Donald Trump is the Martin Luther of our time. Trump shares with Luther the ability to harness the revolutionary technological breakthroughs of their respective eras in the case of Luthers the printing press; in Trumps, the explosive reach of digital media to transform the world.
In both cases, the medium has become 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 mobilize the deplorable and jeopardize the hard-won political achievements of the modern era. .
Luther was over the course of his life overshadowed by the forces he was largely responsible for releasing. The same will no doubt be true with Trump.
Luther would have been a forgotten footnote without the printing press, invented in the mid-15th century. Had he lived 50 years earlier, his 95 theses nailed to the door of Wittenbergs All Saints Church in 1517 would have had an audience limited to a few literate neighbors. Without the printing press, his passionate demands for reform would have disappeared without consequence.
Instead, the printing press made Luther the rock star of the new era of printing. The retired monk was Europe’s first best-selling author, appealing to the growing number of a newly literate audience who rubbed shoulders with repressive and corrupt Catholic and dynastic rulers.
Luther made revolutionary demands on the Catholic Church, the preeminent power in Europe. Thesis 86, for example, asks: Why does the Pope, whose wealth today exceeds the wealth of the richest Crassus, builds St. Peter’s Basilica with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?
Its simple, short, and cheap broadsheets, written in German rather than scholarly Latin, were printed and distributed cheaply by a new class of capitalist publishers across Europe. The new techno-economic ecosystem has not replaced the age-old and laborious practice of copying and distributing tailor-made manuscripts. It simply outgrown it, as digital media did to print in our time.
Both then and now, the new publishing industry knew a profit center when it saw one. Luthers’ untimely language, his casual approach to the facts and his call for religious reform, all written in the vernacular, made popular reading by the growing ranks of a literate and disaffected audience, and big profits for publishers, distributors and sellers.
The work of the Luthers was both democratizing and revolutionary. Information had long been the domain of scholars and monks hidden in monasteries behind high walls. But Luthers’ critique and his translation of the Bible into vernacular German drew a once disenfranchised audience across Europe and both expanded and educated a long excluded and marginalized audience. For pennies, anyone could participate in the new community created by the era of freewheeling print.
The parallels with the Trump era are obvious. Like Trump, Luther was an intolerant fanatic, separated from the great powers of the day. Both played quickly and freely with the facts and ignored inconsistencies in their arguments. Each has created a brand that has proven to be extremely popular and disruptive.
Like Trump, Luther was a master of hyperbole and invective, with no tolerance for his many detractors. Luther excoriated the antichrist sitting on the papal throne in Rome and was excommunicated for his troubles. Trump had his stable of ever-expanding enemies of the people.
The audience kissed them both.
However, whatever his flaws, Luther created a newly literate and educated audience that transformed Europe and, despite all of its shortcomings, helped lay the foundation for the Enlightenment and the modern era.
Trump cannot claim such a positive role.
The ex-president shamelessly exploited the opportunities created by technological advancements in the digital age. But rather than mobilizing the public to improve his life, Trump gives voice to disaffected population in a way that endangers rather than honors the public square.
His political legacy, The Big Lie is Trumps, defines a much more malicious contribution than any of Luthers’ many shortcomings. This puts the US president in disgrace in direct line with the first master of modern propaganda, the evil Nazi genius Joseph Goebbels. Here, too, the historical lineage is evident. While the Nazis were the first to betray the democratizing and educational promise of modern technology, Trump has also shown that the extraordinary opportunities created by digital media are just as easily, if not more easily, exploited for undemocratic and self-induced ignorance. . The promise of technology as an instrument to cultivate the best angels in our existence remains unrealized.
There have always been morons and fanatics with a message of hate and intolerance. Until the Internet, however, their audience was limited by technology and distribution systems which had not changed much since Luther.
In the digital age, the limits imposed by primitive print technology, but also radio and television and the distribution networks themselves have all but disappeared. Today, the marginal price of entry into the public square is no longer a barrier but rather an invitation to join the fray and the more crazy and outlandish you are, the better.
Trump represents the failed promise of assumptions made during the Luthers’ era that form the basis of the Enlightenment and its hopes for moral political progress. The digital media of the Trump era have proven to be capable of stoking the flames of intolerance and of undermining trust in democratic institutions. The creation of digital media itself challenged the ability of the United States to debate issues with civility and respect and to rule as a community.
The monk of Wittenberg would have been no stranger to this new and dangerous world.
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