Opinion

What if Trump's War on Christmas Ends Up Being a 'Dog Whistle' for White Supremacists?

Hearing the Gap salesgirl say 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas' has become a symbol of everything that’s 'wrong' with America for some citizens, whose grievances are being stoked by the next president.

President-elect Donald Trump responds to cheering reporters at a rally in Orlando, Fl., on December 16, 2016.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP

It’s that time of year in America, when everything comes decked in red and green, and everywhere you go, the main coffee choices are “peppermint mocha” and “gingerbread latte.” In select metropolitan areas, you can find flashes of silver and blue, too, as well as an occasional menorah placed on a tiny table next to a large, majestic Christmas tree. And if you look in the right parts of town, you’ll also find a candelabra with candles in red, green and black – a symbol of Kwanzaa, a secular African American heritage holiday that dates to the 1960s, and begins the day after Christmas.

I’m leaving out the possibility of Ramadan falling in December, as well as the other holidays that some Americans celebrate at this time of year, from the ones that appeal to wiccans and pagans (Saturnalia and Yule), to the ones that appeal to people with a wicked good sense of humor (Festivus, a Seinfeld spin-off suggested to secular folk fleeing the commercialization of all the December holidays).

In short, there are more than a few religious and secular festivals packed into the last month of the year even before New Year’s Eve, so it stands to reason that many Americans have gradually moved to wishing friends, colleagues and neighbors “Happy Holidays.”

That isn’t to say that wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” has gone out of style or is forbidden. But the shift to a more generic greeting has been a sign of Americans being brought around to realizing how diverse this country is, and to seeing that wishing everyone you know – and every customer – a Merry Christmas isn’t particularly inclusive, because it treats Christianity as the norm and anything else as too irrelevant to be worth mentioning or celebrating.

For a certain section of the American public, however, hearing the salesgirl at the Gap or the checkout dude at Target wish them “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” somehow became a symbol of everything that’s “wrong” with this country. This perceived “erasure” of Christmas has become a featured item on their long list of grievances. And the man who has been most successful at harnessing those grievances, validating them and helping to blow them out of proportion, has just been confirmed by the Electoral College as the next president of the United States.

Yes, him. Exactly a year before his election, on a November 2015 night in Illinois, Donald J. Trump donned the mantle of crusading defender against the “War on Christmas” crowd when he toyed with calling for a ban on Starbucks for coming out with a holiday cup that wasn’t Christmasy enough: It was simply red with a white top, along with the company's green logo. Trump riled up the crowd and got them booing, then said: “If I become president, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again. That I can tell you. That I can tell you! Unbelievable.”

That's a promise he seems keen to keep. The multi-state tour Trump has been taking to thank Americans – and enjoy the adulation of the crowds as he attempts to relive the excitement of the campaign trail – has actually officially become the “Merry Christmas Thank You USA” tour, as it clearly reads from the podium at every speech he gives. Behind him are a phalanx of Christmas trees, just in case anyone missed the point.

He hasn’t at any stop on the tour made mention of any other holidays that fall in December, including the one his beloved daughter and son-in-law presumably celebrate.

For him it doesn’t matter what happens in Trump Tower or across the city of Trump’s birth – the vast majority of its diverse inhabitants didn’t vote for him – but rather what happens in middle America, the America where Trump is seizing the moment to boast that he fought and won the so-called “War on Christmas.”

In fact, in these circles in which all talk of inclusivity is a detestable assault of political correctness, that’s exactly how it’s being read. “You can say again, ‘Merry Christmas,’ because Donald Trump is now the president,” Trump acolyte Corey Lewandowski told Fox News host Sean Hannity earlier this month. Added Lewandowski: “You can say it again, it’s okay to say, it’s not a pejorative word anymore.”

Of course, there is no actual war on Christmas. But this is the Trump that continues to play to his alt-right supporters and other circles of white supremacists, some of whom have been warning since the late 1950s of some sort of vast conspiracy to snatch away the religion that the vast majority of Americans adhere to. That kind of fear-mongering perhaps made some sense in the days of America seeing itself in a fight for its survival against communism.

Now the enemies are a fabricated threat of sharia law and the non-Christian or wholly secular elements of American society – as if any of these pose an actual danger at all. Even a nativity scene or crèche is allowed in public places, the Supreme Court has held since the 1984 case Lynch v. Donnelly, as long as it doesn’t serve as an “endorsement.”

I grew up in Long Island town that was mostly Catholic, and after nearly 20 years of living in Israel, Turkey and Japan – countries where Christians were a small minority – I realized how many positive childhood associations and nostalgic feelings I have around Christmas. Friends invited me to decorate their trees or to bake Christmas cookies; my parents took us to see Rockefeller Center all decked out for the holiday, and to see “The Nutcracker” ballet; out of cultural curiosity I attended midnight Mass.

I never felt insulted when someone wished me a Merry Christmas, though when it was someone I knew well, I hoped they would wish me a Happy Hanukkah instead, or would bother to pick out a blue greeting card for me rather than a red one. But none of it ever made me angry or want to make war.

What does trouble me is the way in which Trump and friends are portraying this so-called victory over the imagined forces of political correctness, forced secularization, or in more extreme thinking, foreign domination. And, quietly thrown into the egg nog, a sprinkle of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as well.

If Trump’s idea of “Make America Great Again” means using opportunities like this to blow a dog whistle that fires up white supremacists, and never mind the concerns of all the Americans who aren’t white and Christian – then the holiday greeting I will have the hardest time with is wishing people a “Happy New Year.”