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Trump’s fast-food CEO Labor Department pick teaches us a lot about populism

You are what you eat.

President-Elect Donald Trump Holds Meetings At Trump Tower Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s pick to run the US Department of Labor, Andy Puzder, is the CEO of the company that operates Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. He’s a rich guy who opposes increasing the minimum wage, and otherwise broadly takes exactly the views on labor issues that you would expect the CEO of a fast-food company to take — he sides with the bosses. It’s yet another powerful reminder that whatever Trump’s populism amounts to, it’s very, very different from what Bernie Sanders and other left-wing Democrats mean when they talk about “populism.”

But unlike some other Trump picks like Steve Mnuchin or Tom Price, there is a very real and true sense in which Puzder is a populist choice.

On matters big and small, Trump aligns himself not with the pocketbook interests of low-wage workers but with the cultural values and preferences of working-class Americans. Values like thinking Hardee’s burgers are delicious.

Liberals think fast food is a big problem

American liberals are very concerned about the earning power of fast-food workers. But at the same time, they sort of wish the whole fast-food industry didn’t exist.

First lady Michelle Obama’s signature public health initiative is called “Let’s Move,” and the idea that kids should be physically active is pretty uncontroversial. But Obama also knows that to really tackle the problem of childhood obesity, you can’t just focus on exercise. Losing weight means focusing on what you eat.

That’s why Let’s Move also features a focus on healthy eating, including a recommendation that we check out this sample two-week menu to help families eat healthy food on a budget. The menu, I am sorry to say, features no burgers and no fries. Instead you get “Mouth-Watering Oven-Fried Fish, Couscous with Peas and Onions,” and some lentil stew. Nice.

This basic concern extends to all factions of the Democratic Party. In his book Our Revolution, Sanders writes about bleak conditions in Detroit, saying he “noticed the lack of grocery stores where people could buy fresh food” even as “there was an abundance of fast food restaurants.”

In a party that is in many ways badly divided, both the establishment and left wings of the Democratic Party agree that there is a substantial market failing around junk food and fast food. The Affordable Care Act included a regulatory mandate for chain restaurants to publish calorie information on their menus, and a number of cities are putting forward initiatives to tax soda. Bill Clinton, who once liked to very publicly enjoy McDonald’s, now touts the health benefits of his vegan lifestyle.

Donald Trump loves McDonald’s

Trump, like Bill Clinton of 25 years ago, loves McDonald’s and isn’t afraid to tell you about it.

“The Big Macs are great,” he told Anderson Cooper at a campaign town hall. “The Quarter Pounder. It’s great stuff.”

This isn’t just unhealthy — it’s remarkably outré. Trump isn’t touting the virtues of Danny Meyer’s celebrity chef–infused Shake Shack or the magic of the West Coast’s legendary In-N-Out Burger, which refuses to franchise outside a relatively narrow geographical area to ensure its beef can be distributed fresh. Hillary Clinton snuck off to organic-friendly Chipotle. Trump went for the tried and true: the unfashionable yet ubiquitous simple pleasure of the Big Mac.

Identity politics is everywhere

Something worth noting is that Trump himself is actually not blind to personal health issues. He has a history of alcoholism in his family and consequently abstains from alcohol and other drugs. A great many Americans could improve their health along a number of dimensions, including weight, by emulating Trump and giving up booze.

But even though Trump is a teetotaler, he does not engage in public anti-alcohol messaging or campaign as a temperance advocate.

Working-class people who enjoy both fast-food burgers and beer are well aware that Trump likes Big Macs too, while Democrats think it’s very important to make sure SNAP benefits are redeemable at farmers markets so rich and poor alike can enjoy the benefits of eating local, seasonal produce. Trump doesn’t drink beer, but he doesn’t advertise that fact.

This is identity politics just as much as campaigning with the Mothers of the Movement is. Neither Trump nor Puzder is, obviously, a real working-class person. But there’s an old joke about two barefoot guys in the woods who come across a bear. One starts lacing up his sneakers, and the other asks why, pointing out that he’s never going to outrun the bear.

“I don’t need to outrun the bear,” he explains. “I just need to outrun you.”

A Thickburger or two doesn’t make Trump a member of the white working class. But it’s good enough to outrun the vast majority of Democratic Party elected officials from either of the main factions.

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