After the release of the Vigano letter detailing Pope Francis’s rehabilitation of Cardinal McCarrick, people started saying, “I don’t see how Francis can survive this” or “This will mark the end of Francis’s papacy.” It’s precisely the same sort of thing that people say when yet another revelation about Donald Trump comes out, or yet another member of his inner circle is convicted of a felony.
And yet there is no plausible path for Trump to be removed from office — congressional Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they will stick with him through thick and thin, and even a Democratic Senate won’t have enough votes to get him tossed out — and no path at all for Francis being forced to resign.
I think the assumption that many people make about both men is that they can be brought to heel by the force of political norms — that they will see, or those associated with them will see, that the violation of important norms makes their position unsustainable. But as I wrote 18 months ago,
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.
Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry. Moreover, when people see the sheer size of the institutions at which they’re so angry, they despair of any real change happening, and are content with listening to leaders who channel their own frustration.
General contempt for our institutions, government and church alike, makes them too weak to enforce their norms, which first enables corruption — the kind of corruption American Catholic bishops and members of the Congress of the United States are guilty of — and then produces populist figures who appear to want to undo that corruption. But the institutions are too weak to control the leaders either, so those leaders are empowered to do more or less whatever they want to do. This is the case with Trump, who will surely last at least until the 2020 election, and also, I think, with Francis, who will probably last until he dies or chooses like his predecessor to resign.
Moreover, since neither Trump nor Francis is interested in doing the work needed to repair their corrupt institutions — they don’t even have any incentive to do so: the ongoing presence of “swamps” is what lends them such legitimacy as they possess — all the products and enablers of corruption are safe. This is why the American bishops who spent decades enabling and hiding sexual abuse are probably feeling pretty good about their prospects right now.
P.S. I wonder if the people who expect resignations or discipline of corrupt leaders tend to be old enough to remember stronger institutions, and more effectual norms, than the ones we have now. Or perhaps they have participated in strong institutions. Younger people, and those whose experience with institutions has reinforced a belief in their weakness and inconsistency, don’t even bother to demand what seems to them clearly impossible.