Pope Francis and Donald Trump: the same man?

There’s a very unfortunate moment in Jason Horowitz’s account of the conflict between Pope Francis and the Knights of Malta:

Now, suddenly, [Francis] is more politically isolated. The election of President Trump and the rise of far-right populists in Europe have ushered in an angrier era — and emboldened traditionalists inside the Vatican who sense that the once-impregnable pope could be vulnerable.

This is, quite simply, an utterly unwarranted slur on Catholic traditionalists. It’s not Francis’s opponents who resemble the “far-right populists in Europe” and the rather less politically consistent populist in the White House — it’s Francis himself.

Like Donald Trump, Francis makes dramatic and apparently extreme pronouncements which send the world into interpretative tizzies. When he says things like “Who am I to judge?” Catholics who support him effectively say that he should be taken “seriously but not literally” — just as Trump supporters say about their man. Both men generate massive, thick fogs of uncertainty.

Like Donald Trump, Francis cuts through political complications by issuing executive orders and blunt power grabs, as when he dismissed the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta and is seeking to replace him with a “papal delegate” under his own personal control, a move of questionable legality.

Like Donald Trump, Francis is an authoritarian populist: he bypasses institutional structures and governs by executive order, but believes that there can be nothing tyrannical about this because he is acting in the name of the people and is committed to “draining the swamp” of his institution’s internal corruption.

Francis and Trump may not agree about much else, but they agree about how to govern. A few years ago David Lebedoff wrote a book in which he argued that for all their political and religious differences, George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh were in effect “the same man.” This is equally, and far more troublingly, true of Pope Francis and Donald Trump.