They were refugees, fleeing for their lives from one Middle Eastern country to the next. As Matthew tells the tale, Joseph, fearing that the government had marked his newborn son for death, gathered up his wife and child and stole away by night across the Judean border into Egypt. And just in time: Unsure who, exactly, to kill, that government — a king named Herod, who’d heard some kid would one day become a rival king — proceeded to slaughter every remaining child in Bethlehem under the age of 2.
This isn’t a chapter of the Christmas story that has made it into the general celebration, but it’s there in the gospel, for those who give the gospels credence and for those who don’t. For both groups, it’s clear that the authors of the New Testament intended to recount (for the believers) or compose (for the nons) a story that echoed the Old Testament’s concern for strangers, foreigners and refugees (“The stranger among you shall be as one born among you,” says Leviticus, “and you shall love him as yourself”), that foreshadowed Jesus’ teachings to care for castaways and the least among us, and that laid the foundation for institutional Christianity’s transnationalism.
Which is, perhaps, a long way of asking the question: Who’s really waging a war against Christmas in 2015? Secular multiculturalists who, stealthily and nefariously, have somehow rendered Starbucks’s coffee cups a tad less festive? Or the self-proclaimed culture warriors on behalf of traditional values, who demand we leave refugees — even small children, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has made pitilessly clear — at the mercy of the latter-day Herods? Who condemn entire religions? Who fear and loathe strangers?
It’s been a banner year for fear and loathing, xenophobia and racism. What has made the year genuinely ominous is the emergence of fictions presented (often, but hardly exclusively, by Donald Trump) as facts that legitimize a sense of both grievance and hatred: New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11; the quarter-million Syrians that the Obama administration is planning to bring in; a wave of black-on-white homicide. Concoctions all, but credible enough to the sizable share of Republicans who also believe the president is a Kenyan Muslim. Fed by talk radio, Fox News and paranoid websites, millions of our compatriots dwell in a parallel universe of alternative realities. My colleague Dana Milbank has noted that the fashion among conservatives is to dismiss hard facts that clash with their alternative realities as “politically correct.” That’s Republicanese for “empirically correct” — verifiable by research, but at odds with the stories they’ve created to justify their rage.
Such right-wing fictions have always hovered on the fringes of the body politic, but what has enabled them to go more mainstream is the sense of displacement — from their previous position as a majority race, a thriving class, a dominant religion — that is now widespread among the white working class Trumpites and the evangelical Christians flocking to Ted Cruz’s banner. The mission of right-wing media and pols has been to exaggerate some of that displacement (the threat to white America), play down other parts of it (the evisceration of blue-collar living standards by corporate America) and lay the blame for it all on minorities, foreigners, liberals, feminists, gays — you know the list.
A sharp rise in the number of adherents to alternative realities in a world otherwise governed by empiricism is not without unhappy precedent in modern history. It has sundered nations and brought fascists — with their characteristic disdain for rationalism — to power. As W.B. Yeats wrote in his “Meditations in Time of Civil War”:
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love . . .
Enmities, and most certainly not love, have become the core of the right’s appeal and message this year, not just in the United States but also across Europe. They may well sweep Trump or Cruz to the Republican nomination; they have already infused the entire party with bigoted perspectives that will be hard to disclaim.
They are most surely at odds with the spirit of Christmas. Walls on the border, religious tests for admission, despising the poor — good thing Joseph and Mary didn’t have to encounter our modern-day defenders of the right as they scrambled from one country to another, desperate to save their son’s life.