It takes effort to picture Donald Trump as Alexander VI, the late medieval pope whose notoriety helped trigger the Protestant Reformation. Once you have the image, it is hard to lose. Today’s America and late 15th-century Rome are separated by half a millennium but united on an important point. The US is a dominant system that is losing its legitimacy. The Church was turned upside down by the advent of printing. Post-literate social media is doing the same to the US establishment. Mr Trump, like the Borgias, is the ripening of the old, not a harbinger of the new. His presidency is peak American excess.
Today’s warning signs echo that historic crossroad. Late medieval Rome was pervaded by three corruptions: simony, nepotism and indulgences. Simony, which is the sale of ecclesiastical office, had extended to every bishop, archbishop and cardinal’s position by the time Rodrigo de Borja became pope. Indeed, he bought the papacy.
Mr Trump’s cabinet is crammed with plutocrats who owe their positions to money. Forty per cent of US ambassadorships are occupied by business figures with no diplomatic training, such as Gordon Sondland, the US envoy to Brussels, whose hotel fortune has proved of little use in dealing with Europeans. Mr Sondland gave $1m to Mr Trump’s inaugural committee.
The US president is taking the system he inherited to a new level. Thirty per cent of Barack Obama’s ambassadors were campaign donors with no diplomatic background. Money’s grip over US politics has been advancing for decades. There is little difference between Wall Street taming the US derivatives regulator in the late 1990s and Boeing doing the same to the Federal Aviation Authority more recently. Each regulatory capture led to disastrous crashes. Financial clout trumped public interest.
Nepotism, which was the Catholic church’s second deadly sin, is also rife in Mr Trump’s administration. In Papal Rome, nepotism — deriving from nepote, which means nephew — was a euphemism for popes awarding sinecures to their illegitimate offspring. Again, Mr Trump did not create the problem but he has made it worse. No previous White House occupant had a child, Ivanka, who called herself “First Daughter”, let alone a son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with plenipotentiary rights.
But we should not forget what came before. Mr Trump took the Republican nomination from Jeb Bush, both the brother and son of two presidents, and the presidency from Hillary Clinton, wife of the president in between. Hunter Biden, the son of one of Mr Trump’s possible 2020 opponents, Joe Biden, made a legal fortune from trading off his father’s name.
The sale of indulgences, the Church’s third malpractice, is the most deeply embedded in today’s America. Wealthy Catholics would buy indulgences from the Church in exchange for support for good works, such as new churches or orphanages. These certificates of indulgence would reduce the donor’s time in purgatory and thus bring heaven closer.
Today’s equivalent is philanthropy. Taxes are a version of purgatory. Giving to charity is both tax deductible and a great way of laundering your family name. Perhaps there is an eternal ledger in which families who have made their fortune from selling arms, or weaponising personal data, will receive a bill. In today’s America they can reduce their tax burden by opening an art gallery.
Mature systems must adapt or die. What prompted the Protestant uprising was the Church’s glaring distance from the philosophy it was supposed to uphold. The chasm between Christ’s gospel of poverty and the palaces the bishops inhabited proved too great for the unlettered masses. America’s meritocratic creed also looks increasingly hollow to large chunks of voters. The net worth of the median US household in 2016 was $97,300. America’s wealthiest 400 families are worth the same as the bottom 300m people combined.
A few years after Pope Alexander passed away, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door. His revolution would not have been possible without printing. More than a century of religious wars followed. Western democracy today is beset by a similar technological revolution. Democracy’s high priests have lost control of the message. After Alexander’s death, the papacy reverted to the Medicis — the Florentine plutocrats. This showed that Rome had not learnt from its mistakes. We can only hope that America today is better able to digest the warnings of history.