So the imaginary “war on Christmas” wasn’t enough. Donald Trump and Fox News are now accusing progressives of waging a war on Thanksgiving, too, based on, well, nothing. But do Trump and his band of bigots even understand what Thanksgiving is about? If they did, they would hate this most American of holidays.
After all, the Pilgrims were refugees fleeing persecution by the English monarchy, which at the time was still an autocratic regime. They were, in other words, exactly the kind of people Trump and company want to keep out.
Furthermore, the traditional portrait of the first Thanksgiving is as a moment of racial tolerance and multiculturalism: European immigrants sharing a feast with Native Americans. That moment didn’t last: Much of New England’s native population was wiped out over the next few decades. And such an outcome may well have been inevitable. But we still celebrate the tale of a benign meeting of races and cultures.
Thanksgiving became an official holiday thanks to an 1863 proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. This was only a few months after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation and just a few weeks before he would deliver the Gettysburg Address, in which he declared that America is a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. So Thanksgiving as we now celebrate it also commemorates the struggle to end slavery.
Finally, Thanksgiving is thoroughly nondenominational. Lincoln’s proclamation gave thanks to Almighty God but was vague about the Almighty’s nature. There’s nothing about the holiday that reserves it for believers in any particular religion, or in fact any formal religion at all, and it’s open to all cultures. The New York Times recently reported on the growing popularity of Thanksgiving turkey prepared in the style of Chinese roast duck; nothing could be truer to the holiday’s spirit.
Thanksgiving is, in short, a truly American holiday. Not only is it unique to our country, it’s a celebration of the values that actually make America great: openness to people who look or act differently, religious tolerance, sympathy for the persecuted, belief in human equality.
True, all too often we pay only lip service to these values; there have been many dark chapters in our nation’s history. But we’ve always managed to emerge from the darkness. Sometimes that emergence took generations; the Jim Crow era in the South lasted close to a century and isn’t entirely gone even now. Still, time and again, from the abolitionists to the civil rights movement, from women’s suffrage to LGBTQ rights, America’s ideals have eventually prevailed, and we have returned to the nation’s core values.
We are now living through another of those dark chapters. Trump and company are, without question, white nationalists whose values are far closer to those of European blood-and-soil authoritarians than they are to the American tradition. And the entire Republican Party appears ready to back Trump no matter how completely he betrays not just American values but American interests.
Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that we will emerge from this dark chapter as the nation we used to be. It’s true that Trump is an unusually unpopular president; but his approval rating, at around 40% or a bit more, is if anything higher than the approval Viktor Orban commanded as he dismantled Hungary’s democracy. And Trump, like European white nationalists, is doing his best to remove all the guardrails that were supposed to limit abuse of power, while delegitimizing all opposition.
But while an alarming number of Americans seem OK with this authoritarian program and embrace of intolerance, the rest of the nation seems reassuringly committed to an open society.
Trump’s efforts to spread fear of brown people actually seem to have backfired: Popular belief that immigrants make a positive contribution to America is at its highest point in decades.
Furthermore, while Trump may have as many supporters as rising autocrats abroad, he faces much more determined resistance. Opposition to Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s Law and Justice party seemed demoralized and disorganized from the start; Trump’s opposition has, when all is said and done, been spirited and cohesive. And the reason isn’t just personalities; impressive as Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff are, both the Democratic midterm victory and the effectiveness of the impeachment inquiry ultimately reflect the commitment of many ordinary Americans to sustaining our core values.
That said, we could still very well lose it all. But then that was also true when Lincoln first made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Even as he celebrated America’s strengths, the nation was in the depths of civil war, and despite Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Union victory was far from assured.
The point is that Thanksgiving isn’t a celebration of national triumph; it’s a celebration of the better angels of America’s nature. That’s why it’s a holiday true patriots, who believe in our nation’s underlying values, should love — and one people like Trump and his supporters should hate.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., recipient of the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.