Acton Commentary

Pope Francis, Donald Trump and the Problem of Populism

After first broaching the subject of the populism of Pope Francis and Donald Trump last September, I admit to being provocative, perhaps excessively so. Then the pope and Trump engaged in a controversy over building walls, with Trump initially taking exception to having his religious faith questioned. “Who is the pope to judge?” he may have asked. Well… the Christian humility of the one and the (especially Protestant) American bravado of the other were quite evident.

Both sides eventually backed down, but neither seems to have lost much public support or suffered any significant diminishment of his ability to inspire supporters as a result of this brief skirmish. Does this not prove Trump and Francis are populists, each with a reputation of defending the “common man” against entrenched special interests? What would happen when these populisms collide at the first Francis-Trump summit? We may shudder at the thought, but if Catholicism and strident nationalism are indeed so opposed, we may be left waiting for another St. Augustine to resolve the tensions between the City of God and the City of Man.

Augustine wrestled with the question of whether Christians can be good citizens and turned his attention to the vices of pagan Rome rather than trying to detail how Christians ought to practice politics. The example of the recently-deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would seem to follow suit. A traditionalist in belief and practice, he rejected any sort of “Catholic” interpretation of the law and went so far as to deny the importance of natural law for judges. For Scalia, there was no contradiction between the US Constitution and Catholic morality, even in cases such as the death penalty, which he addressed in a First Things essay, “God’s Justice and Ours”. If he thought the Catholic Church demanded the abolition of capital punishment, he would have to recuse himself from such cases or resign in protest, but he would not pervert the law to fit his moral preferences.

Justice Scalia often deferred to the will of the American people as expressed by their representatives, but he was no populist. He was a Constitutionalist and a proponent of the rule of law who defended what Harvey Mansfield called “the forms and formalities of liberty”, i.e. the institutions and practices that, in Tocqueville’s words, democratic peoples are most in need of but have the least respect for. We are today even more impatient with the democratic process of deliberation and compromise, a.k.a. “gridlock,” that our system was specifically designed to encourage.

Forms and formalities are opposed by those who want to achieve popular ends without the trouble of having to convince others of the rightness of their views; populism is therefore a form of tyranny, as the history of failed republics proves. The framers of the Constitution warn us, in Federalist Paper n. 1 that “the greatest number of [despots] have begun their career by paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants”; the Constitution is the political form meant to “refine and enlarge” public opinion through an system of checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government.

Such refinement is, of course, elitist, but so are elections. It requires patience, a virtue that we often lack due to the progress that liberal societies have already achieved in a relatively short amount of time. (I use the world “liberal” in the European sense, not the American which is closer to progressivism than liberalism as it was originally understood.) Progressives especially have become increasingly impatient to achieve “proportional” results in all areas of society and seek to impose their preferences regardless of differences in sex, race, ability or other evident obstacles. Such is the “inevitable” nature of progress.

But if society is already progressing towards even greater equality, why does it need to be imposed? Populists say the “system” is controlled by lobbyists or others who wish to deny privilege to outsiders. What is therefore needed is a strong, charismatic leader, himself a member of the elite, to overcome such resistance. He becomes a traitor to his fellow elitists in the process.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. It is the common core of socialism, communism, fascism and Nazism, all of which stood opposed to the forms and formalities of “bourgeois” liberal democracy in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even with the Allied victory in World War II and the end of the Cold War, liberalism remains a fragile thing in the face of populism at home and abroad. So the question is: Who now will speak on behalf of a decent liberal regime?

As different as they are, Pope Francis and Donald Trump are populists who are thriving on the widespread dissatisfaction with our religious and political institutions. Rather than subvert or further weaken those institutions, they really should be reinforcing them and thereby educating their adoring masses. Perhaps they still can, but they would have to tone down the very rhetoric that has made them so popular, a hard trick to pull off in the age of Twitter and around-the-clock news. I, for one, am hoping and praying that the pope or the president can find the wisdom and courage to do so.