President Donald Trump has concluded a roadshow embracing the 3 major global religions. One might have expected that this roadshow wouldn’t entail the usual diplomatic placation of prior presidential meetings. In fact, Pope Francis has been conspicuously outspoken, along with all global leaders, and Trump is no exception with the Muslim leaders. They are cordial, but clearly have points of difference. In the midst of global apathy towards politicians, you can expect more outlandish expression by leaders intent upon distancing themselves from controversial leaders like Trump. Perversely, Presidents Trump and Duterte seem to be associating themselves with openly authoritarian leaders like President Putin, and of course each other. If there is anything to comfort people in times of apathy, it is authoritarianism and practical ‘results’.
There is also an overarching attempt by the media to make sense of the political discourse. The problem is that such coverage has been overtly biased against Trump. The most recent example comes from the NZ Herald and Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the Trump tour of religious centres of conflict.
Donald Trump meets Pope Francis at the Vatican. The leaders “could hardly be more different”.[i]
The media would have people believe that the pontiff and Trump disagree on many issues, including:
- Climate change and the environment
- Refugees and migrants
But there is no evidence to suggest this is the case, as we review these issues.
Climate change and the environment
“President Trump has threatened to pull the US out of the 2015 Paris accord on reducing greenhouse global gas emissions, and in March signed an executive order dismantling environmental regulations enacted under Barack Obama”. [ii]
President Trump is not dismantling all environmental regulations. He is merely curtailing the overreach that has suspended too many projects, and diminished their profitability by imposing excessive costs on project sponsors. Trump of course recognises that hindering investment only frustrates efforts to create jobs. This issue has little to do with global warming. So on this issue there is no “stark contrast” implied.
Pope Francis has called for concerted action to halt global warming and a shift away from the use of fossil fuels. [iii]
This is clearly a point of difference for the two world leaders, and yet the science behind these hopes is controversial. It could thus be argued that Trump is reducing global warming ‘by other means’. It is true that reducing fossil fuels is not in Trump’s plans, at least not to the extent of ‘destroying the coal industry’. This much we can garner from Trump’s campaign rhetoric. It could be argued that Trump has no interest in seeing new investment in coal-fired power stations that would increase coal consumption. However, we might still glean from his rhetoric that he does – at least – want to support existing infrastructure. i.e. Ensure that existing fossil fuel plants remain in operation for their 50-year operating lives. After all, isn’t it the role of government to protect people’s property, and not to arbitrarily decimate people’s lives? Coal miners and power plant tycoons.
Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: “This President has already changed his mind on several things, so perhaps he will on this as well.[iv]
Let’s hope President Trump is more cautious in his policy settings than a religious leader who bears no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. After all, just look at the track record of the Catholic Church with its cover-up of child abuse. Is that a measure of the church’s respect for science? The question is whether the science is supported by the facts, or whether academia has done to science, what the media is doing to facts, or the church is still doing to children in emerging markets, seemingly oblivious to events in Western markets. The issue of sexual abuse by pastors in the Philippines for instance has hardly even surfaced because of the power of the Catholic Church.[v] Just more evidence that the media too has no interest in ‘exposing’ parochial interests, when those interests are very powerful.
Refugees and migrants
“The Pope has repeatedly called for compassion to be shown to refugees and migrants and is himself the product of an Italian family that migrated to Argentina”. [vi]
President Trump is unlikely to be indifferent to the plight of refugees, however he is unlikely to see the US as a custodian of the globe in the same fashion as other leaders. He will be looking for an American interest in such global engagement. The problem we have here is that religion doesn’t have a monopoly on ethical conduct, and as we can see from the conduct of the Catholic Church, there is no reason to think it has any moral legitimacy at all. It does however have to extol values that resonate with moral standards. It just doesn’t need to espouse a coherent world view because its congregation are rather morally ambivalent.
“President Trump, in contrast, attempted to ban the entry of Syrian refugees in Jan 2017, deciding to halt the issuing of visas to people from several Muslim countries, and wants to build a wall along the Mexican border”. [vii]
Trump did attempt to ban Muslims because inviting refugees would have invited the same civic threats posed by terrorists in the European Union. It is not as if the United States is the only country capable of offering asylum to Muslims. Moreover, you have to wonder why Arab states have not taken steps to welcome asylum seekers. Why is this singularly a Western concern? Why is there one standard for the United States, and no requirement for the Arab countries to entertain Muslim refugees.[viii] After all, these people have largely compatible values, and yet Saudi Arabia is able to placate the media for its ‘security concerns’.[ix] Of course the reason is that the Arab leaders control their media, and they don’t want any more fundamentalists than the West does. But is this reason for the West to serve as the battlefield for the Arab ‘enlightenment’. Clearly it can’t serve as a foundation for a cultural revolution if Western Arabs are estranged from the homeland of fundamentalism. The only solution is ‘cultural quarantining’ of Arab [indeed all] dogmatism. We should not stop at militancy because militancy can be ‘home grown’ and it raises human rights controversies that the West is not ready to deal with. Dealing ‘internally’ with Arab vs Christian disparities would only turn Western nations into centres of double standards.
Pope Francis was not actually very critical of Trump’s campaign pledge to build an impenetrable wall along the Mexican border, and his declaration that the United States should turn away Muslim immigrants and refugees. At the time, the pontiff argued:
Pope Francis: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian”.[x]
This was not entirely a negative reproach, if you consider that the pontiff has a great deal of ‘brand goodwill’ invested in criticising Trump and supporting ‘Catholic’ Mexicans. In fact, it highlights the fact that the Pope doesn’t completely disagree with the need for walls. It is apparent that Trump was not spurning the need for engaging Mexico either, yet this was the ‘spin’ of the media. After all, it was also Trump’s policy to get Mexico to pay for the wall. That takes ‘engagement’ or negotiation.
‘The pontiff is a vocal advocate for aiding refugees, particularly those fleeing the violence in Syria, deeming it both a “moral imperative” and “Christian duty” to help’. [xi]
There is no reason to think that Trump has betrayed the Catholic moral code espoused by the pontiff, given that Trump orchestrated a bombing of Syria in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Observe the response however of the media:
[Trump has] never been one to let an insult, perceived or real, go by without a response, and he made no exception for the world’s best-known religious leader, calling Pope Francis “disgraceful” for doubting his faith. [xii]
Apparently, Trump is not allowed to criticise world leaders who criticise him, or whom the media depict as criticising him. Accountability is apparently only reserved for the US president.
The pontiff’s inauguration message to President Trump extolled the hope that the United States’ international stature would “continue to be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need”. [xiii]
Is there any evidence to suggest that President Trump has not conveyed a proclivity to help the needy? On the contrary, global leaders seem to be taking every opportunity to distance themselves from the president for any reason.
In recent talks, both Pope Francis and President Trump agree on a need for Muslim leaders to do more against extremists in their own communities. But there are few other areas where their views align. [xiv]
In actual fact, the leaders agree on a great many things. The media has simply chosen to depict the pontiff’s apprehensions as ‘criticism’ when he is far more measured in his statements. Consider the following statement from the media:
“The president’s prior anti-Muslim rhetoric – including his musing that Islam “hates” the West – is the antithesis of what the pope has been preaching about a need for dialogue with Muslims”.[xv]
Saying Muslims ‘hate the West’ is not an incorrect statement, and both leaders agree on the need to engage Muslim leaders. So where is the disagreement. The pontiff is far more likely to be diplomatic because he has no interest in criticising a competing religion.
It would be incorrect to argue that local leaders in the Arab world are united in their disdain for Trump. On the contrary, the US and Trump are likely to preserve friends within the Saudi government, as well as in Jordan, UAE and Bahrain, if not other Arab countries. That is after all why Trump was able to negotiate am arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
“In Saudi Arabia, he addressed dozens of Arab leaders and urged them to fight extremists at home and isolate Iran, which he depicted as menace to the region”. [xvi]
Iran is indeed unpopular in the Arab world.
Helping the poor
Francis also differs sharply with Trump on the need to combat climate change and economic inequality. [xvii]
This is a point of disagreement, but then it’s an understandable one, and hardly exceptional given that:
- It is highly ‘abstract science’ that does warrant skepticism. The science community is not as supportive of the ‘global warming’ hypothesis as the media would suggest.
- Neither leaders are scientists
- The president might be aware of intelligence that the pontiff is not.
On the issue of ‘inequality’, the pontiff is similarly ‘not an economist’. Is he unlikely to appreciate that capitalism or wealth creation actually requires ‘inequality’. It is the ‘unequal needs of people’ that culminates in a trade relationship and the prospect of mutual economic surpluses. Does the pontiff imagine that said surpluses can be achieved without inequality? No. Clearly, he is ignorant of economics.
The media then speculates that the pontiff might criticise the “Trump’s budget…[that he] would dramatically cut funding to programmes that help the poor, [as well as] the president’s agreement to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia”. [xviii]
The media of course have little understanding of capitalism either. The media doesn’t realise that:
- The best way to help people is not to give them unattained ‘needs’, but to create unfettered markets so that they can achieve a sense of self-worth through ‘conditional engagement’. It is the only foundation for personal self-respect.
- The president has been active in stimulating jobs in the USA, securing trade deals, and reforming the US economy. This is the best way to help the poor. Just look at what it has done for Asia.
That said, there is a need on the part of President Trump to acknowledge that markets are not ‘unfettered’, and that there is a historic legacy of market distortion. Yet, aside from these errors of judgement and ‘speculations’, the NZ Herald, then muses that ‘experts believe it unlikely the outspoken pontiff will do anything but be welcoming during his first meeting with Trump’.[xix] In which case, the latter thesis seems to be self-refuting. The NZ Herald has posited that Trump would upset the pontiff, but then concluded that he wouldn’t do anything about it. It is such a perverse logic, given that it extols a thesis, then posits that there will be no evidence to disprove it, because the pontiff is destined to be nice to the president.
The pontiff said last week he would “never make a judgment about a person without hearing him out” and some Vatican observers suspect he will hold his tongue, at least for now”. [xx]
This is after all what reasonable people do. But the media is not reasonable. In the name of ‘accountability’ and ‘objectivity’, it asserts conspiracies that spare it the burden of responsibility for posing evidence or even coherency. This is a religion of another type – it’s called mysticism. Of course, the media isn’t immune from getting a story right. They ‘do good’ along with bad. They will happily report on ‘neutral stories’ to sell newspapers when it doesn’t hurt their interests, such as Al Jazeera reporting on abusive Catholics in the Philippines, but make no mistake – when their interests are threatened by a US president, they are scathing in their contempt.
The media want to posit Trump as the embodiment of capitalist tyranny, as if there is something unsavoury about Trump, whilst the Catholic Church, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Palestine are able to retain a clear conscience. This is the measure of the media, that in covering Trump, these ‘counterparts’ get legitimacy. There is an absence of perspective here, but if you consider that the media has its own agenda and interests, then you can understand the need to critique anything the media extols.
“The embodiment of bullish, free-wheeling capitalism, Donald Trump made his fortune from investing in property and other ventures around the world and wants to slash taxes for the rich”. [xxi]
Trump is keen to reduce taxes on the wealthy and to subsidise investment in the US to draw jobs back to the United States, which ultimately helps the poor in a sustainable fashion. So what might we make of the pontiff’s comments?
Pope Francis has repeatedly warned that the excesses of the global capitalist system are leaving millions of people behind, fuelling social tensions and harming the planet”.[xxii]
Again, we must remember that the pontiff is not an economist. Capitalism has ‘excesses’, but note that it is relatively rare and contextually appropriate. One such ‘excess’ is the extraordinary prices of stocks in the Dotcom bubble. Despite the crash, these prices would ultimately prove feasible, albeit premature given the similarly extraordinary valuation placed on Google and Facebook. If he is alluding to ‘corruption’ or ‘excessive profits’, he needs to know that:
- High profits stimulate investment where jobs are being created; and that’s where the world’s poor are the most vulnerable. Yes, the ‘small trickle down’ in the West is offset by a ‘flood in Asia’.
- It is actually misinformed liberals who are ‘inciting social tensions’ in the West, with their misplaced criticism of capitalism.
- The planet is not in a state of crisis. The Western World remains a relatively positive and optimistic place to live despite labour market distortions.
Pope keeping an ‘open mind’
Pope Francis: “Even if one thinks differently we have to be very sincere about what each one thinks”. [xxiii]
So it appears that there are only minor points of conflict between the Pope and Trump. On the contrary, the relationship looks very positive. Perhaps the Pope could display more empathy for Trump by signalling to the media that twisting his words as a ‘criticism of Trump’ is not respectful. This is really the least that the pontiff could do to preserve good government. Where is his condemnation of the media bias, or ‘fake news’? After all, if we are to have good governance, we need Trump’s focus to be on policy; not defending himself from ‘fake news’. Now, I’ll be willing to guarantee that the pontiff is not about to criticise the media given that the ‘vindictive media’ would respond by investigating more cases of paedophilia in places like the Philippines and Russia.
Pope Francis: “I will say what I think and he will say what he thinks. There are always doors that are not closed. We need to find the doors that are at least partly open, go in, and talk about things we have in common and go forward, step by step”. [xxiv]
I see no evidence that this is not true of Trump. After all, it was Trump that took the opportunity early on in his presidency to visit the religious leaders of the world. But let’s compare the pontiff’s rhetoric with the actions of a Catholic Church. The Vatican has given ‘effective asylum’ to a high-profile archbishop in Australia who bears responsibility for paedophilia.[xxv]
[xxv] ‘Cardinal Pell testimony brings sex abuse to Vatican’s doorstep’ by Stephanie Kirchgaessner, The Guardian, website, 29th Feb 2016; “George Pell must front child abuse inquiry again, says Bill Shorten” by Tessa Akerman, The Australia, website, 8th Feb 2017.