Liberal Civility and the Sarah Huckabee Sanders Red Hen Controversy


The Changing Face of Liberal Civility: Which Side Wins in the Sarah Huckabee Sanders Restaurant Snub?

If we ever take it into our heads to open a restaurant that proudly refuses service to people who work for our 45th president, remind us to have the common decency to name the joint something like Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, aka our favorite unpronounceable town in Wales. Among other things, that should severely reduce the odds of blameless namesake restaurants hundreds of miles from ours getting smacked with everything from one-star Yelp reviews to arson threats whenever our culinary version of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy makes news.

A number of eateries called The Red Hen have been regretting their innocent choice of moniker. That's because, as you have likely heard, Stephanie Wilkinson, who co-owns the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, told White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last Friday not to let the door hit her where the good Lord split her. By both women’s accounts, the real conversation was more polite than that, but the effect was the same. And once Sanders tweeted that she’d been asked to leave “because I work for @POTUS,” all hell broke loose—you know, as if hell hadn’t already bolted from the asylum some time ago.

The Red Hen we felt sorriest for was the one in Washington, D.C., one of the few U.S. jurisdictions where it’s actually against the law for businesses to discriminate against customers on political grounds. (Only Seattle and —don’t ask us why—the Virgin Islands have similar statutes in place.) That other Red Hen’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have been flooded with vituperation from Trump supporters, and the restaurant’s patient explanations that it has no connection to the Red Hen 190 miles south have been met with replies like “Liar!” or, more unnervingly, “I don’t care.”
We can't exactly be thrilled by how fast people seized on the idea of making everyday life intolerable for anyone who works in Trump’s White House as a fun new way of expressing dissent.
Sanders being shown the door in Lexington wasn’t even the first instance of Trump Administration officials facing restaurant shaming lately. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the chief enforcer of POTUS’s draconian “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in The Shadow?” border policy, attracted flash-mob protesters when she was caught—sorry, we mean spotted—dining at a posh Mexican restaurant in D.C. last Wednesday. A few days earlier, Stephen Miller, the same policy’s chief architect, got heckled by another diner who called him a “fascist” in...a Mexican restaurant. While their choice of ethnic cuisines isn’t on a par with Dachau’s commandant noshing on bagels and lox, it’s certainly equivalent to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s staffers relishing sushi as five-year-old George Takei gets shipped off to an internment camp.

As it happens, the Lexington Red Hen’s menu features steak and potatoes, not chilaquiles or sashimi. Nonetheless, Wilkinson asking Sanders to leave because her mere presence violated the restaurant’s standards of “honesty, compassion, and cooperation” marked some sort of turning point in the Trumplandia Wars. That’s partly because Sanders is a much more familiar face to most people than Nielsen or Miller. Another reason is that she was being shamed by the business’s owner, not an indignant patron or a swiftly recruited gang of protesters.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the “resistance” gloated as if the Red Hen was the Trump era’s answer to Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus. (Wilkinson got sent thank-yous and bouquets from as far away as London.) But we can't exactly be thrilled by how fast people seized on the idea of making everyday life intolerable for anyone who works in Trump’s White House as a fun new way of expressing dissent. That’s because we’re already nostalgic for the days when the MAGA crew had a monopoly on mistaking spite for activism.
We were floored when California Rep. Maxine Waters—whom we like a lot of the time, just not this week – advocated using the tactic 24/7. “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere,” she told a rally in Los Angeles, where gas-station sightings of Cabinet members are obviously few and far between.

Gleefully, Trump seized the opportunity to paint Waters as the “unhinged” new face of the Democratic Party, which she isn’t by a long shot. (Not yet, anyhow, and knock wood.) He also accused her of calling for “harm” to his supporters (which she hadn’t, not quite). All the same, he got one crucial thing right when he tweeted, “Be careful what you wish for, Max!” Translation: Republicans aren’t the only people who enjoy fine dining or visit the occasional department store.
Liberals are clearly getting sick and tired of being the virtuous ones.

We can understand the argument that Trump’s more extreme supporters and apologists are so far beyond the pale of human decency that the normal rules of civility shouldn’t apply. But that’s just why the MAGA backlash is likely to be viciously unrestrained. If making mundane activities like shopping or eating out pure hell for public officials becomes routine political behavior—and if it escalates from petty harassment to outright thuggishness, as it almost certainly will—which side do you think will be better at it? The side that’s been panting all along for hooliganism to become the new normal, that’s which.

Even so, liberals are clearly getting sick and tired of being the virtuous ones. Frustration as monumental as theirs needs outlets, even if crowing at Sanders’s restaurant snub is an awfully stupid one. Six months from now, with any luck, the “resistance” will look back at the idiocies of The Week of The Red Hen with considerable sheepishness, not to say embarrassment. Trust us, the alternatives are a lot worse.

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