t’s the food that gives the game away—at least for some of the people who despise Donald Trump and want the world to know it. With a contempt too deep for mere argument, they need only mention his diet to get their point across. Last summer, a flamboyantly coiffed magazine editor named Graydon Carter wrote a piece about Trump that was alternately sniffy and sputtering. I think he very much wanted it to sound sniffy through and through, but his loathing was too vast to control, hence the sputtering. Carter pulled out every piece of evidence he could summon to mock Trump: his bad clothes, his habit of sleeping with low-class women and marrying them too often, his taste in décor, his hair (ahem, Graydon).
Finally Carter delivered what he hoped would be the fatal detail. “When I bumped into Trump in Palm Beach,” Carter wrote, “he invited me to join him for dinner at Mar-a-Lago. We went and had surf and turf—a dish I hadn’t eaten in 20 years.”
Surf and turf! It is to gag, n’est-ce pas? Case, Carter was saying, closed. His approach to character assassination reminds me of the one taken by the New Yorker’s Mark Singer, who last year repackaged an old profile as a slender book called Trump and Me. (This is a freelancer’s version of “sustainability”: recycle old material every chance you get.) You will not be shocked when I tell you that Singer’s Trump profile was not favorable. Singer is the sort of writer who can sniff at Trump’s vulgarity and then, in the next breath, call the bottom-feeding Bill Maher “a sensible individual of sterling repute.” It all depends on who does the reputing.
Singer’s approach to Trump is a series of judgments like this—arguable assertions made without fear of contradiction because everyone who reads them already agrees about the awfulness of Donald Trump. But like Carter, Singer saves the mortal blow for the dinner table. Trump likes to watch TV while he eats. (The New Yorker reader just threw up in his mouth a little.) Bad enough, you say? Just wait: Donald asks for “his favorite: meat loaf and mashed potatoes.” The dish is so essential to his diet, according to Singer, he has ordered it placed on the menus of his hotels. “We have a chef,” Trump tells him, “who makes the greatest meat loaf in the world.” The man will brag about anything.
A last instance: In late February 2017, the Washington Post devoted more than half the front page of its Style section to a single Trump meal. These days the Post is a daily catalogue of Trump hatred, so it wasn’t a surprise to find its food critic joining in. (Even the sports writers squeeze anti-Trump quips into their copy. I don’t know what’s taking the automotive columnist so long.) The headline read: “Trump’s first D.C. dinner as president: An overcooked, $54 steak. With Ketchup.” That full stop after “steak” alerts the initiated: You guys are not going to believe what he’s done now. “Trump ordered a strip steak,” wrote the food critic, “which he ate per his preference, well done and with ketchup, as if the entree would be accompanied by a sippy cup.” Everyone already suspected the president is a child, and now they know.
But of course not everyone does know that. Trump’s still got the support of half the country, after all. It is tempting to take this obsession with Trump’s terrible taste as more evidence that his opposition is fundamentally unserious. Mocking his eating habits is shorthand, a quick way of sending a class signal. Cultivating sophisticated preferences in food is one of today’s unmistakable social markers. The elites have decoupled from Fast Food Nation—Trump Nation—and now watch aghast as the rest of calorie-addled America floats away on a listing barge. It’s true that Barack Obama indulged in the occasional cheeseburger, but it was usually the approved kind, served with truffle emulsion and Treaty of Westphalia smoked bleu cheese on a four-grain artisanal bun. Obama knew his class signals. In 2013, according TheDailyMeal.com, he was asked by a group of student journalists to name his favorite food. He said, “Broccoli.” He wasn’t kidding. Trump is on the barge.
“It goes with his authenticity,” Kellyanne Conway told the New York Times last year, explaining her boss’s love of fast food with an artlessness rare in crafty political consultants. I don’t think Trump’s love for commonplace grub is an affectation or a political prop, like those pork rinds that the first President Bush supposedly pretended to like to counter his effete image. Surely in Trump’s case it shows a genuine lack of taste. Also, convenience. He has always been a busy man. He likes fast food, he once told a reporter, because it is “fast.” Hard to argue with a tautology.
For liberals, the food is just a marker for the larger vulgarity, and the vulgarity is itself a proxy for his general unsuitability for the office he somehow got his hands on. It’s a clever way to avoid having to make an argument: This terrible man is just not one of us. What’s disconcerting is that the strategy works both ways. In a remarkable attempt at rhetorical jujitsu, Trump’s most sophisticated (and richest) defenders have tried to present his vulgarity and bad taste not as deficiencies to be overlooked but assets to be celebrated. They mark him as a leader who is not of the elites but of the people—a man’s man with the grit to do what needs to be done, whatever that may be.
In her book In Trump We Trust, Ann Coulter, of New Canaan, Connecticut, and Palm Beach, Florida, scoffs at the affectations of traditional Republicans: “Their good taste is their undoing.” So no more good taste! Trump, she wrote, is “a tasteless, publicity-seeking, coarse billionaire reality TV star.” Lucky us? Yes indeed. “That is exactly what we needed . . . Being crude is an indispensable requirement . . . . Trump is like a Shakespearean ‘fool’: he seems crass because he speaks the truth.” In Coulter’s eyes, Trump’s gift for the public insult marks him as The One. The more personal, the better. When one female journalist did something he didn’t like, Trump tweeted: “I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man—he made a good decision.”
“Imagine Mitt Romney doing that,” Coulter writes admiringly. I can’t! But she means it as a criticism of Mitt Romney.
Those of us who decline to take sides in the great Trump War raging between left and what remains of the right can only watch in awe. It’s a political argument unlike any seen before. Indeed, it’s not really an argument. “He’s a pig,” shouts the left. “Yeah, he is!” counters the Trumpian right. “He’s vulgar!” shouts the left. “You bet!” argues the right. “His taste in food is execrable!” shouts the left. “So is ours!” responds the right. It’s not the Lincoln–Douglas Debates. It’s not Webster versus Hayne. It’s not even Kennedy–Nixon.
And it shows no sign of abating, because Trump shows no sign that he will let the presidency change him. Just the other day I came across the menu for the luncheon the new president held for members of Congress on Inauguration Day. First came “Gulf shrimp in saffron sauce and topped with peanut crumble.” This was followed by “grilled Seven Hills Angus beef in dark chocolate and juniper jus with potato gratin.” I was surprised at the fancy food until I took a closer look beneath all the crumble and jus. Trump had invited the most important politicians in the country to come celebrate himself. And he fed them surf ’n’ turf.