These Walls of Straw and Paper: Trump, Luther and Political Populism

Image by author.

By Martin Laidlaw, The University of Dundee

A survey of emotional responses to Donald J. Trump would no doubt produce an interesting array of adjectives. In the postgraduate office of Dundee University, my colleagues offer me terms such as ‘disgust’ and ‘dismay’, alongside epithets such as ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘oompa-loompa’ in summary of Trump’s fledgling political career. It is clear that few human beings on earth have aroused such a visceral response to their actions in the last 12 months as the 2016 Republican candidate for the US presidency. I wager it would be difficult for any reader to find a friend or colleague who does not have an opinion on the possibility of a Trump presidency. I read with great interest the recent submission to the Histories of Emotions blog titled ‘A Brief Note on Feelings, Facts & Donald J. Trump’, which discussed rhetorical conventions of Trump’s campaign. The description of how the American author hasn’t had ‘a conversation with an Australian in six months that didn’t involve mention of Trump’ is a wonderful representation of how much international interest there is in the possibility of a Trump presidency. The emotional responses to Trump’s chances are, however, primarily negative. Viewed as being a ‘danger to the planet’, a ‘clown’, or even as having ‘fascist proclivities’ (proving Orwell’s 1946 statement that ‘the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable’[1] to be unfortunately true), Trump-hating has become the national pastime of the academic, shop-keeper and world leader alike. Regardless of this, Trump does appeal to a large section of US voters and, as frightening as it may seem, is in a tremendous position to win the presidency. The art of political persuasion is, however, not a twenty-first-century invention, and I believe that Trump’s manipulation of the media and employment of ‘new media’ platforms, as well as his acerbic rhetoric towards his opponent, have parallels with another historical figure: Martin Luther.

Image courtesy of Reddit (r /thedonald).

Comparative analysis of Donald Trump and Martin Luther is a premise which immediately meets rejection. How can a twenty-first-century real estate mogul and reality television star have anything in common with the Augustinian monk who challenged the legitimacy of papal authority? One area where Donald Trump and Martin Luther can be seen to be in the vanguard of their field is in the adoption and employment of new media. The Reformation could not be achieved without the technological innovations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Essential to Luther’s dissemination of message and the challenging of religious authority was his masterful use of an emerging technological medium: print. As Andrew Pettegree writes, ‘When Luther first spoke out against indulgences, Europe was beginning to embrace, albeit with some caution, a new and powerful communication process, the printing press’.[2] The employment of the printing press by Marin Luther was of incalculable benefit to Protestant reformers. New mediums, particularly the pamphlet, were utilised, and were so vociferously produced and received that ‘hundreds of pamphlets rained down on the laity in the first decades of the Reformation’.[3] As was the case with Luther, Trump’s use of print media has been effective, with his 2015 release of Crippled America acting as a pulp-manifesto. Further parallels between Luther and Trump in regard to the manipulation of emerging communication platforms may be seen in Trump’s use of social media. Within this medium Trump is able to successfully promote his views whilst also manipulating the media narrative surrounding his campaign to the extent that mainstream news coverage has negated the need for Trump to fund conventional advertising campaigns against his opponent.[4] It has been noted by many commentators that Trump’s twitter account is an incredibly successful tool in his presidential campaign; with one commenting simply ‘Donald Trump’s twitter feed is pure magic’.[5] @RealDonaldTrump, Trump’s twitter account provides the ability to send short communication notices that respond directly to developing stories or events: it is the pamphlet of the digital age.

Trump’s use of social media also allows him to interact directly with the voters of America. In relation to Luther Ozment writes ‘the revolution envisioned by the pamphleteers was a revolt of ordinary laypeople’,[6] and Trump’s use of social media aligns with these tenets. Within his social media communications, Trump frequently employs colloquial language, makes spelling errors and displays little regard for political correctness. Like Luther, Trump ‘[speaks] to shock and delight[s] in the outrageous’.[7] Although to some this may be simply the result of his own unavoidable ignorance, it is important to consider how important this employment of language is in constructing Trump’s preferred narrative – that he alone is fighting a corrupt political system that has abandoned the needs and desires of the American people. The use of vernacular lexis in order to promote a political viewpoint is nothing new, and Luther’s decision to write many of his works in German was integral to the wide readership he received. As Pettegree suggests, ‘Luther made the bold and radical decision to speak beyond an informed audience of trained theologians and address the wider German public in their own language’.[8] Luther himself stated:

I write only little pamphlets and German sermons for the unlearned laity, this shall not disturb me. Would to God I had in all my life, with all the ability I have, helped one layman to be better! I would be satisfied, thank God, and be quite willing then to let all my little books perish.[9]

Similarly, Trump’s use of language beyond that of expected political lexis has helped to craft the image that he is both outside the established political system, and suitably in touch with the electorate to enact meaningful change.

As well as through the use of vernacular language on social media, Trump compounds his image as a ‘man of the people’ by holding an astonishing number of widely attended rallies. Comparisons to Luther may be drawn with his actions in the years 1518–1521, during which Luther travelled throughout Germany extensively promoting his works and theological challenges to the authority of the Catholic Church. As Pettegree writes, these journeys were ‘of great importance to the development of Luther’s public persona’;[10] much like the high frequency of rallies is to the Donald Trump campaign today. Luther was incredibly well known throughout Germany from 1518 onwards, but like Trump he created divergent public opinion: ‘Luther was a condemned heretic and the most famous man in Germany’.[11] Both Luther and Trump represent their entrance into the political arena as reluctant, and governed not by a desire for power or fame but rather the necessity of correcting the corrupt system of their time. Trump declares ‘I had a great life. I don’t need this. I am doing this for you: To Make America Great Again’,[12] and presents himself as the last hope of a political system in crisis. Similarly, Luther stated, ‘I feel myself a debtor to my brethren, and am bound to take thought for them, that fewer of them may be ruined, or that their ruin may be less complete, by the plagues of Rome’.[13] Trump’s statement that ‘I supported John McCain, and we lost … I supported Mitt Romney, and we lost … This time I said, I’m going to do it myself’,[14] a lament on the inability of the Republican Party to achieve victory, may find semblance with Luther’s ‘the distress and misery that oppress all the Christian estates … have now forced me too to cry out’.[15]

Central to Trump’s campaign is the presentation of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as representative of corruption and establishment cronyism. An issue that has hindered Hillary Clinton throughout her election campaign is the charge of deleting 33,000 emails that were held on an illegally created private server in her home. In creating this server, Secretary Clinton violated both US Federal Law and standard State Department procedure,[16] which called for the submission of all electronic devices used to transmit classified data. Donald Trump’s central complaint on this issue is not that the Democratic presidential candidate risked national security by allowing sensitive information to remain on an unsecure server, but that Hillary Clinton will not face a judicial penalty for her crime. Trump presents the narrative that Hillary Clinton has transgressed against US Law, and will not face penalty despite the fact that others have been incarcerated for similar actions.[17] Comparing this to Luther, we may cast Hillary as ‘the buyer of indulgence’ who escapes punishment despite evidence of guilt. Trump’s statement that the ‘FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow! #RiggedSystem’[18] reflects Luther’s assertation that ‘the temporal Christian power must exercise its office without let or hindrance, without considering whom it may strike, whether pope, or bishop, or priest: whoever is guilty, let him suffer for it’.[19] Clinton, in avoiding penalty, causes Trump to ask ‘Who hath given thee authority to exalt thyself above thy God, to break and to loose His commandments?’.[20] Ultimately Trump, like Luther, disagrees with the granting of absolution by temporal powers. His conclusions echo Luther’s: ‘Where there is sin, there remains no avoiding the punishment’.[21]

Trump’s allegations of corruption within the Clinton family extend beyond the creation of an illegal email server. Much of the Republican candidate’s narrative focuses on the description of the US political process as rife with unethical practice. Central to his painting of Hillary Clinton as a disreputable are accusations of financial impropriety within the Clinton Foundation, particularly charges of nepotism and embezzlement. These charges include providing access to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in return for large charitable donations, the facilitation of political policy detrimental to US finances in return for investment, and the amassing of large speaking fees by the Clinton family. Trump’s vocal rebuke of corrupt political practices can be compared to Luther’s comment that, ‘I have indeed inveighed sharply against impious doctrines, and I have not been slack to censure my adversaries on account, not of their bad morals, but of their impiety’.[22] The depiction of Washington DC as a den of corruption, populated by those who seek financial gain over the reward of serving their countrymen, aligns with Luther’s view of Leo X’s Rome: ‘There is nothing under the vast heavens more corrupt, more pestilential, more hateful than the Court of Rome’.[23] The notion that corrupt politicians would rather promote policy beneficial to their donors than their constituents was also touched upon by Luther: ‘Councils have often put forward some remedy, but it has adroitly been frustrated, and the evils have become worse, through the cunning of certain men’.[24] Trump’s complaints against the Washington political establishment ultimately mirror Luther’s criticisms of the papacy: that the court of Rome serves only the popes and cardinals whom it allows to live in splendour; that the sale of indulgences grants absolution only to those with the financial means to obtain them.

Comparison of Trump and Luther may take on a variety of forms, but I believe that it is in the employment of emerging media platforms and adeptness as ‘image crafting’ that the similarities are most pronounced. Regardless of our personal opinion, both would believe that they are fighting a vast and uncompromising enemy, one which has the backing of larger political and media entities. Both figures seek to eradicate financial criminality within a system that they view to be sacred. Whereas Luther promotes an adherence to scripture, it is the upholding of the US Constitution and Federal Law that Trumps seeks to enforce: Sola Lex rather than Sola Scriptura. What is also fundamental to the success of these candidates is their desire to enact real change on procedure and practice of sacred institutions. Luther, seeking to remove financial incentives from the rituals of Christian worship, promotes Sola Fide as the means to achieve eternal salvation. This alternative system of worship eradicates the Church’s position as arbiter on matters of faith, and allows the individual the chance to seek absolution through an honourable Christian life. Trump, on the other hand, seeks to rebrand Conservatism and wrest doctrinal control from the Neo-Conservative theorists who have dominated Republican thought for the last decade. The media have labelled this alternative system of Conservatism ‘the Alt-Right’, presenting it as dangerous, racist and unpleasant. Martin Luther, however, put forward his own alternative system of worship, one which sought to remove the fiscal corruptions and cronyism from the Catholic Church. Like Trump, Luther’s ‘Alt-Rite’ was met with intense opposition from the establishment it wished to permanently alter.

lector facile sit intellecturus nos uoluptatem magis quam morsum quesisse


Martin Laidlaw is a postgraduate research student at The University of Dundee, and was a candidate in the 2016 Scottish election.  His thesis, ‘Proto-Protestantism in MedievalEnglish Literature’ explores how key complaints raised against religious institutions in the Reformation of the sixteenth-century were prevalent in Mediaeval Literature. He tweets at @MMLaidlaw.

[1] George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’. Available at: <>.

[2] Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 132.

[3] Steven Ozment, Protestants: Birth of a Revolution (London: Doubleday, 1993), p. 46.

[4] Anna Nicolaou,”Trump challenges old truths in US media Rightwing upstarts take the fight to conservative bastions like Fox” The Financial Times, August 19 2016. Available at : 

[5] Kyle Becker, ‘Donald Trump’s Twitter Game is Pure Magic Right Now’, Independent Journal Review, 2016. Available at <>.

[6] Ozment, Protestants, p. 57.

[7] Pettegree, Brand Luther, p. 4.

[8] Ibid., p. xii.

[9] Martin Luther, A Treatise on Good Works. Available at <>.

[10] Pettegree, Brand Luther, p. 88.

[11] Ibid., p. x.

[12] ‘Trump after Being Attacked’, The Reddit, 2016. Available at<>.

[13] Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty. Available at <>.

[14] ‘Trump: Romney ‘Walks Like a Penguin’, Grabien, 2016. Available at <>.

[15] Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty.

[16] D. C. Rutledge, ‘Evidence Hillary Clinton Broke Federal Laws and Jeopardized National Security, No Charges Recommended… WTF, FBI?!’, The Huffington Post, 12 July 2016. Available at <>.

[17] Donald Trump, ‘The system is rigged. General Petraeus got in trouble for far less. Very very unfair! As usual, bad judgment’, Twitter, 5 July 2015. Available at <;.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Martin Luther, Letter to the German Nobility. Available at <;.

[20] Ibid.

[21] [ref]

[22] Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty.

[23] Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty.

[24] Greg Richter, ‘Trump: I Support Across-Board Cuts Except for Military’, Newsmax, 7 March 2016. Available at <>.

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