As the president’s jumbled, unfounded legal challenges to the 2020 election results disintegrate like cotton candy in a rainstorm, it’s time to look at the last four years in the rearview mirror and ask ourselves: What the hell was that?! From end to end, Trump’s administration was a disaster, and where it comes to the very few bright spots — the First Step Act to reduce incarceration, for example — you do not, as @dril famously said, gotta hand it to him. (He was talked into signing the bill, much against his own dull political instincts.)
No, if you’re looking to give Trump credit for something, anything good about his tenure in office, I’m pretty sure you’re limited to the evening of January 14, 2019. This was the night that he welcomed the Clemson Tigers, national college football champs, to dine at the White House amid a government shutdown that had reduced the available kitchen staff. Trump’s solution, according to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then press secretary, was to “personally” pay for the event to be “catered” by “some of America’s great fast food joints.” While you can take the claim that Trump covered the tab with a Whopper-sized grain of salt, there could be no doubt that the greasy buffet was his idea. Trump’s appetite for McDonald’s is legendary.
And he was awfully pleased with the spread:
Costing in excess of $5,000, the mountains of Big Macs and Filets-O-Fish — as well as items from Burger King, Wendy’s and Domino’s — was probably not what the Clemson team had hoped for, and most of their Black players understandably didn’t show up to hobnob with a white supremacist. The feast also struck many as a visual metaphor of Trump’s crass disregard for his courtly surroundings. How dare he serve this cheap, unhealthy, lukewarm junk in a reception hall that has hosted countless world leaders and dignitaries over the decades, and underneath a portrait of Lincoln, no less? With this display, he’d embarrassed the whole nation.
But the utter stupidity of the planning behind this affair, which gave it the surreal flavor of a classic shitpost, is what made the soirée so funny and, ultimately, good. A key lesson of the Trump era is that political norms and traditions only exist with the consent of the ruling class, and without that, the theater of American greatness quickly collapses. All that was necessary to demolish the idea of the State Dining Room as a refined or sacred space was for a dimwit chief executive to order up boxed “hamberders” on silver platters and packages of dipping sauce in crystal bowls. Most often, when Trump broke with the expectations of his job, it was frightening, and it undermined faith in our democracy. Here, he simply bulldozed the pretense of a social invite from the president being some exalted honor, and forced us to confront the flimsy artifice that attaches to any president’s inane ceremonial duties.
The Clemson team added to the comedy with their amused and irreverent reactions; a lineman tweeted that he pocketed a couple of chicken wraps and a quarter pounder after eating his fill, a statement the Washington Post was unable to verify. Then you had Trump, unable to avoid exaggeration, inflating the number of burgers from a few hundred to a thousand, as though a greater volume of processed beef would tamp down on the mockery. Behind the scenes was Rudy Giuliani’s son, Andrew, a nepotistically hired White House liaison who made $90,000 a year in Trump’s administration solely for coordinating these meet-and-greets with sports teams, and spent the rest of his working hours kinda… hanging out. (Yes, he is now positive for COVID-19.)
And while there are enough angles to this episode to merit a 30 for 30 episode, all of them lead back to the deep-fried narcissism of Trump, who has never seemed happier than when surveying a room packed with big winning boys piling their plates with his own preferred cuisine. Critics called him classist and racist for the stunt, as well as for commenting, “I would think that’s [the players’] favorite food,” and while there’s no doubt he harbors every prejudice you care to name, in this case, I tend to believe he genuinely couldn’t think past his individual desires: I love McDonald’s, so they must, too. This egoistic principle has bred disaster far and wide since Trump was sworn in, and yet, for the moment, it was just hilarious. The most powerful man in the world, marshaling the forces at his command in the dumbest way imaginable — to realize the fever dream of a ketchup-addicted 9-year-old. Nothing short of sublime.
After handing Trump his eviction notice, we should have the courage to admit that among his lasting and horrifying failures as this country’s leader, he totally crushed it this once. The outrage that attended the fast-food feast seems petty and forced in retrospect, because it was. Why did we grasp for another reason to hate a demagogue when his idiocy was briefly harmless? We needn’t have bothered, and we never ran dry of cause to condemn him. Someone should paint the scene and hang that in the dining room, as a reminder of our national shame, a note to history and a warning for the future: This was Trump at his best. Everything else was even worse.