Dear Commons Community,
Pope Francis on Wednesday suggested that Donald Trump “is not Christian” because of the harshness of his campaign promises to deport more immigrants and force Mexico to pay for a wall along the border.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said when a reporter asked him about Mr. Trump on the papal airliner as he returned to Rome after his six-day visit to Mexico.
Yesterday, Donald Trump fired back that Pope Francis’ criticisms were “disgraceful” and “unbelievable,” and he contended that the Mexican government had hoodwinked the pope into criticizing him.
A New York Times article analyzed Trump’s response as follows:
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
Mr. Trump’s remarks could prove far more damaging to him in heavily Catholic states like New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, all of which have delegate-rich primaries where he is aiming for strong victories. He and his advisers have long seen working-class white voters as a core part of his electoral base, as they were in his successful primary campaign in New Hampshire last week.
But many of these voters are Catholics who, whether they like Francis or not, may blanch at Mr. Trump’s denouncing the pope for advocating the church’s position favoring compassion toward immigrants.
“Trump can take on former presidents, governors, senators, fellow candidates and the media, but I think he should just take a pass on arguing with the pope on what makes a better Christian,” said Edward Rollins, a former political adviser to President Ronald Reagan and other Republicans. “It’s a fight Trump can’t win. And shouldn’t try.
People will be watching the South Carolina primary even more closely tomorrow to see if the mighty Donald is about to fall.