President Donald Trump wants Americans to think he reinvented Christmas.
“We can say ‘merry Christmas’ again,” he has said on numerous occasions, both during his campaign for president and his presidency. “Christmas is back, better and bigger than ever before,” he told supporters months before the Christmas season.
Many of Trump’s Christian supporters argue that the president is ending the so-called war on Christmas, which has been presented by evangelicals and Fox news anchors as a threat to America’s Christian culture. Trump supporters say Americans have become too politically correct when they wish people happy holidays, a neutral term that can be used for people who celebrate Hanukkah, Eid al-Adha or any other religious holiday that takes place around the same time as Christmas.
Donald Trump has promised to bring back Christmas. Getty Images
But critics counter that Trump is promoting a version of the holidays that excludes members of other religions, and that his crusade to bring back Christmas is part of a larger attempt by the president to define America as a country for white Christians alone.
Wishing people “merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays” is thus in line with Trump’s decision to ban citizens of Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, critics say. It fits neatly with his refusal to condemn white supremacists when they march against diversity, and with his condemnation of athletes who protest police brutality against black men.
With this in mind, the fight to end the war on Christmas is exclusionary politics at its most flagrant.
“I see such invocations of Christmas as a kind of cypher, what some would call a dog whistle. It does not appear to be intolerant or extreme, but to attentive audiences it speaks volumes about identity and belonging—who and what are fully American,” Richard King, a professor at Washington State University who studies how white supremacists exploit culture, told Newsweek.
“Much like ‘Make America Great Again,’ panics over the protests by NFL players and the defense of Confederate memory, Christmas is a way to talk about peril, to assert a soft or hard version of white nationalism,” he said.
White nationalism and pro-Confederate sentiment has been a hot issue over the past year since Donald Trump took office. Getty Images
Trump isn’t the first political figure in history to co-opt Christmas. In fact, some see parallels between Trump’s speeches in front of Christmas trees and attempts by authoritarian regimes like the Nazis to manipulate popular celebrations to promote a political ideology. But by weaponizing Christmas in this way, Trump is bringing a dangerous tradition of politicizing religious holidays into the United States, one expert says.
“Because Americans have enjoyed a relatively stable political system, Christmas in the U.S. has been relatively immune to the overt politicization of the holiday,” Joe Perry told Newsweek. He is the author of the book Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History, which examines the way Nazis used Christmas to spread fascism.
“But not completely immune. The far right’s engagement in the ‘war on Christmas’ explicitly posits that there is one single true or correct Christmas. The holiday’s true nature is somehow under threat from outsiders and liberals who act as forces of degradation, multiculturalism and secularization,” Perry continued.
In this context, Trump has been using the so-called war on Christmas to wage a culture war that pits multicultural liberals against Christian conservatives. He began doing this long before Christmas. Meanwhile, some members of the religious right support Trump’s most nationalist, race-baiting form of political rhetoric, including his reclaiming of Christmas.
Men dressed as Santa Claus and a tin soldier give a Nazi salute during a white supremacist event. Getty Images
Likewise, Nazi Germany’s propagandists rooted their idea of Christmas in visions of ethno-nationalism. They rewrote the lyrics of Christmas carols, promoted Nazified holiday traditions and launched numerous Christmas charity events for poor Germans. The ultimate goal was to draw a clear line between those who belonged and those who should be excluded and not benefit from the joys of Christmas.
Trump’s rhetoric differs from that of Nazi Germany’s, most notably because he has never advocated genocide. But Trump’s talk about Christmas coexists with re-emerging white identity politics, Randy Blazak, a sociology professor who studies white nationalism, told Newsweek.
“Committed white nationalists love Trump’s bring back Christmas campaign almost as much as evangelicals,” he said. “His followers see this as gospel and a rebuking of multiculturalism and political correctness, and the growing influence of Jews, Muslims, atheists and other non-WASPs.”
President Donald Trump, watched by Vice President Mike Pence, signs a proclamation in front of a Christmas tree. Getty Images
Perry said that Trump hasn’t gone nearly as far as the Nazis in promoting his vision of the holidays, and he sees major flaws in describing Trump as a Nazi-like figure. But there are some clear parallels.
“Trump and the Nazis share aspects of race baiting and perhaps broader aspects of extreme conservatism—many political ideologies do,” Perry said.
“Frankly, I’m not sure how far Trump himself is willing to go to use the holiday to promote anti-Muslim or anti-minority visions of America, or if he even really understands what he is doing with his ‘merry Christmas’ tirades.”