Littwin: The pope prays at the border. Trump insults him. Who wins?

Mike Littwin
Fair and unbalanced

Now that we’ve seen the Donald and the Pope squaring off, we’re left with at least two questions.

One, what in the name of the Holy See was the pope thinking? Hadn’t he seen Donald Trump in action? Didn’t he realize that the Donald would call him “weak” or, gosh, “low energy”? Didn’t he understand the risks? When you insult someone — even if you’re insulting their Christianity — you’re playing in the Donald’s home court.

Two, in America, anyone can be a Christian who calls himself a Christian except apparently Barack Obama. So Trump, despite the long list of sins, qualifies. And if you say he doesn’t, he’ll insult your mother. And who knows where will go from there?

Fortunately, it was a brief skirmish. By the end of the day, Trump was calling Pope Francis a “wonderful guy.” But if it was brief, it was still entertaining, and also instructive.

By now everyone realizes that there is nothing Trump can say or do that will undermine his position with his fans — and I use the word advisedly — but this week he has definitely forced the issue. I mean, before going a few rounds with the pope, Trump had already called George W. Bush a liar on WMDs, called him out for the disaster that was the war that followed and then went semi-truther for pointing out the semi-obvious, that 9/11 actually happened on Bush’s watch. It sounded like a Bill Maher rant, and what happened to Trump — besides getting caught out for lying about when he first opposed the war?

Nothing happened. W. was coming to South Carolina to campaign for Jeb!, and something needed to be said to distract the voters, and Trump was there to do it.

But something will happen. The field of 17 Republicans is down to six — if you insist on counting Ben Carson — and unless the polls are all wrong, Trump is set to run away from that field Saturday in very conservative, veteran-heavy South Carolina, where everything Trump said about Bush would be disastrous if said by any Republican candidate not named Trump.

And unless the national polls are all wrong — except for one from NBC-Wall Street Journal that somehow has Ted Cruz winning — Trump is lapping the field. Trump says if he wins South Carolina, he could sweep the table. And even poll guru Nate Silver, who kept advising us that the Trump phenomenon was a mirage, who still talks about the Trump ceiling that the Republican establishment hopes is real, now gives him a 50 percent chance to win the nomination.

So, yeah, Trump can safely say the pope is “disgraceful” for questioning whether the Donald can champion a wall on the Mexican border and still be a Christian. It’s who he is. It’s what he does.

Strangely — or maybe it’s tragically — it’s how he’s winning.

It’s clear by now that Trump’s policy-challenged campaign is not about who’s the most conservative or about any ideology – he’ll leave it to Democrats to vote for the socialist — but about being the guy who doesn’t back down.

One theory is that Trump got into it with the pope because Marco Rubio is gaining ground in South Carolina and criticizing a pope, especially this liberal pope, works well with the evangelicals who dominate the Republican electorate in South Carolina and have history with Catholics, if not directly with the pope.

And maybe that’s it. It’s all strategy. But I doubt it. Let’s look at the trend lines.

The pope hits Trump. Trump hits back.

Putin praises Trump. Trump praises Putin.

McCain hits Trump. Trump says his idea of a war hero is the kind who isn’t captured by the enemy.

Strategy? Well, maybe it is of a kind. In a CNN town hall, Trump told Anderson Cooper that his weakness is that he holds a grudge. Well, the Republican base – or at least Trump’s part of it and Cruz’s part of it, and they seemed to have infected most of the rest of it — is nursing a yuge grudge. And by now, everyone has noticed. I mean, what did you have as the over-and-under in the use of the word “liar” in the last Republican debate?

Trump’s fans — and his campaign is the ultimate in picking a team and rooting for that team no matter what crimes and/or misdemeanors its players have committed — aren’t interested in the details of his policies or about his three wives or about his bankruptcies or about the eminent-domaining of little old ladies or about how he could possibly tell which people he’s going to stop at the border are Muslims and which are not. What Trump’s fans want — and Byron York did some nice reporting on this for The Washington Examiner — is for someone to blow things up, and who does that better than Trump?

And so the pope, on his last day of a visit to Mexico, comes to the border to pray for those who find themselves stuck on the wrong side. He implicitly criticizes Trump — because that’s who this pope is — and when asked on the plane ride back to Rome about Trump, we got the not-a-Christian answer, although the pope did qualify it by saying there might be more context in what Trump has to say than just building a wall.

So, of course, Trump struck back, slamming the pope for questioning his faith. “I’m proud to be a Christian, and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now with our current president.”

OK, it sounds a lot like Trump, in rebutting the pope, is actually questioning Obama’s Christian faith, just as Trump had questioned Cruz’s evangelical faith.

Demagoguery strikes deep. Or, as Anderson Cooper put it to Trump on the CNN town hall, is this what his presidency would be like — one long rant, one insult flowing from the last.

And Trump’s answer: “I can be more politically correct than anybody you’ve ever interviewed.”

Political correctness comes in many styles. But however it looks on Donald Trump in South Carolina, I’m betting it can’t last any longer than the first Jeb! sighting.

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for


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