IF THE battle to become the Republican presidential candidate long ago descended into a reality TV show – with the loudest, brashest, most orange contestant escaping eviction because viewers want to see what stunt he’ll pull next – then the Pope must surely be the surprise guest brought in to rock the boat, to stir things up, to see if they can push the volatile frontrunner to commit an act so extreme even loyal fans will deem it unacceptable.
And it very nearly worked. When the Pontiff lobbed his verbal grenade – suggesting a man who wanted to build walls and not bridges “was not Christian” – Trump responded with his customary self-restraint, insisting that if and when the Vatican was bombed by Isis (and he seemed to be rooting for when), Pope Francis would “only have wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.”
It is symptomatic of the anarchy that has engulfed the GOP race/Big Brother House that days later, instead of watching his best bits with Davina McCall, we were still debating where the loyalties of US’s 70 million Catholics lie – with a right-wing misogynist or the leader of the Catholic Church (boom boom) – and realising that, despite everything, the toupeed wonder could still clinch the prize.
If I’d been betting on a Trump vs Pontifex clash, I’d have gone with the man in white, on the grounds of his moral stature and devoted followers, but we have entered into an alternative universe where rounded human beings have been replaced with wacky caricatures, diplomacy has been ceded to slanging matches and no-one seems to know who’s fighting in God’s corner. It is a topsy-turvy world in which Trump and his rival, Ted Cruz, argue over who is most fervently anti-abortion, while the Pope says the rules around the use of contraception should be relaxed for those at risk from the Zika virus. No wonder normally incisive political pundits have lost their bearings and been reduced to spluttering “What just happened?” in the place of nuanced analysis.
At any other time in history, Trump’s erratic, unstatesmanlike behaviour would have seen him ruled out as a candidate, but this is the age of the maverick outsider – the Farages, the Corbyns, and the Sanders – and workable policies are no substitute for populist rhetoric and the playground taunt.
Trump’s Isis outburst and his subsequent tweet about the wall around Vatican City, which is medieval and incomplete, had no wit, no subtlety, no class and no basis in fact, but they appealed to his constituents – the type of humourless ultra-conservatives who view the Pope as a dangerous Marxist and want him to butt out of American affairs. They may well have added to the perception of Trump as a tough guy willing to stand up to the world’s great leaders, although implying you’d greet their death by terrorism with chants of “I told you so” is hardly the plus non ultra of international relations.
The Pope – who can also be tactlessly forthright – has not fared too badly out of his mid-air musings either. Since taking over from his predecessor, he has built up a reputation as a man of the poor, the hungry and the dispossessed, frequently speaking out about the plight of refugees and urging governments and individuals to treat them with compassion. But with Spotlight, a film about journalists investigating paedophile priests in Boston, currently making headlines, the Church’s image, and by association his, was in need of a bit of a lift. And the Pontiff’s comments will have played well with all those who have watched in disbelief as the Trump bandwagon has gathered momentum.
According to the New York Times, the country’s Catholics are split between the fundamentalists who see the Pope as an “agenda-driven liberal” and left-wingers who regard him as a hero; both groups have had their opinion validated by recent events. As with most things, however, the Pope’s radicalism is relative. Next to Pope Benedict, he may appear to be a great reformer; next to Trump, he’s a champion of the vulnerable; but exposed to serious scrutiny any claim to real progressiveness crumbles.
Sure he dislikes unfettered wealth, hence his desire to tackle corruption in the Vatican, and he may have signalled his intention to change the rules so the divorced can continue to take communion and priests can marry. But on other issues – women, gay relationships, reproductive health – he sends out mixed messages.
Only within the Catholic Church could his latest pronouncement about the use of contraception in Zika-infected areas be seen as a great advance. The Pope, like Trump, remains implacably opposed to abortion, which he calls an absolute evil.
If the pair share some narrow beliefs, they are nevertheless polar opposites when it comes to human relations, Trump bereft of empathy, the Pope reaching out to all those in despair. You could no sooner imagine Pope Francis talking of a wall to keep out immigrants than you could imagine Trump manning a food bank.
Despite their differences, they seem to have realised that protracted hostilities are not ideal, and come off their high horses. The Pope has stressed he didn’t intend a “personal attack” and Trump has said: “I like his personality.”
Of course, Barack Obama has warned the presidency is not a reality TV show. “It’s not promotion, it’s not marketing, it’s hard,” he said. But Trump isn’t listening. And his global audience can only watch fearfully through the cracks between their fingers and wonder what outlandish ruse will fail to derail him next. «