In the northern hemisphere people may not be much aware, if at all, of the storm brewing in our cappuccino cups in Australia. Since I am in Australia at the moment it is difficult to escape it. What follows is written on the far south coast of New South Wales, in a small town.
President Trump rang the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull last Sunday. The scheduled hour-long call was, apparently, abruptly terminated by Trump, who, having harangued Mr Turnbull, then hung up on him at the 25-minute mark. Mr Trump, employing his gift for the most superlative of superlatives (no one has superlatives like him, he has the best superlatives), called it the worst call he has made so far to a world leader.
At issue was the deal made by the Obama administration to accept between 1,000 and 2,000 illegal immigrants detained on Manus Island and Nauru. Given his recent moratorium on receiving refugees from certain countries, many of which are represented in these two island-camps, the deal was obviously an awkward one for him. Mr Trump has Tweeted (of course) that it was a dumb deal. One suspects that the Australian PM, also a conservative businessman, reminded Mr Trump that a deal was a deal. One can imagine Mr Trump saying that it was not his deal.
The spokesmen are saying this was a robust conversation, a diplomacy-speak admission that Mr Trump did shout at Mr Turnbull. Australia is arguably the staunchest of US allies, and the Phonegate affair has put this historical relationship in some doubt going forward. This is not the way to treat long-term loyal allies.
Of course, in the Catholic Church, we have become accustomed to (if not quite used to) hearing Pope Francis launch his own tirades, against the curia, the pharisaical upholders of the moral law, airport bishops, promethean neo-Pelagians, et al. While Pope Francis does not use Twitter in the same way as Mr Trump, he does have a similar terse, minimalist style that packs a lot of shock-and-awe into a few choice words.
Both Francis and Trump have a lot in common. Both are set on over-turning the status quo in the running of their institutions, not least by by-passing the established channels. Pope Francis and President Trump have surrounded themselves with special advisers rather than the established officials. Francis will sack and re-assign at will (the CDF 3 for example), much as Trump uses executive orders and sacks acting attorneys-general who do not play ball by his rules. Both by-pass the usual channels for getting their message out: Francis uses his daily Mass homilettes and Trump uses Twitter. While Francis has now re-fashioned the Vatican press office to his own ends to get these homilettes out, Trump’s use of Twitter subverts the mainstream media by addressing people directly through social media, and the mainstream media must play catch-up. It is very clever; there is method in his madness.
We are watching a revolution in politics and governance, both in Church and state. Sir Humphrey Appleby’s day is done. Perhaps this was inevitable. Diplomacy and its rhetorical apparatus of understatement or verbose non-statement worked in an era when time was needed for the behind-the-scenes working out of deals and negotiations. Diplomacy speak, and the professionals who spoke it, bought leaders this time, and could control the release of of news in their own time. Today news breaks in real time, Twitter can break news before CNN, and the management of information is thereby taken out of the professionals’ hands. Trump, and to a lesser extent Francis, both seek to embed this new reality.
This brave new world order has implications we have yet to see develop. When negotiations and stratagems are played out in real time before the face of the world there is a reduced capacity to control reactions. Australian politicians of all stripes are mortified by Trump’s treatment of the Australian Prime Minister. But their reactions will be nothing compared to those of many John and Jane Citizens as they see this sad saga played out before them. Why should we cow-tow to the USA?, they might ask; why should we host their military bases, listening posts and other secret installations when they treat us with such scant respect? We can be sure China will act in some way to take advantage of this contretemps. They may succeed to some degree.
Perhaps we are seeing, paradoxically, the simultaneous death of democracy in the form we have known it, and the reassertion of papal monarchy in the guise of populism and pastoral primacy. Or, more precisely perhaps, we are witnessing the emergency of an interventionist, elected monarchy in both Church and state. Either way, we should be worried. Popes have traditionally been rarely seen, and more rarely heard. They were above the cut and thrust of ecclesial politics, at least in the eyes of the faithful, and this went a long way to ensuring the respect and veneration accorded their august office. Likewise, state leaders tended to be, or at least strived to be, statesmen, presenting to their people calm and crafted words that reflected the consensus arrived at in the often stormy scenes behind closed doors. The people did not need to see the storm talks; what mattered was the more or less calm and enduring results.
Time will tell if this is all for the good. For now, my optimism is very, very muted at best.