The Next Reformation?

Trump Luther

I’m going to go out on a limb here.  What if Donald Trump is like a modern day Martin Luther?  What if the message he is putting in the world (mistrust, fear, isolation, dispassionate individualism) is the dawn of an entirely new era in Western civilization?  What if the social convulsions he has prompted ultimately have as much impact as the the resistance initiated by the father of Protestantism.  What if Trump is symbolic of the dawn of a new “religion?”  For many liberal Christians thinking like this is akin to blasphemy.  For the unchurched or the non-religiously engaged it may amount to a “so-what?”  I would ask both groups to put aside their reactions or biases momentarily and indulge the following reflection.

In 1517, when an obscure academic monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, he began a chain of events that are still playing out today regardless of one’s connection to Christianity or religion of any kind.  Some broad strokes of explanation may clarify this point.  Martin Luther had been compelled to post this document to open up the debate among clergy about the sale of “indulgences” (favors of grace) by the Pope (Leo X) to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  In highly simplified terms, the Pope was “selling” the best seats in the afterlife and Martin Luther, among others, was not having it.  Although first printed in Latin, the 95 Theses spread quickly among the clergy and educated classes.  The result was stern rebuke from the Catholic establishment which was followed by Martin Luther’s master stroke of resistance: publishing a simplified “sermon on indulgences” in the common people’s language, German.  This pamphlet went, what we would call today “viral.”

Although Martin Luther was excommunicated in 1521, his actions led to the eventual formation of an entire branch of Christianity in “protest” against Catholic authoritarianism (aka: Protestantism).  This religious shift, in turn resulted in the rethinking of the meaning of commodities, investment and the entire concept of “capital” (Capitalism) as well as affirming the effectiveness of the printed word in communicating and influencing the masses (Media).  From these basic elements it is not difficult to see the path to everything from the Atlantic slave trade and the Industrial Revolution to modern education, the internet and the entire United States Government.

Donald Trump is a conundrum.  As President of the United States he is Commander in Chief, yet he has continually portrayed himself as being above the law.  His “style” of “governing” can be characterized at best as whim driven and at worst as intentionally divisive, racist and patronizing.  In addition, by raising the surprisingly existential question “what is truth?” Trump has completely destabilized the foundation of the information economy in the midst of the information age.  A real danger in Trump is his ability to appeal to an unseen mass discontent, just like Martin Luther.  Trump has given a focal point to a social stance that while deeply unpopular with the liberal establishment, has a powerful resonance with a surprisingly large though somewhat invisible population that liberal elites are quick to dismiss.  What’s more, this man who has only ever been part of the 1%, has managed to affect his message in the language of “common” people and he has spoken directly to them.  He has galvanized public ideological supporters under the guise of political affiliation while courting a disturbing number of a-political and even politically opposed people who privately agree with his agenda, even though they might decry his more offensive rhetoric in public.  The most threatening aspect of Trump that mirrors the power of Martin Luther is his ability to champion a message of personal agency and independent responsibility that too many are willing to accept as a hallmark of “American-ness”…even if it is wearing a white hood and a swastika.  But where Martin Luther points toward a personal relationship and responsibility with God, Donald Trump glorifies a personal relationship and responsibility with money as power.  Any entity that attempts to interfere with, bleed off of or mediate this relationship, is portrayed as an impostor, alien, illegal or sacrilegious.  And so we get walls, bans, cancellations, tariffs, restrictions and limitations all designed to keep the relationship with the Trumpian deity pure.

I’m convinced that Donald Trump is not a President whose term will simply end in a few years.  There is no solution to Donald Trump because like the fire ignited by Martin Luther, Trump is the symptom of a deeper social trouble and not the trouble itself.  To be clear, by comparing Donald Trump and Martin Luther, I am not attempting to paint the 16th century monk as a villain or to take Protestantism or religion of any kind to task (although there are many who would point to the total history of religion as villainy.) Nor am I trying to paint #45 as ANY kind of saint or prophet.  I am only trying to raise awareness to the potentially far reaching impact of what Donald Trump represents.  It did not take a genius to write the 95 Theses, but Martin Luther’s ability to leverage his words broadly achieved maximum and lasting effect.  Donald Trump is no genius (‘very stable’ or otherwise), but he is singularly focused on leveraging public sentiment to maximum effect.  To paraphrase comedian and writer Jennifer Saunders, trying to deal with the ultimate impact of Donald Trump may be a bit like trying to get toothpaste back in the tube.