The Avignon Presidency, or the American Schism
When one surveys the American scene today, socially, culturally, politically, and economically, what may come to mind is a historical analog with what is known as the Western Schism that divided the 14th-century papacy between Rome and Avignon. Of course, analogical correlates are almost never fully cognate, yet they will often provide instructive parallels between past and present. What we are currently observing in the U.S. is a case in point.
A brief survey of the Schism may be helpful. The Western Schism refers to the fissure within the Catholic Church that saw pontiffs residing in Rome and Avignon, both claiming to be the true pope. As Edwin Mullins meticulously documents in The Popes of Avignon: A Century in Exile, the situation involving rival claimants to the Holy See was as complex as it was ferocious, the seat of theological power alternating between Rome and Avignon and leading eventually to the removal of the papal enclave to Avignon for forty years.
Altogether there were nine Avignon Popes, many of whom were called antipopes, but only two of whom, Clement VII and Benedict XIII, were canonically known as antipopes. Both, as P.G. Maxwell-Stuart writes in Chronicle of the Popes, were unsavory characters: Clement, a weak and unscrupulous man, who collaborated in the destruction of the Knights Templar, and Benedict who refused to resign, barricading himself in his castle and continuing to fraudulently elect new cardinals. The Council of Constance finally put an end to the reign of the Avignon popes in 1418.
Similarly, the political schism in the U.S. can be regarded as equally disruptive, entailing historic consequences that may ultimately destroy the life and continuity of a great nation. The presidential election of 2020 is frequently described as “irregular.” This is a patent euphemism. As many have come to believe, and as considerable evidence suggests, the election was mired in corruption, scandal, and covert manipulation. A system involving vote harvesting, absentee ballots, mysterious closures of voting stations in the dead of night, malfunctioning tabulators, suppression of critical information by the major digital platforms “to warp an election,” in the words of Victor Davis Hanson, and the furtive operation of hired mules, occurring especially in swing states, cannot be said by any stretch of the imagination to ensure an indisputable or reliable electoral outcome.
When the incumbent addressed vast and enthusiastic multitudes across the length and breadth of the country while his opponent campaigned essentially from his basement and spoke to minuscule, obviously staged gatherings, the result should never have been in doubt. Yet the result was the anointment, figuratively speaking, of an “antipresident.” Everyone knows this, including those sworn to silence and secrecy, or who fear censorship or retribution. In turbulent times, courage and honesty are generally in short supply. As Richard Fernandez writes in an article titled “Biden and Our Vanishing Golden Age,” “The desire to dissociate oneself from catastrophe is a natural one and makes one reluctant to speak of any mishap at all, as if by refusing to acknowledge an event we could lessen its factuality, or at least avoid responsibility for it.”
The installment of an “antipresident” in the seat of power has had predictable consequences: a foreign war, spiraling inflation, bank failures, heightened racial tensions, the explosion of crime and civic barbarism, the flood of illegal refugees over the southern border, infrastructure catastrophes, unsustainable spending bills, a lethal drug crisis, the incarceration of innocents, the elevation of incompetents to high office, a dysfunctional supply chain, energy dependence, the characterizing of American parents as domestic terrorists, the possibly eventual sidelining of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency, an anemic and depleted military, a rogue FBI and compromised DOJ, the loss of deterrent respect in the international theater, the risk of nuclear confrontation, and sectarian divisions among the people that seem at times unhealable.
In an incisive article for PJ Media, citing the Democrat Party as an engine of lies, Stephen Kruiser deplores “the fiction” that placed a pretender, a presumably “moderate voice of reason,” in the Oval Office. “The Biden Lie,” he writes, “is the most insidious of them all, given the damage that the cabal that runs his empty brain has caused in such a short time.” Clearly, no nation can long survive intact the machinations and ineptitude of an unfit “antipresident” and a dysfunctional administration.
Indeed, it is as if the presidency has moved to Avignon where it conducts policies destructive of past coherence and national splendor, leading possibly to the death of an empire. Historically, the papacy was restored to Rome where it traditionally belonged, but there is no guarantee of a resumption of legitimacy in Washington. Failing something resembling a Council of Constance, there is no assurance that America as we once knew it can weather another two years to the next election.
Interestingly, the Western Schism was followed by what is called the Great Schism between the Western and Eastern Churches, that is, not between Rome and Avignon but between Rome and Constantinople — a historical correlative which may prefigure a civilizational rift between the liberal West and the orthodox East. Such would be the larger consequence of the imbroglio we are witnessing now. As Charles Rivers writes in The Great Schism and the Western Schism, “Rome had become a virtual ghost town, partially ruined and inhabited by hardy survivors, and yet in the crumbling city was…the palace of the Supreme Pontiff and the heart of the Church.”
Such is a plausible future, decay yet preservation of a core. Perhaps this is a harbinger of hope, but unless decisive legislative action is taken, it remains a very thin one. Realistically speaking, the future, warns Michael Lind in American Affairs, will likely see “nepotistic oligarchies clustered in a few fashionable metropolitan areas but surrounded by a derelict, depopulated, and despised ‘hinterland.’” The rupture we are living through — call it the American Schism — is, it would seem, prophetic as well as retrospective.
The Avignon presidency can only accelerate the American Schism. There were seven consecutive Avignon popes. In the U.S., the comparable presidential line was staggered and incomplete, though we might say there were a number of Avignon aspirants among the Democrats, culminating in the current occupant who, like his equally shallow and controversial Democrat predecessor, may be considered — metaphorically, at any rate — as an “antipresident.” Both of these figures, like Clement and Benedict, are dubious characters. The tenure of the latter in the White House is, and will be, increasingly calamitous.
The only truly “Roman” presidents of recent times, fallible but uncompromising in the maintenance and defense of their country, were Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Shall we see their like again?