Some things are inevitable:
In his most audacious attack yet on a revered public figure, Donald J. Trump veered into risky political territory on Thursday as he denounced Pope Francis, seeking to galvanize Republicans who worry about border security and appeal to evangelical voters who regard Francis as too liberal.
Following the pontiff’s remarkable contention that Mr. Trump “is not Christian” in proposing deportations and a wall with Mexico, the candidate said Francis’s criticisms were “disgraceful” and “unbelievable,” and charged that the Mexican government had hoodwinked the pope into criticizing him.
Politicians rarely rebuke the Vatican so forcefully for fear of alienating Catholic voters, but Mr. Trump has been increasingly aggressive ahead of Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, where polls show a tightening race and the popular Republican governor, Nikki R. Haley, just endorsed Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Simon Maloy at Salon points out there’s a bit more to this:
Now, to be clear, Pope Francis kind of brought this on himself. While on a visit to Mexico, the pope was asked about Trump’s draconian immigration proposals – mass deportations, removal of American citizens who are children of undocumented immigrants, and the construction of a massive border wall. The Pope responded in a very pope-ish fashion. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the pontiff said.
There are a few ways to interpret this response. He was speaking vaguely and in metaphors, and so it’s possible – likely, even – that he was simply expanding the scope of the question to reinforce a broader message of Christian morality. But, then again, he was asked specifically about Trump, and his response was about “a person” who wants to build a wall and thus “is not Christian.” Whatever the case, Trump does not deal in subtlety and nuance.
Maloy understands that:
I suppose it was inevitable that something like this would happen. Here we are, just a couple of days from the South Carolina primary, and front-running Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is locked in an epic battle with the pope. He’s grown tired of the puny political adversaries who can hardly dent his lead in the polls and is itching for a larger fight. Ted Cruz? He’s a distraction. Marco Rubio? Hardly worth a press release. Trump wants to crush the Vatican beneath his very expensive, very classy wingtips. He wants to scale the mountain, reach high towards the heavens, and extend a stubby middle finger at God.
And this was, as Trump saw it, a direct attack, but Maloy wonders about that:
If that’s the interpretation we’re going with, though, I’m not entirely sure why the pope’s critique is being viewed as purely about Trump. Yes, it came in response to a question about Trump’s plan to build a border wall, but pretty much every one of Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination also wants to throw up some sort of wall-like structure on our frontier with Mexico. At the Reagan Library debate last September, Marco Rubio said the first step towards immigration reform is “we must secure our border, the physical border, with – with a wall, absolutely.” Ted Cruz says all the time that “we’re going to build a wall” and jokes that he’s going to get Trump to build it for him. Ben Carson thinks “the border wall is a good start” but is also open to other security measures, like drone strikes along the border.
So there’s lots of enthusiasm for wall-building on the Republican side. It’s basically been the conservative position on immigration since forever. So if we’re going to go with the “Pope questioned Trump’s Christianity” interpretation, then we have to expand that out to pretty much every Christian in the Republican Party, which is a lot of people. That’s why you’re seeing Republicans like Rubio and Jeb Bush – Catholics both – pushing back against the pope’s statement, even though it’s being widely interpreted as an attack on their chief rival for the GOP nomination. The way they see it, the pope didn’t attack Trump, he attacked a key policy platform of the party.
Well, yes, he did, but the New York Times suggests the Pope only helped Trump:
Mr. Trump’s attack on Francis reflected a political calculation that criticizing the pope would not hurt him with conservatives, and might even improve his standing in South Carolina and in the Southern-dominated Super Tuesday contests on March 1. Some evangelical denominations in the South and elsewhere take a dim view of the Catholic Church, and many other social conservatives have been critical of Francis over his relatively measured statements about gays, birth control and divorce.
That dim view of the Catholic Church is a Southern thing. After the Civil War the Klan was lynching black folks, but by 1915 it was mainly anti-Catholic – a white Protestant nativist terror organization that had moved beyond worrying about niggers – so Trump ripping into the Pope would naturally play well in South Carolina. The Times, however, looks at the present:
Attacking the pope could energize conservatives who think that Mr. Trump will go to greater lengths to halt illegal immigration than establishment politicians and power brokers like the Holy See, according to political strategists in both parties.
Still, the spectacle of the flamboyant billionaire businessman facing down the global leader of 1.2 billion Catholics was the presidential campaign’s most revealing example of Mr. Trump’s emotional instinct to make punching bags of those who cross him, whether it is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the leaders of longtime allies like Mexico, or the bishop of Rome.
Yeah, he does that, and it worries people:
In recent weeks Mr. Trump has praised President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Saddam Hussein of Iraq while denouncing Democrats, Republicans and now Pope Francis with his provocative language reinforcing fears in both parties that a President Trump would destabilize the United States.
“Mr. Trump now adds Pope Francis to his list of people who, after having a policy disagreement, he insults and slurs,” said Russ Schriefer, a veteran Republican strategist and a senior adviser on the presidential campaign of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who dropped out of the Republican race last week.
Asked if Mr. Trump’s comments would affect the South Carolina primary’s outcome, Mr. Schriefer replied, “It may not be reflected in the vote Saturday, but it continues to put his judgment and temperament in question.”
There is that, and heavily Catholic states like New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania – big states with primaries coming up. If working-class white voters are a core part of his electoral base, those folks up there are a problem – they don’t have warm fuzzy feelings about the Ku Klux Klan. They don’t think about the Klan at all, but Trump may be safe for now, down South:
Likely voters, including many evangelicals, are fully aware of Mr. Trump’s history of harsh language and profanity, as well as some of his controversial statements involving religion, including that he has never asked God for forgiveness and would seek to bar Muslims from entering the nation temporarily as a counterterrorism measure.
“A lot of Southern evangelicals have looked hard at Trump and said, ‘I wish he wasn’t potty-mouthed, I wish he wasn’t thrice-married, but I believe he is going to fight for my Christian way of life, and having a strong fighter is important,” said Scott H. Huffmon, a professor of political science at Winthrop University in South Carolina and director of the Winthrop Poll there. “And the kinds of people who like the pope for some of his social views aren’t likely to be Trump voters anyway.”
Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the College of Charleston, said Mr. Trump has had “remarkably strong support” among evangelical voters in South Carolina, a group that made up about 65 percent of Republican presidential primary voters there in 2012. Catholics made up about 13 percent of the Republican primary vote that year, according to Mr. Knotts, who said he did not expect Mr. Trump’s remarks to hurt him in Saturday’s primary.
“And if it doesn’t hurt him in a state as religious as South Carolina, I don’t see it hurting him in other states in the South,” Mr. Knotts said. “South Carolina is a very good bellwether for the remainder of the South.”
And the Republican Party is with him anyway:
A New York Times/CBS News poll in September, conducted shortly before the pope’s first visit to the United States, found that only 29 percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of Pope Francis, compared with 47 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of independents. Asked about the direction in which Francis is leading the church, 41 percent of Republicans offered approval, again a smaller proportion compared with Democrats and independents.
And Trump says everyone really agrees with him:
Mr. Trump, asked about his history of praising Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein and criticizing figures like Francis, said he did not think he held world views that many Americans would find unusual. He noted that Mr. Putin had complimented him, the pope had challenged him, and he had returned their comments in kind.
“Russia has a far better leader than we have – Putin is tougher, stronger and smarter than Obama,” Mr. Trump said. “But look, the Mexican government put it into the pope’s head that Donald Trump is not a nice guy because we want to have a border again. That isn’t fair. I don’t see how I’m being tough on the pope.”
Oh, in case you missed it:
You know, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, but one thing about him: He killed terrorists. Now, Iraq is Harvard for terrorists. You wanna become a terrorist? Go to Iraq. Saddam Hussein understood and he killed terrorists. Bad guy, but if the President and other people – and, frankly Obama, who is no better because the way he got us out was a disaster. Look what’s happened since then: a disaster. Shouldn’t have been there, shouldn’t have gotten out the way we got out – but, if the President went to the beach, we would have been better off, believe me.
Saddam Hussein was great, Putin is great, and the Pope is a tool of the Mexican government. FiveThirtyEight runs the numbers – The Pope Is Way More Popular than Donald Trump – which Donald Trump must find irritating – but everyone knows Trump is right. He says so.
That makes this a power struggle. Michael D’Antonio’s new book is Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success and D’Antonio sees this:
Of course, Francis considers Christianity his area of expertise in the same way that Trump imagines that money and power are his. And he is less inclined than Trump to be shy about stating his beliefs. When he celebrated Christmas, the birth of Jesus, last December, he offered a very un-Trumpian homily that included this:
“In a society so often intoxicated by consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance, appearances and narcissism, this Child calls us to act soberly, in other words, in a way that is simple, balanced, consistent, and capable of seeing and doing what is essential. … Amid a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy, drawn daily from the wellspring of prayer.”
Maybe Trump heard the Christmas homily and took it personally. Maybe he understood that the Pontiff – Latin for bridge-builder – would join the battle of ideas.
Certainly Francis is not likely to back down. He is as transformational for the church as Trump is in politics. Humble and empathetic, he might apologize for hurting Trump’s feelings. But he won’t abandon his position. He will always prefer bridges to walls.
It’s on! There was Trump’s official response, containing this:
If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened.
It’s me or him! Make your choice, America!
Perhaps that’s the choice we should have to make. The Washington Post’s editorial board makes that choice explicit:
Amid the acrimony, it’s easy to lose sight of the underlying issue – the moral obligation to treat migrants humanely. That was the pope’s message Wednesday, when he visited Ciudad Juarez, just across the Mexican border from El Paso.
“The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today,” he said at the border. “This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”
That clear-eyed pronouncement was an implicit rejection of the poisonous anti-immigrant rhetoric spouted by Mr. Trump and much of the Republican field, and embraced by a chunk of the GOP primary electorate. In vilifying Mexican immigrants as rapists, and Syrian refugees as terrorists, the Republicans attempt to rob them of their humanity. In Mexico, the pope offered a reminder of the imperative of decency.
Yes, let’s get down to basics, decency, but Trump’s official statement also includes this:
For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as President I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current President. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith. They [the Mexican government] are using the Pope as a pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing so, especially when so many lives are involved and when illegal immigration is so rampant.
Allahpundit at Hot Air is a bit amused:
No leader should question another man’s faith? Trump is running to be president and he’s been casually questioning Obama’s faith for years. Also, and I say this as someone who’s neither Catholic nor a fan of soft borders, if there’s anyone who’s entitled to lecture on what the Gospel does and doesn’t condone, the head of the Catholic Church would seem to be it. What was he supposed to say when asked? “I can’t square this position with Christ’s teachings but do what you gotta do”?
The worst part of this story is that we’re now all set for 24 solid hours of cable-news pundit’s navel-gazing over whether this spat will hurt Trump in South Carolina. Spoiler: Nope, probably not.
There’s a reason for that:
South Carolina is one of the least Catholic states in the country, with just four percent or so adherents of the faith versus roughly 20 percent among the wider U.S. population. A spat with Francis, especially in defense of strong borders, shouldn’t do any harm. Whether it does harm in other states, including among Republicans who aren’t Catholic themselves but don’t want to spend the next four years watching the president bicker with the Pope, remains to be seen. Frankly, at this point, Francis declaring it a mortal sin to vote for Trump might be our only chance of keeping him from the nomination.
It’s gonna be weird when Trump sues him over his eligibility, insisting that Benedict remains the one true Pope.
That may be a lame joke, but Alexandra Petri then makes the next logical argument:
Our present pope, popular as he is, can surely not expect to be pope forever. Whereas Donald Trump is immortal, and knows it. Why else would he behave as he does?
It is not such a far-fetched idea to suggest that he should be gunning for the Chair of St. Peter instead of the puny, tiny, not-at-all classy chair in the Oval Office. Which is more Trump to you, a small chair where losers like Jimmy Carter have sat in their time, or a huge, beautiful chair where you are always right?
Well, think about it:
This man was born to be pope.
Now the papacy doesn’t win any more. Masses in English, giving to the poor – just giving things away to them, not even trying to make deals of any kind. Handouts, charity. Pssh! Just throwing away blessings and absolutions when you could be making billions from the sale of indulgences. Letting the little children come unto you – children of all faiths! – before those children have been properly vetted.
Give me a break. … Trump is what is needed to Make the Papacy Great Again, the way it was in the days when popes were popes, like the Borgias. This is either our Vatican or it isn’t. Where’s the temporal power that used to make things tick? The Vatican should be run like a business. And speak Latin, if you’re going to set foot here, within the huge, beautiful wall.
In a Trump sort of way, this actually makes sense:
Look, Trump has the qualities of a spiritual leader. Trump is better at not judging than anyone. At least, he is this week: “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.” He was not last week: “How can Ted Cruz be an Evangelical Christian when he lies so much and is dishonest?” But hey, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.
Besides, he is on the record as being the Most Humble of anyone out there. “I do have actually much more humility than a lot of people would think,” he told John Dickerson on “Face the Nation.” The pope only has as much humility as you would expect.
Trump has made the case already, in his retort to the pope, that the pope is doing a bad job. Why not take the next step and claim the Holy See for himself?
Trump could do this so much better. And we should encourage him to do so.
That’s not a bad idea:
If we can just convince Donald Trump that this is what he wants, instead of the presidency – we may be able to dodge this yet.
David Horsey suggests not, because of where we stand now:
Public Policy Polling just released a new survey of Republican voters in South Carolina that gives insight into what is on the mind of the party base. Only a third of them are glad the North won the Civil War. More than half think the Confederate flag should fly on the grounds of the state Capitol. Almost a third would shut down mosques in the United States, while a quarter would outlaw Islam altogether. Nearly half of South Carolina Republicans support creation of a national database of all Muslims in the country, and 60% would stop any more Muslims from entering the United States. (Polling indicates the same percentage of Republican voters in New Hampshire also share that view, by the way.)
And, as long as we are banning people, 20% of South Carolina GOP voters would also prohibit homosexuals from coming into the USA.
The survey found that, among Trump voters, those percentages skew much higher (80% would ban Muslim immigration, for instance, and 31% would keep gays out). Meanwhile, Ted Cruz is appearing on stages with pastors who believe homosexuals deserve the death penalty – and he is not embarrassed by it.
But this isn’t a Southern thing:
We already knew that a significant number of Republican voters, nationally, are willing to tell pollsters that President Obama is a Muslim and is lying about where he was born. Now, with right-wing conspiracy theorists running wild with the story that Obama had Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia assassinated, do not be surprised if that issue comes up in a Trump town hall meeting, a Cruz fundraiser or even the next Republican debate.
The Republican Party establishment knows it is only a matter of time before the kookiness among their constituents ruins their brand, but they are helpless to stop it. They are riding a wild and crazy bull and cannot jump off without the high risk of being stomped into the dirt.
And now it’s the Pope. They should have seen this coming. We all should have seen this coming. We’re all going to be stomped into the dirt.