. Francis gave the example of Hitler, pointing out that he was elected by his people and then destroyed them.

Populist politicians, the pope said, promise to “give us back our identity and defend us with walls, with wires.” In a letter to Modesto, Calif., community organizers in February, he deplored political leaders who rely on “fear, insecurity, quarrels and even people’s justified indignation, in order to shift the responsibility for all these ills on to a ‘non-neighbor.’ ”

Pope Francis and President Trump provide rich material for contrast. One is, notwithstanding his weaknesses, a spiritual leader of extraordinary maturity; the other, his strengths aside, is a thin-skinned, petulant narcissist. One is a celibate who lives in simplicity and austerity, embracing the disabled and the diseased; the other is a thrice-married germophobe who lived in a gaudy gold tower and mocks the feeble.

And yet: The world’s two most compelling populists have more in common than some might admit. Take, for example, their extraordinary capacity for connection, bypassing traditional methods; their defiance of convention, even their iconoclasm; or their delight in challenging existing elites on behalf of the people. Both seem energized by opposition, even if they respond to it differently — Mr. Trump by ranting and belittling his critics; Francis never directly, but gently, in pointed asides.

Politically, too, they share a beef with globalism. Both, in the broadest sense, are nationalists. When Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist, says the United States is “not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders” but rather “a nation with a culture and a reason for being,” he says nothing Francis has not expressed often.

The pope is no mere liberal. Born in Argentina, he was shaped by a movement of Catholic continental nationalism that saw social justice and economic sovereignty as key to a better future for Latin America. He grew up under and was unquestionably influenced by Peronism, a communal movement that in the 1940s and 1950s galvanized working-class and lower-middle-class support against the liberal establishment of the day, rooting its politics in the religious and nationalist values of ordinary Argentines. Although he later descended into autocracy, Juan Domingo Perón at his early best embodied what Francis sees as the purpose of statecraft: He created work, integrated the excluded (Perón gave women the vote), and built consensus around core values.

Throughout his papacy, Francis has criticized the lack of that higher purpose in the technocratic liberal administrations of Europe and the Americas that have dominated since the 1980s. He deplores the way political principles have been replaced by market logic and how governments have failed to defend the interests and values of ordinary people. Speaking to Jesuits in Rome last October, he lamented the loss of “big politics,” the craft of making unity out of diversity and creating what he calls a “culture of encounter,” a society that integrates everyone — rather than a “throwaway culture” in which the poor and the unwanted are cast off. Source The New York Times

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