On the Monday after Easter, the Trump White House hosted the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn. Described by the White House as a “timeless tradition dating back to 1878” the event has been held most years since the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, and has grown to be the largest public event held at the White House. The Trumps’ first Easter Egg Roll in 2017 was poorly planned and thrown together hastily, by a First Lady who was likely still adjusting to her new and unwanted responsibilities, and resulted in a much smaller event than in previous years.
But in 2018, the Trump administration was determined to take full advantage of this extraordinarily easy public relations opportunity—not to entertain children and spread goodwill, but to reinforce a militaristic and joyless “Christian” message to the lucky lottery winners, all of them children under 12.
During his stunningly awkward address to the children from the Truman Balcony, the president managed to create both a bizarre visual tableau and a transcript that rivaled his cringeworthy speech to the Boy Scouts. Flanked by the miserable-looking First Lady and the comically aghast Easter Bunny, Trump spoke to the children about the booming economy and the “$700 billion going into our military”—not topics usually favored by the kindergarten set.
He also seemed to forget the name of the White House saying “there really is no name for it.” Though it made great late-night fodder for comics like Seth Meyers, who variously described it as “wacky” “insane” and “confused,” what took place at the White House Easter Egg Roll actually had an internal coherence with both overt and hidden religious significance.
While it’s clear that Trump is deeply uncomfortable talking with children (a fact made even more obvious when compared with the delightful rapport that the Obamas had with them, as seen at the 2016 Easter Egg Roll), welcoming families and young children and sincerely trying to show them a good time was never the goal of the Trump administration. In order to understand the real goal of this event, we need to head over to the Egg Roll “reading nook.”
To watch the videos of the reading nook, held outdoors on a day when temperatures struggled to climb out of the 40s, is to give the children credit for tolerating such rollicking fun as Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s reading of the six-page board book “Roaring Rockets,” which she somehow stretched out to fill twenty minutes by asking dozens of children their names “What? Your name is Violet? Whoa!”
There was also Seema Verna, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who read “The Berenstain Bears go to the Doctor” to the children, but only after forcing them all to chant in unison “Thank you President Trump!” (presumably for allowing them to visit.)
But it was the truest of true believers, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway, who best encapsulated the Easter message of the Trump White house by reading Christian Easter stories to their captive audiences. Kellyanne took her turn at the dais to read God Gave us Easter, by Lisa Tawn Bergren, a “delightful illustrated picture book for ages 3 and up” which “features the adorable polar bear Little Cub, talking with her father and learning about God’s design for the Easter season and what it really means.” Conway herself made clear that she was reading this not because she thought the children would enjoy the book, but “so we keep focus on the reason we’re here” (apparently to shiver in the cold while being read to about Jesus’ atoning death on the cross and its soteriological effect on Polar bear cubs everywhere).
But in the end it was Sarah Huckabee Sanders who stole the show, with her distracted and cursory reading of The Easter Story as told by Patricia Pingry. It wasn’t just the nation’s children’s librarians who were outraged at her lackluster delivery and obvious boredom with the story. The internet had a field day. She didn’t even show the pictures! It’s both funny and terribly sad at the same time to watch her rush through the central story of Christianity with a scowl, as if she would quite literally rather be in the briefing room being grilled by CNN’s Jim Acosta
But of course Sanders, like the rest of the Trump administration, cares nothing about Christianity, or its central Easter story of atonement, humiliation, resurrection, and hope. For her and for Trump, even a benign and “timeless” tradition like the White House Easter Egg roll is nothing more than another opportunity to signal to the base: we are mighty, we are strong, we are Christian. We value obedience and conformity from our children and our people. Muslim children or Jewish children or Buddhist children or the children of atheist lesbian couples are simply not welcome here.
The cheap paperback Easter stories read by Sanders and Conway—no doubt ordered the day before from Amazon Prime—had nothing to do with teaching, or welcoming, or even celebrating a Christian holiday (inappropriate as that itself would have been at a White House event). As this administration did with its craven and phony defense of “Merry Christmas” as if it were an endangered greeting, the Trump Administration has co-opted another holiday which has both deep theological meaning for believers and innocuous secular opportunities for community fellowship. For them Easter, even in its secular trappings, is an ugly cudgel. No messages of hope and joy were conveyed, only grim and shallow performances. Let’s hope for those kids’ sake that at least the chocolate was authentic.