A restaurant owner’s refusal to serve White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is snowballing into more than a partisan food fight, highlighting a deepening divide that’s made its way from political arenas to dining tables.
The Virginia restaurant’s move on Friday ignited an orgy of recriminations and debate about where the line is between personal disagreement and harassment, and underlined how the Trump era is reshaping social norms because of today’s extraordinary political polarization.
David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Obama, said Monday he was both “amazed and appalled by the number of folks on [the] Left” who praised the owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., for kicking out Sanders.
The controversy, Axelrod wrote on Twitter, is a “triumph” for Trump’s “vision of America: Now we’re divided by red plates & blue plates!”
But not everyone agreed with Axelrod.
Former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who was a surrogate to Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty MORE's 2016 presidential campaign, sided with the owner of the Red Hen.
“Of course she was within her rights,” Tauscher said. “She's about the only person in this affair who acted reasonably.”
Red Hen co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson said she made the decision to ask Sanders to leave after consulting her employees and because of the spokeswoman’s support of the Trump administration’s policies.
Sanders tweeted after being eighty-sixed that she had “politely left” the eatery, saying, “I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.”
Sanders addressed the barrage of coverage about the restaurant incident on Monday, saying at the top of the White House press briefing, “We are all allowed to disagree, but we should be able to do so freely, and without fear of harm.”
“Healthy debate on ideas and political philosophy is important, but the calls for harassment and push for any Trump supporter to avoid the public is unacceptable,” Sanders told reporters.
Partisans on both sides of the aisle have pounced on the issue.
Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersAdvocates call on top Democrats for 0B in housing investments Cori Bush hits her stride by drawing on activist past Cawthorn to introduce resolution condemning political violence after warning of 'bloodshed' if elections are 'rigged' MORE (D-Calif.), one of the president’s most outspoken critics in Congress, called on her supporters to go head-to-head with Trump officials in restaurants, department stores and gas stations — remarks that led House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats seek to cool simmering tensions Louisiana delegation split over debt hike bill with disaster aid House Democrats unveil legislation to curtail presidential power MORE (D-Calif.) to gently push back.
Pelosi said Trump’s “lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable.”
“In the crucial months ahead, we must strive to make America beautiful again,” she added in a Monday tweet, with a link to a news story about Waters’s remarks.
Trump, for his part, blasted both the Red Hen and Waters in separate tweets. He used insults, saying the restaurant was “dirty” and in need of a paint job and that Waters was an “extraordinarily low IQ person.”
Some Trump critics who support Sanders getting ejected argue that civility died when Trump descended a golden Trump Tower escalator in 2015 and announced his White House bid.
But Armstrong Williams bristles at the suggestion that some of the blame for the very public political battles could lie on Trump’s shoulders.
Unlike Waters, says Williams, Trump has never incited people “to go and harass, and disrupt, and use expletives and the grossest and the most demeaning language” against people going about their private lives, “he doesn’t do that.”
“He may do that himself, but he doesn’t encourage anyone to follow his example,” says Williams.
Williams, who served as an adviser and spokesman for GOP presidential candidate Ben CarsonBen CarsonRepublicans are the 21st-century Know-Nothing Party Sunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Government indoctrination, whether 'critical' or 'patriotic,' is wrong MORE’s 2016 campaign and is a contributor to The Hill, shredded Waters's comments encouraging people to harass administration officials.
“Nobody benefits from this. We need to put a lid on this and put a lid on this as soon as possible,” said Williams, the author of “Reawakening Virtues.”
Tauscher suggested that Sanders is reaping what she sows.
She said the press secretary “stands at the podium and mocks and is snide. She sounds so uncivil and disrespectful and flip to people in the media. And it's the old saying, 'She can dish it out but can't take it.’”
In the end, she said it all comes back to Trump.
“This is a problem when you have someone like the president who attacks people on Twitter and breaks all norms of civil society and is a proud authoritarian,” Tauscher said. “People are frustrated, they're frightened, they're mortified. I think people are tired of it and they're not going to be complicit.”
It’s not the first time that Trump White House officials have faced headline-making public confrontations.
In 2016, then-Vice President-elect Pence was booed by some audience members at a performance of “Hamilton,” before a cast member read a statement onstage saying those in the Broadway show were “alarmed” that the incoming administration would not “uphold our inalienable rights.”
Last year, then-White House press secretary Sean SpicerSean Michael SpicerPsaki defends move to oust Trump appointees from military academy boards Defense & National Security: The post-airlift evacuation struggle Conway and Spicer fire back at White House over board resignation requests MORE was confronted by a women while he was shopping at an Apple store in Washington.
And last week, activists protesting the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy disrupted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenEx-Trump official: 'No. 1 national security threat I've ever seen' is GOP Left-leaning group to track which companies hire former top Trump aides Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' MORE’s meal at a Mexican restaurant in Washington with booing and yelling.
Armstrong said he fears what started as verbal protests and restaurant ejections could soon turn uglier.
“Somebody’s going to die or get seriously injured,” he said.
Some of Sanders’s critics ripped the White House employee for taking to her official Twitter account to call out the Red Hen following the restaurant flap, pointing to a recent Supreme Court decision that Sanders had applauded.
Earlier this month, the high court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker’s refusal to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.
“We were pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision. The First Amendment prohibits government from discriminating against the basis of religious beliefs, and the Supreme Court rightly concluded that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission failed to show tolerance and respect for his religious beliefs,” Sanders said during a White House briefing when asked about the case.
S.E. Cupp, the host of HLN's “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered,” says kicking out Sanders has the effect of making Trump critics seem like bigger bullies than the president.
“It would seem Trump, and Co. long ago set the precedent for bullying, debased and divisive rhetoric. But some on the left — and most worrisome, plenty of high-profile establishment Democrats — have decided the best way to combat it is to match it," Cupp said. “Color me skeptical, but I don’t see that turning things around.”
“It’s also politically dumb,” Cupp added. “Let’s be clear — in the pantheon of injustices, politely asking a public official to leave a restaurant is hardly an atrocity. But it’s the kind of thing that inevitably swings back in Trump’s favor. Why make sympathetic characters out of the people you abhor?”
Restaurateur Spike Mendelsohn — whose D.C. culinary empire includes Good Stuff Eatery and We, the Pizza on Capitol Hill, along with other popular dining spots — says he was “a little disappointed” when he heard about Sanders’s experience at the Red Hen.
While the “Top Chef” alum acknowledges “everyone has to right to do what they want with their establishment,” Mendelsohn calls food a “nonpartisan issue” that “shouldn’t really be used to be pushing out political agendas.”
Rather than refuse service, Mendelsohn — who’s launching his new podcast, “Plate of the Union,” in partnership with Food Policy Action on iTunes later this month — fantasizes about another outcome at the Virginia restaurant: “Imagine if that person would’ve opened up their restaurant and engaged in a valuable conversation about whatever’s bugging them.”
“If wild animals in the kingdom can come together for a meal,” Mendelsohn added with a laugh, “I mean, so should we.”