Why Donald Trump is the Martin Luther of our time
Donald Trump is the Martin Luther of our time. Trump shares with Luther an ability to exploit the revolutionary technological breakthroughs of their respective eras — in Luther’s case the printing press; in Trump’s, the explosive reach of digital media – to transform the world.
In both cases the medium became the message. Martin Luther showed the Western world the revolutionary power of the printed word, while Trump demonstrated that the technological revolution of the digital age has the capacity to mobilise the “deplorables” and to jeopardise the hard-won political achievements of the modern era.
Luther was within his lifetime eclipsed by the forces that he was in large part responsible for unleashing. The same will no doubt hold true with Trump.
Luther would have been a forgotten footnote without the printing press, invented in the mid-fifteenth century. Had he lived 50 years earlier, his 95 Theses nailed to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church in 1517 would have had an audience limited to a few literate neighbours. Without the printing press, his passionate demands for reformation would have disappeared without consequence.
Instead, the printing press made Luther the rock star of the new print era. The retiring monk was Europe’s first best-selling author – appealing to the growing numbers of a newly literate public chafing under repressive and corrupt Catholic and dynastic leaders.
Luther made revolutionary demands on the Catholic Church, Europe’s preeminent power. Thesis 86, for example asks: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”
His simple, short and inexpensive broadsheets, written in German rather than scholarly Latin, were printed and distributed at low cost by a new class of capitalist publishers throughout Europe. The new technological-economic ecosystem did not replace the age-old, painstaking practice of bespoke manuscript copying and distribution. It simply overwhelmed it, as digital media has done to print in our time.
Then as now, the new industry of publishing knew a profit centre when it saw one. Luther’s intemperate language, his casual approach to facts and his demand for religious reform –all written in the vernacular — made for popular reading by the growing ranks of a literate and disaffected public, and big profits for publishers, distributors and vendors.
Luther’s work was both democratising and revolutionary. Information had long been the province of scholars and monks hidden away in monasteries behind high walls. But Luther’s critique, and his translation of the Bible into vernacular German, attracted formerly disenfranchised audiences throughout Europe and both widened and educated a public long excluded and marginalised. For a few pennies anyone could participate in the new community created by the freewheeling era of print.
The parallels with the Trump era are self-evident. Like Trump, Luther was an intolerant bigot estranged from the leading powers of the day. Both played fast and loose with the facts and ignored the inconsistencies in their arguments. Each created a brand that proved immensely popular and disruptive.
Like Trump, Luther was a master of hyperbole and invective, with no tolerance for his many detractors. Luther excoriated the “anti-Christ” sitting on the papal throne in Rome, and was excommunicated for his trouble. Trump had his ever-expanding stable of “enemies of the people.”
The public embraced them both.
However, whatever his flaws, Luther created a newly literate and educated public that transformed Europe and, for all of its shortcomings, helped to establish the foundations for the Enlightenment and the modern age.
Trump can claim no such positive role.
The ex-president shamelessly exploited the opportunities created by the technological advances of the digital era. But rather than mobilise the public to better their lives, Trump gives voice to a disaffected citizenry in a manner that endangers rather than honours the public square.
His political legacy –the Big Lie — is Trump’s defining feature – a contribution far more malevolent than any of Luther’s many deficiencies. This places the disgraced American president in a direct line with the first master of modern-day propaganda – the evil Nazi genius Joseph Goebbels. Here too the historical lineage is self-evident. If the Nazis were the first to betray the democratising and educational promise of modern technology, Trump too has demonstrated that the extraordinary opportunities created by digital media are just as easily, indeed more easily, exploited for antidemocratic and self-induced ignorance. The promise of technology as an instrument for cultivating the better angels of our existence remains unrealised.
There have always been morons and bigots with a message of hate and intolerance. Until the internet however, their audiences were limited by the technology and distribution systems that had not changed much since Luther.
In the digital age the limits imposed by primitive technology — print, but also radio and television –and distribution networks themselves have all but disappeared. Today the marginal price of entry to the public square is no longer a barrier but rather an invitation to join the fray and the crazier and more outlandish you are, the better.
Trump represents the failed promise of assumptions established in Luther’s era and that form the foundation for the Enlightenment and its hopes for political moral progress. Digital media in the Trump era has proven itself adept at fanning the flames of intolerance, and undermining confidence in democratic institutions. The creation of digital media itself has called into question the ability of the United States to debate issues with civility and respect and to govern as a community.
The monk from Wittenberg would have been no stranger to this new and dangerous world.