A tale of two speeches

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The first of two columns

Two very different men making two very different speeches in 2015 offered citizens of the United States a stark choice between two very different visions and paths forward.

Down the escalator

On June 16, 2015, Donald J. Trump rode down an escalator to the atrium of the gilded tower in Manhattan bearing his name to the sound of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."

With wife, Melania, in tow, he was there to announce his run for the Republican nomination. At that time long shot of long shots, word was he paid actors to be in the crowd.

"Wow. Whoa," Trump said. "That is some group of people. Thousands."

Trump gave a long, rambling and repetitive speech of more than 6,000 words, taking more than 40 minutes.

"Our country is in serious trouble. We don't have victories anymore," Trump said. "When do we beat Mexico at the border? They're laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically."

He added, "The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems."

Next came the infamous words about Mexicans played over and over again on television.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems (to) us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

Toward the end of the speech, Trump finally got to a laundry list of issues he was running on.

- "I would repeal and replace the big lie, Obamacare."

- "I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall."

- "Nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump. Nobody."

- "Renegotiate our foreign trade deals."

- "Rebuild the country's infrastructure. Nobody can do that like me. Believe me. It will be done on time, on budget, way below cost, way below what anyone ever thought."

Joint session of Congress

Three months later, Pope Francis came to the United States for the first time. He spent most of his visit in Washington D.C., New York City and Philadelphia.

Standing in the well of the House of Representatives on Thursday, Sept. 24, speaking slowly but clearly in accented English, Pope Francis addressed members of the114th Congress and also millions of Americans live on several networks.

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He touched on the basis of law — pointing out a marble relief portrait of Moses the lawgiver on the wall opposite the rostrum — and the nature of politics.

He called Americans back to a robust citizenship based on respect for each other and work for the common good.

"The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States," Francis said. "The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience."

Americans, he said, must not reject the stranger in our midst, repeating the sins and mistakes of the past. The pope urged us to follow our best traditions and to reject indifference — or worse — scapegoating and nativism. He spoke of the importance of dealing with climate change, rising economic inequality and the proliferation of arms. He condemned the death penalty and abortion and a throwaway society.

"We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our neighbors and everything around us," Francis said. "Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility."

His speech to Congress and his U.S. visit generally received rave reviews. But did his words have any real effect on the political class? Almost certainly not. Positions were too entrenched. In the two-plus years since he had become pope, Francis had already been the target of the political right. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh had called him a Marxist.

Even right-leaning Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and very conservative Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia made the naive argument that coming from Argentina, Francis did not realize that the corruption and economic abuse of South America had no place in the enlightened and well regulated United States.

Ironically, of all the 20 or so candidates of the two major parties involved in the 2016 presidential primaries, the one who most took a shine to Pope Francis and deliberately cited his message on economic inequality, welcoming immigrants and fighting climate change was Vermont's own junior U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

At one point in 2016, Sanders, a democratic socialist who is Jewish but non-observant, even interrupted his campaign to fly to an economic conference at the Vatican, according to the New York Times. Though the pope was too busy for a formal meeting, the senator managed to meet and talk with him briefly in the foyer of the Vatican guest house (where the pope lives and Sanders stayed) at 6 a.m. as the pope was leaving for a trip to Greece.

Really fake news

When Pope Francis spoke to the joint session of Congress, Donald Trump still seemed a long shot for the presidency. But the country was ominously polarized. Racial tensions often resulted in violence and one could hear nativist grumblings. The pope's speech seemed to many an important plea to listen to our better angels and follow our best traditions.

People quickly moved on to the next big story, of course. The pope's moral message about cooperation for the common good, welcoming the stranger, reforming the economy and combating climate change never really took hold on its own after his visit.

Trump's eventual presidential victory on a platform charged with resentment, division, nativism and protectionism underscored this in red.

One bizarre footnote makes this story even more frustrating.

As detailed in the new book, "Like War," by by Emerson T. Brooking and P. W. Singer, at the time of the 2015-16 political campaign, young men in Macedonia were creating websites and using Facebook to spread false clickbait stories to make lots of money. These articles may now "seem unbelievable, but they were read on a scale that soared past reports of the truth."

The authors add, "Indeed, the single most popular news story of the entire election, 'Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President' was a lie fabricated in Macedonia before blasting across American social networks. Three times as many Americans read and shared it on their social media accounts as they did the top performing article from The New York Times."

Pope Francis strongly denied this fake story, of course. Popes may speak out on issues that affect human dignity and flourishing but they do not endorse political candidates.

Needless to say, the Pope Francis agenda never had a chance.

Still more lamentable, however, more than two years out from the 2016 election, the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis has erupted yet again. This has eroded even more the standing and influence of the U.S. and Vatican Catholic hierarchy and Pope Francis — just when moral leadership is most needed.

This will be the topic of a second column.

Mark Rondeau is the Banner's night editor and religion editor. He can be reached at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com


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