Opinion

Francis and Trump: competing for American soul

Francis and Trump: competing for American soul

By John Thatamanil

November 8 2015Donald Trump and Pope Francis are incarnations of the kind of power to which they appeal. To choose between them is to make a basic human decision about the shape of a worthy life, argues John Thatamanil.

The two most popular figures in American life in recent weeks are polar opposites: Pope Francis and Donald Trump.

Trump is a favourite candidate of white nationalists and xenophobes. The Pope, by contrast, speaks tirelessly on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, immigrants and the planet – “our common home”.

The Pope points away from himself and to the needs of others. Trump constantly points to himself. Trump has no platform save Trump. His core message is, “I am great. I will make the nation over in my own image, and so it too will be great again.”

Given their utter dissimilarity, why do both command such outsized attention and devotion? Why do both inspire when they have so little in common?

The answer: each has a peculiar and compelling power. The power of Francis rests in his appeal to vulnerability. The power of Trump rests in his appeal to invulnerability. Those who appeal to the power of vulnerability build bridges. Those who appeal to invulnerability build walls. Those who embrace vulnerability thrive on connection; those threatened by it retreat into isolation.

Each person is an incarnation of the kind of power to which they appeal. They are ideal types. To choose between them is to make a basic human decision about the shape and texture of a worthy life.

The Pope wins adulation because in him we see the “better angels of our nature.” There is something in us that knows that we are only as grand, as capacious in spirit, as the range of our care. A smallish heart is a truncation of our innate capacities. Because he believes that there is no structural limit to how far our concern can reach, Francis calls us to deepen our sensitivity until we hear the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth itself. He invites us to become more vulnerable not less.

Great risk comes with vulnerability. When we extend the reach of our care, we become acutely sensitive to the suffering of all those for whom we care. Such sensitivity can overwhelm. That is why we often shrink ourselves to manageable size. We diminish ourselves to manage vulnerability and erect hard shells in order to secure ourselves against real or perceived threats.

And that, of course, is Trump’s appeal. To those who feel vulnerable and so prone to fear and threat, he offers the temptation of isolation and the lie of invulnerability. He will make America “strong again” by closing our borders to the Mexican and Muslim other, to the economic power of China, and by denigrating women who fail to recognize their true place. Cue Megyn Kelly. Neither Latinos nor the Black Lives Matter movement matters. His core appeal is to white male supremacy. Unsurprisingly, white power groups hear his message loud and clear.

Francis consoles the marginalized with extraordinary deeds of care and mercy; he calls on all to care for the vulnerable. But he promises no escape from vulnerability. Rather, Francis invites us to be vulnerable together. That is what love is: the work of learning how to be vulnerable in communion. Because there is no escape from vulnerability for finite and fragile creatures, he invites us into solidarity and mutual care. He reminds us that we need each other to create the common good. We must flourish and find dignity together or not at all.

Trump, by contrast, promises Americans that they can secure their national good at the expense of others. For him, the way to counter feelings of precariousness and vulnerability is by aggression. And that is the open secret to Trump’s personality. His routine recourse to bullying, intimidation, braggadocio and insult – his constant demeaning of others – demonstrates that he lacks a secure sense of self. He is a shell of a man who feels deeply threatened and so must compensate by constantly puffing himself up in order to prove to others – and most especially to himself – that he matters, that he is powerful, that he is a person of stature and influence.

Papa Francis, on the other hand, reminds us that we can bear the risk and pain that come with increased sensitivity to others. We will not be crushed. Or perhaps it would be better to say that Francis appeals to Christian tradition to remind us that even if we are crushed, we will have found our true worth and greatness by having found our true selves. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

Francis and Trump represent two irreconcilable solutions to the basic human problem of vulnerability. Francis counsels us to embrace it as our common lot. Trump invites us to escape it.

In the course of our daily lives, we oscillate between both options. Sometimes we embrace vulnerability and sometimes flee from it. Each of us is Francis and Trump in rough admixture. In moments of frailty, even in our most Francis-like moments, we are terrified by how much we’ve let our guard down and so retreat to Trump-like wall building. The price we pay for such fear-filled retreats, in both personal and public life, is exorbitant.

As we take stock of Francis’s visit to America, we would do well to realize why so many of us are moved to tears by this man: we see in him an embodiment of what we most hope to become. We must strive to let the spirit of Francis grow in our hearts and in public life and invite our inner Trump to fade away – as we hope Donald Trump himself soon will.

John Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary, New York. He is the author of The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament. This article first appeared on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics online journal. Click here.