While many have pointed out the evident differences between President-Elect Donald Trump and Pope Francis, a surprising sphere of overlap is emerging: their resonance with those who feel overlooked and marginalized, or what Francis has referred to as the “peripheries.”
From the outset of his pontificate, Pope Francis proclaimed a pontificate that would target the “peripheries,” those who found themselves excluded from the life of the Church or felt they were second-class citizens within it.
In what has been referred to as “the 4-minute speech that got Pope Francis elected,” Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio laid out his vision for the future Church in an address to the cardinals gathered in Rome for the papal conclave in April, 2013.
In Bergoglio’s description of the characteristics the next pope should have, he emphasized a willingness to move beyond a self-referential ecclesial perspective in order to reach out to those who felt sidelined and disregarded.
“The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery,” Bergoglio said.
Once elected, the new Pope Francis told Christians in his very first teaching letter that “all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.”
The principal author for building a just society, Francis continued, “is the people as a whole and their culture, and not a single class, minority, group or elite. We do not need plans drawn up by a few for the few, or an enlightened or outspoken minority which claims to speak for everyone.”
Curiously, in his raucous campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump tapped into a very similar group of people: those who felt they had been left behind by establishment elites who no longer cared about the common people trying to eke out a living in an ever more hostile social and economic environment.
Ironically, Trump reached out to the historic base of the Democratic Party who felt they had been left behind—families, blue collar workers, pro-lifers, the non-college-educated, the unemployed and people of faith. As the elites of the Academy, the Media, Hollywood, Wall Street and Washington reaffirmed themselves in their vision of the world, a storm was brewing among those considered insignificant and powerless.
The more Hillary Clinton expressed her disdain for this “basket of deplorables,” the more they cleaved to the man whom they believed could break though the self-referential political oligarchy—both Republican and Democrat—that ruled Washington D.C. and thought itself superior to the masses living in fly-over territory.
His very vulgarity, hyperbole and lack of restraint seemed to many to be a mark of a man who was not in thrall to the political correctness of the age and who could truly move beyond “the way things are done” in the nation’s capital.
The way the mainstream media scratched their collective head in amazement at the outcome of the election revealed a mentality that was almost pathologically out of touch with an immense group of citizens that were finally finding their voice in the unlikely media mogul and real estate magnate turned populist politician.
As one observer noted, the elite thinkers of the media and policy realms are appalled because they spent months “insisting that Trump was an ignorant bigot, a dangerously unstable fellow who could not be trusted with the kind of power that only they were fit to wield,” and yet they lost.
In describing the distinctive marks of a self-referential Church, Pope Francis wrote that “closed and elite groups are formed, and no effort is made to go forth and seek out those who are distant.” Although he was speaking of an ecclesiastical reality, he could very well have been describing many Americans’ view of political life inside the Beltway, where a mere change of parties often signaled very little in the way of substantive transformation. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même…”
Whether a Trump presidency will be able to satisfy the hopes and aspirations of the many disaffected Americans of the peripheries who voted for him remains to be seen. Moreover, as Francis has had to deal with pushback from Catholics who feel that his outreach to the excluded has occasionally gone too far, Trump will have to contend with many members of the GOP who will urge him to add a good dose of political realism to his innovative recipe for “making America great again.”
Nonetheless—and bridges and walls aside—two of the world’s most important leaders have remarkably coincided in the core of their formula for real renewal: target the peripheries. In building a future working relationship, the two men may very well find they have more in common than they anticipated.
Thomas D. Williams is a Rome-based Catholic theologian, author and professor of Ethics at the University of Saint Thomas. His fifteen books include The World as It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation (Crossroad) and Who Is My Neighbor? Personalism and the Foundations of Human Rights (CUA Press).