At first glance there would seem to be little that would connect Donald Trump with Martin Luther, but stick with me here.
In 1517 Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation with his 95 Theses. This document railed against Papal indulgences, which the faithful could buy as a sort of “Get Out of Jail Free” card for sin.
The later Reformation also held that Christian scripture is the only source of the rules for worship. There was no need for priests to get in the way. This, of course, went over in Rome like a fart in a spacesuit.
But, Luther, a German priest and moral theology professor, wasn’t the first to call for a reformation of the Catholic Church. Over previous centuries there had been lots of clarion calls for changes, some of which were adopted, and many of which withered on the vine.
But, Luther’s writings appeared about 60 years after the invention of the printing press. That press, and the ideas Luther sparked, were a perfect match. Christians could connect with God via their own reading, and books were becoming more accessible.
In the year following Luther’s Theses, German publishers were producing about a million books a year. One-third of them were by Martin Luther.
Of course, the Catholic Church used the same presses to attack the Reformationists, especially by going at them after the Peasants War in 1525 which the church blamed on the heretical reformist Luther.
In the past few years we have seen another reformist, Donald Trump, spread his message via a medium ideal to his form of writing — Twitter.
And, other forms of social media: YouTube, Facebook, email, Instagram et al have been used to organize protests, fact-check, mock and share Trump’s increasingly troubling acts and pronouncements.
In the first few days of Trump’s presidency it was photos on Twitter and Facebook that made a lie of Trump’s “alternative facts.” It was Facebook that turned KellyAnne Conway into the role model for lying sycophants everywhere.
It was Twitter national parks and NASA turned to when they went rogue and defied Trump’s gag orders. Social media sparked and fuelled the Women’s March that so enraged Trump, who, of course, took to Twitter to belittle it.
It was 350,000 online donations that boosted the ACLU’s coffers by $24 million after it launched a court challenge against Trump’s immigration ban.
It was Twitter that rallied thousands of people to rush to airports to protest that same ban.
It was the @realFrederickDouglass Twitter account that took the piss out of Trump after his ignorant remarks about the dead activist, who Trump seemed to believe was still alive.
This is all not to say that mainstream media was ineffectual. In fact, newspaper and broadcast news outlets, despite White House charges of them being “fake news” and “negative,” have been doing yeoman’s work in challenging Spicer and Conway about their facts and assertions.
But, the most powerful battalions battling against Trump’s frightening presidency — fuelled by the hard work of the press — are fighting it out on social media.
The irony of this is sweet and echoes the battles of the presses in the 16th century. It was the incredible speed with which printing exploded in Europe after Gutenberg’s invention in 1455 that led to Luther’s rise to fame and to the Catholic Church’s spirited attack on him.
Social media is vast orders of magnitude faster than early presses. But the impact and pattern are the same, though, one hopes, in reverse.
That’s not to say Luther is Trump — in fact, quite the opposite. Luther was literate and thoughtful — even in his insults. Compare for example Trump’s “so dishonest” to Luther’s “You forgot to purge yourself with hellabore while you were preparing to fabricate this lie.” That’s not to say they didn’t have some things in common. Luther, for example, wasn’t a great fan of Jews.
But, in his time he was a bestselling author, with a percentage of the book market that makes The Art of the Deal look like a remaindered bathroom reader.
But it’s worth looking into the past and learn from it. That’s something Trump is unable to do. That’s something Frederick Douglass would know all about. If he were alive. Which he is not.
Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.
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