After weeks of outrage over the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant children at the border, the next big controversy roiling American politics was about … fine dining. Specifically, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders’s attempt at a Friday evening dinner in Virginia.
When the owner of Red Hen, a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, politely asked the White House press secretary to leave her establishment, it started a debate over civility, political protest, and how Trump administration officials should be treated in public that swirled over the weekend and spilled into Monday.
It was a fight that pitted self-styled defenders of civility and political norms against angry progressives who argued that the Trump administration should be resisted by any means necessary, including confronting its officials in public.
The Washington Post’s editorial board criticized the decision to refuse Sanders service as signifying the breakdown of civility and basic manners in American culture. Others, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), argued administration officials have forfeited their right in expecting public niceties by aligning themselves with Trump in the first place.
Sanders was refused service at the restaurant a few hours after Trump made a speech framing unauthorized immigrants as killers and while thousands of children were separated from their parents at the border. What started at a Virginia restaurant became a much bigger debate about how Americans should handle political differences.
Sarah Sanders tried to go to dinner on Friday
It all started on Friday evening, when Sanders was the last to arrive to a table of eight reserved under her husband’s name to the Red Hen, an establishment in Lexington, Virginia, about a three-hour drive from Washington, DC. Wilkinson, the owner of the restaurant, spoke with the Post over the weekend and explained what happened.
Apparently, after Sanders arrived, employees at the restaurant called Wilkinson asking what they should do. They served her and the rest of her party cheese boards and took their orders, and Wilkinson drove to the restaurant.
When she arrived, she asked Sanders to come outside. Wilkinson told Sanders the restaurant has “certain standards” to uphold, “such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation,” and asked her to leave. Sanders left, and the rest of the party went with her, even though Wilkinson said they didn’t need to. They offered to pay, but Wilkinson told them it was “on the house.”
The incident quickly made its way to the internet. And end-of-shift note reading, in part, “86 — Sarah Huckabee Sanders” appeared on Twitter. (To “86” someone or something in the restaurant industry means the person isn’t allowed to be served or an item isn’t on the menu or in stock.) A waiter wrote a Facebook post about serving Sanders for “a total of 2 minutes” before she was asked to leave.
On Saturday morning, Sanders tweeted about the incident. “I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so,” she wrote.
Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) June 23, 2018
The restaurant’s owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, told the Post she doesn’t regret her decision to ask Sanders to leave. “We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one,” she said.
In other cases, Sanders herself has defended the right of business owners to refuse service — such as the Colorado cake baker who refused to make a cake for a gay couple. When the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 earlier this month that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed “impermissible hostility” toward the baker’s “sincere religious beliefs,” Sanders said during a White House press briefing that the administration was “pleased” with the decision.
Should Sanders be able to “eat dinner in peace”?
Friday’s Red Hen incident is the latest in a string of events where Trump administration officials have found themselves unwelcome in their efforts to eat out. Protesters confronted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last week over the administration’s family separation practice when she tried to eat at a Washington, DC, Mexican restaurant last week. White House adviser Stephen Miller was called a fascist while dining at another Mexican eatery in DC as well.
To some, this public pushback is part of a worrying trend. The Washington Post’s editorial board called for Sanders, Nielsen, and Miller to “be allowed to eat dinner in peace” on Sunday. “Those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment,” the editorial board wrote, warning of a road ahead “in which only the most zealous sign up for public service.”
The Post invoked abortion to make its case: “How hard is it to imagine, for example, people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?”
This was an odd example, as multiple abortion providers in America have been attacked and even murdered, and clinics are often met with threats of violence and attacks, as Twitter users were quick to point out:
This is incredibly weak argumentation even by the standards of the Civility Brigade. and trying to tie it to abortion protesters ignores the fact that those people have MURDERED DOCTORS, not yelled at them while eating dinner https://t.co/RgqHcmvYt6— Anna Merlan (@annamerlan) June 24, 2018
Several prominent former Obama administration officials weighed in as well. David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, framed the Red Hen’s decision as a victory for Trump:
Kind of amazed and appalled by the number of folks on Left who applauded the expulsion of @PressSec and her family from a restaurant.— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) June 24, 2018
This, in the end, is a triumph for @realDonaldTrump vision of America:
Now we’re divided by red plates & blue plates!#sad
Arne Duncan, Obama’s former secretary of education, invoked the history of racial segregation and discrimination — a comparison that quickly drew criticism:
My personal opinion:— Arne Duncan (@arneduncan) June 24, 2018
No matter how much we dislike or disagree with someone, we should not deny them the chance to have a meal.
The history in our country of denying people access to restaurants, to water fountains and even bathrooms is too raw, too real.
We can’t keep dividing.
Can we more effectively #resist by voting, by organizing?— Arne Duncan (@arneduncan) June 24, 2018
Trump’s whole agenda is to divide, to sharpen the us vs them mentality. He WANTS this narrative. I don’t think we should feed it. https://t.co/8SfUU90gWw
Meanwhile, Maxine Waters at a rally in Los Angeles on Saturday warned Trump administration officials that they should expect heckling and shaming in public. “You think we’re rallying now? You ain’t seen nothing yet,” she said, according to HuffPost. “Already you have members of your Cabinet that are being booed out of restaurants … protesters taking up at their house saying, ‘No peace, no sleep.’”
The Congress member repeated the message on Sunday in an appearance on MSNBC. “I have no sympathy for these people that are in this administration who know it is wrong what they’re doing,” she said.
As with the Red Hen incident, some saw Waters’s remarks as a step too far, while others said she was right.
Civility and respect always prevails over harassment and disrespect https://t.co/4kF53WwE0v— Rep. Steve Scalise (@SteveScalise) June 24, 2018
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi rebuked Waters on Monday morning in a tweet:
In the crucial months ahead, we must strive to make America beautiful again. Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable. As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea. https://t.co/vlpqOBLK4R— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) June 25, 2018
The debate is bigger than just one dinner
The debate over whether to heckle Trump officials in public broadened into a bigger debate over civility and how Americans of different political beliefs should treat one another.
That included how Americans reacted to the restaurant itself. Trump weighed in with a tweet criticizing its “filthy canopies”:
The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 25, 2018
Meanwhile, the Red Hen in Washington, DC, which is not affiliated with the Lexington eatery that refused service to Sanders, was egged and the staff received death threats, according to local media:
DC's The Red Hen (on the left here) is NOT the restaurant that asked @PressSec Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave-- but someone egged it anyway: https://t.co/smXsx5l3vm @RedHenDC pic.twitter.com/mRDgzTswEK— FOX 5 DC (@fox5dc) June 25, 2018
This wasn’t the first time a debate has broken out about personalizing political disagreement in recent days. Actor Seth Rogen, in an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week, shared an anecdote about House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) asking him for a picture, which he denied.
Rogen met and took a picture with the Wisconsin Republicans’ kids at a Utah summit hosted by Mitt Romney earlier this month, but when Ryan approached and asked if he would do the same, he said no.
“I said, ‘No way, man,’” Rogen said. “And I couldn’t stop, and I said, ‘Furthermore, I hate what you’re doing to the country at this moment, and I count the days until you no longer have one iota of the power that you currently have.’”
Some conservatives cried foul. “If we as Americans, if we as a society can’t talk to each other, if we can’t engage in civil discourse, then we’re going to lose the country,” former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in an appearance on Fox News.
Rogen, at least, shrugged it off.
I’m confused that some people think civility is comparable to humanity.— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) June 25, 2018