In case you’re under the mistaken impression that the wounds of election ’16 are healing, yesterday’s tempestuous Tweetstorm over the GOP’s Christmas message should set you straight.
That’s right folks, not even a Christmas message is safe anymore. Early yesterday, the Republican National Committee sent this out:
“Merry Christmas to all! Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King. We hope Americans celebrating Christmas today will enjoy a day of festivities and a renewed closeness with family and friends.”
I’ve boldfaced the key sentence. It unleashed the partisan furies that burn eternally on social media. I really don’t want to take sides – this year was exhausting, and I’m pretty tapped out – so if it’s OK with you, I’ll just recount what happened during the long acrimonious afternoon. Just in case you didn’t think that post-election passions were still raw.
Basically, critics said that the Republicans were trying to compare Donald Trump to Jesus (“this Christmas…the good news of a new King”). For instance, liberal commentator John Aravosis said the GOP “should apologize for using Christmas to compare Trump to Jesus & calling him a “new King.” Jonathan Chait of New York magazine said, “The distinction between a President and a King is not trivial.” Singer-songwriter Bill Madden said, “Only in the delusional bizzaro world of the GOP is a wealthy serial-lying con man compared to a poor, honest carpenter.” Political analyst Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said the GOP message “is more than embarrassing. It is an ominous sign of the rise of authoritarianism under Trump.”
Within seconds (because, apparently, holiday celebrants always keep their Twitter feeds handy), the GOP’s defenders lashed back. They said the critics were ignorant about Christianity, cited popular Xmas lyrics (“Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king”), insisted that the disputed sentence was squarely in the traditional holiday spirit, and quickly blamed the “liberal media” for taking a molehill and manufacturing a mountain.
But a lot of angry tweeters, many of whom were not “liberal media,” didn’t buy the GOP defense. They parsed the wording of the disputed sentence. They said it would’ve been fine to use the phrase “newborn king,” which clearly references Jesus, but that the Republican National Committee’s wording (“this Christmas” we have “a new King”) clearly referenced the ’16 election and its Electoral College winner.
Republican strategist John Weaver chastized his own party – specifically, the RNC’s tweeters: “We don’t have a ‘new King.’ What the hell is wrong with you people?” Ornstein weighed in again: “Newborn king is not a new King.” Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, said the RNC was probably just guilty of “poor writing,” but he argued that if the Democrats had won the election and crafted identical wording that appeared to equate Hillary Clinton with Jesus, “the outrage would be thermonuclear and lasting.”
Somebody dug up last year’s RNC Christmas message, which, like this year’s, was sent under the signature of chairman Reince Priebus. In ’15, there was no specific reference to “this Christmas” or a “new King.” It merely said: “Over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem a Savior was born.” But when tweeting critics pointed this out yesterday, they got hammered by the RNC/Trump defenders – one of whom warned a critic that “when the time comes, I’ll try to speak on your behalf so you at least get a room at Gitmo that has a window.”
At some point, Sean Spicer joined the fray. Spicer has been tapped to be Trump’s White House press secretary, but while past press secretaries have usually tried to dampen flames, this one apparently will have no qualms squirting gasoline on a pyre.
Spicer was ticked off that Buzzfeed had posted a story on the Tweetstorm, so he demanded that Buzzfeed “apologize” for launching an “attack on Christ.” (Buzzfeed’s story didn’t attack Christ; it merely pointed out that the RNC’s key passage, which seemed to equate Trump with Christ, had “left a lot of people scratching their heads.”) Spicer’s demand ticked off Norm Ornstein, who tweeted yet again: “It is no wonder an authoritarian sociopath chose Sean Spicer to condone and distort every statement made by the thugs around him.”
By early evening, everyone had managed to hose themselves down. Spicer even tweeted a clarification (“Christ is the King”), which itself prompted a new debate (did the party flack’s declaration blur the separation of church and state?), and fed the widely held belief (which I’m inclined to buy) that the RNC Christmas message was not an attempt to equate Trump with Jesus, that it was just badly written and politically tone-deaf (its authors should’ve anticipated that the key sentence would tick off a lot people)…but enough already.
What matters, alas, is that a fair number of Americans spent the holiday parsing the wording of an RNC tweet. It was a very harried Christmas, a fitting coda to 2016.