Martin Luther Was the Donald Trump of 1517

If the leader of the Reformation could have tweeted the 95 theses, he would have. And he was no slouch at locker room talk, either.

Luther's protest, 1517, (1909). Martin Luther nailing his theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. Engraving taken from the Harmsworth History of the World. (London, 1909). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Luther's protest, 1517, (1909). Martin Luther nailing his theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. Engraving taken from the Harmsworth History of the World. (London, 1909). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Imagine that, when former President Barack Obama goes to Germany this week to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a simple booking error actually sends him directly back to the year 1517.

He might be briefly glad for the change of scene — being an ex-president can get a bit dull, after all — but pretty soon he’d start witnessing some events that looked queasily familiar. He’d see a conventionally quarrelsome political scene disrupted by the emergence of an improbable figure who, at first, no one took very seriously. He’d watch as existing players tried to work out how they could best make use of this man before he inevitably flamed out. Obama would even bear witness to this Renaissance-era disruptor discovering how to use new media in a way that no one had ever done before: using new technology, the printing press, to reach a mass audience, not so much challenging the establishment as bypassing it entirely. This man wouldn’t use the language the establishment expected or observe the etiquette they demanded. In fact, he’d be vulgar, foul-mouthed, vindictive, and cantankerous, with a very tasteless sense of humor. But he’d communicate with a vivid directness whose power couldn’t be denied, leaving half of Germany horrified, half of it delighted, and all of it paying attention.

Of course Obama would recognize that Martin Luther, the monk who came from nowhere to break the power of the Catholic Church, is not quite the same as Donald Trump, the TV personality who came from nowhere to break the norms of American politics. For all his cheerful boorishness, Luther was also given to agonies of conscience, extended bouts of self-doubt and despair. He was genuinely, almost pathologically, convinced of his own utter sinfulness and worthlessness. And he was a man driven by certain core convictions that never wavered over his adult life, a set of ideas that became the foundation of a whole system of thought and for which he was plainly ready to lay down his life. These things do not appear to be true of President Trump.

And yet, if Luther’s and Trump’s respective dramas are strikingly familiar, it is because they are both about how long-standing political establishments fail to cope with disruptive outsiders, often hastening their own moments of reckoning.

When Luther’s 95 Theses leveraged a polemic against one fundraising technique into a comprehensive critique of the Catholic Church’s doctrines and practices, the church’s hierarchy was at a loss for how to respond. Horrified churchmen said that “every day it rains Luther books” while books denouncing him “cannot even be given away.” Rather than engaging with Luther’s ideas, they simply labeled him a heretic, ordering him to shut up or face the legal consequences. In a series of set-piece debates, opponents tried to catch Luther out in the various contradictions that had appeared in his torrent of words; Luther simply said he’d changed his mind. With rising outrage, they pointed out that he had defied the authority of the pope, the Councils of the Church, the ancient Fathers, and of the Holy Roman Emperor. The more the accusations came, the more his growing legions of supporters seemed to glory in them.

Not many people have what it takes to set themselves against a ruling class this way. If Luther’s sense of inner conviction sets him apart from Trump, their personalities were similar in other ways. Luther, like Trump, had an earthy sense of humor, famously oversized appetite, and a legendary grouchiness toward anyone who crossed him, whom he was always ready to label “fanatics.” Where others pricked the church with needles, he said, he himself used a boar-hunting pike. He nursed a sometimes crude German nationalism and played it up in others. And his early openness to Judaism reversed itself once he realized that few Jews wanted to convert to his doctrines, and he concluded bitterly that “a Jewish heart is as hard as a stick, a stone, as iron, as a devil.”

But for both men, these traits leant themselves more to disrupting old establishments, not building new ones. Just as Trump continually harks back to the unexpected triumph of his election victory for vindication, so Luther throughout his life kept returning to the Diet of Worms in 1521, the moment when he had expected to be condemned by the Catholic Church to martyrdom and was instead miraculously delivered to safety and freedom by a German prince who wished to become his patron.

But such moments of providential validation didn’t, by themselves, equip either Luther or Trump to build a new world. After Luther’s triumph in Worms, he was forced to watch as control of his revolution passed to an increasingly divided group of lieutenants, true believers, opportunists, and pragmatists. When he tried to reassert his own control, it turned out that the vision of spiritual freedom with which he had attracted so many followers didn’t mean quite what they thought. Luther meant freedom to agree with him, not to go their own way. He had no interest in tearing up the basic rules of a society that had made him the man he was. But it turned out he couldn’t contain the hunger for change that he had let loose. Eventually his radicalized and disappointed followers rose in rebellion. Luther cheered on the armies that suppressed and butchered them.

What would Luther have thought of his American successor? They might have gotten along just fine. Luther was no puritan, and some of his recorded “table talk” is pretty close to Trump’s “locker room” banter. He reckoned that men’s “broad shoulders and narrow hips” showed they were cleverer than women, whereas women were created by God to stay at home, with “broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon”; he also made plain his distaste for “large and flabby breasts.” Luther and Trump would also quickly have discovered a shared impatience with law and lawyers: A single wise prince was worth a battalion of pen-pushers, Luther thought, and he was often alarmingly ready to give carte blanche to a ruler whose favor he needed — even to the point of winking at some very unorthodox marital arrangements. He liked rulers who cut through convention to get stuff done and who left him alone to do his own thing.

But in the end Luther was a man of conscience. We might not like all his principles, and he could certainly bend them when he had to, but they defined him. And we don’t have to guess what he would have thought of a politician whose will to power didn’t seem firmly anchored to any deeper convictions: He has already told us.

Luther would likely have identified President Trump not with himself but with another corpulent presence on the early 16th-century scene, a man whose self-importance Luther skewered by calling him “Squire Harry” — the English king, Henry VIII. This, after all, was a man who combined narcissistic self-importance, bearish charisma, intellectual laziness, a throwaway attitude toward women, a degree of real shrewdness that he himself persistently overestimated, and a lack of any sustained interest in the nitty-gritty of government. A man who first struck a very public pose against the Lutheran cause when it suited him politically and who performed a 180-degree turn a few years later. His new Protestant allies never quite trusted him, but they couldn’t resist the opportunities he offered them. Only a handful of lonely figures in England, bolstered from afar by Luther himself, stayed true to their Never Henry principles.

If President Trump wants to become a new Henry VIII, the recipe is simple: find a Cardinal Wolsey or a Thomas Cromwell, a man (it will almost certainly be a man) who can be left alone to manage the business of government capably while his boss looks after the show business and takes the credit. That way he can stamp his mark permanently on his country and himself on the world’s imagination, even if there are not many real achievements to boast of.

If he wants to become a new Martin Luther, the road is harder: He will need to assemble his apparently ragbag collection of political, ideological, and emotional fragments into a single coherent idea, a revolutionary principle that seems self-evidently to be an idea whose time has come and that can still stir the soul centuries later. So far, the chances that anyone will ever feel inclined to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Trump’s Reformation do not look good.

Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

Alec Ryrie is a professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University and author of Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World.

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