Vanity Fair, May 23, 2017
Early in his pontificate, Pope John Paul II met with Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian prime minister with a Nazi past; a few years later, he welcomed the Harlem Globetrotters to the Vatican and was named an “honorary Globetrotter.” Donald Trump’s state visit to Pope Francis on Wednesday falls somewhere between those two encounters—between the unnerving and the tacky, between the unseemly and the unlikely.
Whatever else it does, the visit upends the conventional wisdom about the discerning power of democracy and the nature of so-called “populism.” How strange is this: a group of 115 unelected celibate men of advanced age, bound to secrecy, choosing from amongst themselves and casting paper ballots in the Sistine Chapel, elects a relatively unknown man who turns out to possess abundant virtue and wisdom, and who is also clearly a man of the people; whereas an American voting public of 126 million men and women, working from the copious information produced by a robust free press and an endless run of presidential debates, has its votes channeled through arcane electoral math and bestowed on a self-serving huckster who has a poor grasp of notions like “public service” and “the common good,” and whose idea of “the people” is “my people.” It’s enough to make you want to swap the Electoral College for the College of Cardinals.
On Wednesday, the most credible world leader of our time will meet the least credible; a person who shows the dynamism of character will meet a person who demonstrates the limits of character. If Donald Trump’s presidency has clarified anything, it is the perdurance of character—and the improbability of people, especially wealthy and powerful people in their 70s, to change dramatically. A person rich in character can deepen and ripen, increase and multiply. Such a person is in St. Peter’s chair now. A person of poor character is reduced, even impoverished, by circumstances, until he is morally bankrupt. Such a person is in the White House now. Truly, Donald Trump is a walking, talking, tweeting demonstration of St. Augustine’s proposition that there is a stone so heavy that even God cannot lift it—and that this stone is the human heart, weighed down with selfishness, pettiness, greed, envy, and all the other sins.
Only fools and moderate Republicans ever believed that Trump would undergo a conversion to statesmanship in the White House. It wasn’t going to happen. No, Trump puts in mind the amoral, bounding industrialist Rex Mottram in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, a wealthy, showy man of “invincible ignorance,” as the Catholic tradition used to call it—a person who, a priest in the novel dryly reports, “doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.”
It is hard to imagine Trump receiving words of spiritual insight from Pope Francis: has a seed ever been sown on stonier ground? And it is hard to imagine this pope flattering this president: leave that to the petroleum potentates of Saudi Arabia. What good, then—if any—can come of this meeting?
If any piece of Francis’s wisdom could get through to Trump—and stabilize his silly presidency, more Gong Show than reality TV—it might be the rubric for discernment that Francis has followed since his days as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Jesuit provincial (superior) and archbishop of Buenos Aires. Here it is, cited time and again in the accounts of his life: “Time is greater than space; unity prevails over conflict; reality is more important than ideals; the whole is greater than the part.”
That’s it, the whole thing: concise, clear, and simple enough to fit onto the one-page briefs required by a president whose attention span is as short as his fingers. Each part of the rubric, applied to Trump’s presidency, can offer some of the clarity that he and we sorely need just now. Let’s take each in turn.
Time is greater than space. As Francis’s biographer Paul Vallely summarizes it, “We live in tension between the present and what is to come, between trying to possess the space around us and trying to initiate processes that will bear fruit in an uncertain future.” What does this mean for the presidency? The appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel is likely to slow the brakeless roller-coaster of the Trump administration. While Mueller’s team does its work, the rest of us can work to undo some of the changes that Trump has jammed through in between controversies—namely the rollbacks of regulations pertaining to the environment, climate, oil drilling, and natural resources. In matters of climate, especially, “time is greater than space,” but if we don’t act quickly the human race will have to live, for many centuries to come, in our limited space—a planet that is barely habitable.
Unity prevails over conflict. Polls and approval ratings suggest that right now there is considerable unity around the idea that Donald Trump is faltering as president. Alas, the president himself is the person least likely to recognize this truth; but a man used to getting his way, accustomed to gaining the appearance of unity by purchasing subservience and demonizing resistance, will tire of pushing against super-majorities. And the reason for this is bound up with part three of the rubric.
Reality is more important than ideas. This maxim is sometimes translated as “Reality over the ideal.” Put that way, its pertinence to this presidency is all the more clear. Donald Trump has no ideals, and his only strongly held idea is that he is better at everything than everybody else—or could be if only everyone else would let him be. Because Trump is “a supremely talented demagogue” (as Andrew Sullivan has put it) rather than an ideologue, it’s likely that the vigorous application of reality stands a chance of overcoming him. In many respects, reality is already overcoming him—for example, through the events following his firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey and the huge body of reportage (much of it sourced to people in “his” government) that delineated his motives for the firing, forcing “his” administration to recalibrate its ideas to reality every few hours. It is now clear to everyone but Trump himself that even a president with both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court going his way can’t do away with the reality of governing—or with the ideas and ideals in which the thousands of career civil servants in the federal government have rooted their own careers.
The whole is greater than the part. Four months into his presidency, Trump seems not to understand the truths that the president works for us and not the other way around, and that the president is not the C.E.O. of America, Inc. but the head of one branch of the United States government. It is hard for people in positions of great power to recognize that they are only one part of a whole, but some do.
One example will be near at hand during Trump’s state visit to the Vatican: in fact, it will be right up the hill from the Vatican Palace, in the monastery behind St. Peter’s Basilica. Four and a half years ago, the world’s last absolute monarch—Pope Benedict XVI—recognized that the whole of the Catholic Church was greater than the part that was his embattled pontificate. Elected for life, he was beholden to nothing and no one under God. And yet he resigned, the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years, stepping out of his part for the sake of the whole. God willing, something of this will get through in Rome, and Donald Trump will go and do likewise.
This article was originally published in Vanity Fair.