Mussolini, the pope and the amoral pragmatism of President Trump's enablers
Despite his jutting jaw and comical bravado, Donald Trump is not another Benito Mussolini. The Italian dictator had six children, one wife and several mistresses, the most loyal of whom, Claretta Petacci, chose to die with him and was hung upside down in a Milan gas station. Most of Trump's women have fared better.
On the other hand, the similarities between Trump and Mussolini are so obvious that it would amount to journalistic malpractice not to mention some of them. Mussolini was vain, bombastic, vulgar and, while the creator of fascism, he believed in nothing aside from himself. A former Italian prime minister, quoted in David Kertzer's book “The Pope and Mussolini,” thought that Mussolini's chief attribute “was his devotion to the cult of his own personality.” Is this our guy or what?
Kertzer's book was first published in 2014 at a time when Trump's presidency seemed likely only to Jared Kushner. So clearly no analogy was intended, although one is certainly there. The most cogent parallel is contained in the book's very title: the pope. Strip him of his vestments and Pius XI becomes a politician much like Reince Priebus, Mike Pence or any other member of the Republican establishment for whom, in exchange for something of value - lower taxes, less regulation or, in the case of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a comforting certainty in the loo - a deal can be made. These Republicans and others would accept Trump and gamble on American democracy and world peace.
In Mussolini's day, the Catholic Church, too, had its demands and grievances. The Italian state had seized church lands, reducing the pope's realm to itsy-bitsy Vatican City. The state had taken over the schools. It was no longer financially supporting the church. It had permitted divorce. Pius XI wanted to return to the status quo ante. In exchange for recognition of Mussolini's fascist government, by 1929 Il Duce was willing to oblige.
Mussolini was hardly religious. On the contrary, as a one-time doctrinaire socialist, he reviled the church, considering it an anachronistic picker of the average man's pocket. Still, he was willing to do business with the Vatican. Mussolini's only principle was his own self-interest.
As for Pius XI, he had many principles - but none of them stood in the way of making a deal with a fascist whose goons routinely beat up priests, attacked Catholic social centers and murdered the occasional dissident. Violence displeased the pope. What displeased him more, however, were current church-state relations. What the pope feared most of all was the threat of communism and, of course, the entirely hallucinatory power he attributed to the Jews. Mussolini was willing to destroy them both.
Pius XI did not like Mussolini - not his swagger, not his use of violence, not his libidinous ramblings and not his vanity. Bit by bit, however, he came to terms with what he loathed and instead concentrated on what was good for the church. This amorality is often called pragmatism.
In today's Republican Party, a similar process is under way. The princes of the GOP have elevated business concerns to the level of national interest. This accounts for the procession of Wall Street types who have backed Trump almost from the start - Wilbur Ross, Carl Icahn and Steve Schwarzman, who once said of a possible tax increase on private-equity firms: “It's a war. It's like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”
It's not that these billionaires live in a world totally of their own. They all are philanthropists. But when it comes to Trump, they have managed to overlook his mocking of the disabled, his insults regarding Mexicans, his attacks on the press, his cooing at Putin, his name-calling, his spectacular lying and his daunting ignorance.
In a recent speech at UCLA, Bret Stephens, the deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal and an unquestioned conservative, likened the way “the new Trumpian conservatives have made their peace with their new political master” to those pathetic souls who once found virtue, if not inevitability, in Stalinism.
But the billionaires and politicians who sit around Trump's table and chortle cravenly at the boss' jokes do not fear for their lives or their jobs. No Siberia awaits them.
It is instructive to read how the Vatican, a moral institution, once put its own self-interest above its moral duty and embraced Mussolini. It is just plain depressing to note how history repeats itself. The Vatican, at least, sold out for church privileges. The GOP business and political class has sold out for greed.
Richard Cohen is a columnist for the Washington Post.