On Monday night, President Donald Trump hosted the Clemson University football team at the White House to celebrate the team’s victory in the national college playoffs. Because of the government shutdown, Trump decided to pay, out of pocket, for a boatload worth of fast food to feed the players. And just before the team arrived, this photo was taken.
Asked about the spread, Trump had, well, a lot to say.
“I like it all. I like it all,” he began. “It’s all good stuff, great American food. And it’s going to be very interesting to see at the end of this evening how many are left. Pressed on whether he preferred McDonalds or Wendy’s, Trump expounded – at length:
“If it’s American, I like it. It’s all American stuff. … But it’s good stuff and we have the national champion team, as you know, Clemson Tigers. And they had a fantastic game against Alabama and they’re all here. They’re right outside the room and I think we’re going to let you see them. But I’ll bet you, as much food as we have — we have pizzas, we have 300 hamburgers, many, many french fries, all of our favorite foods. I want to see what’s here when we leave, because I don’t think it’s going to be much. The reason we did this is because of the shutdown. We want to make sure that everything is right, so we sent out, we got this. And we have some wonderful people working in the White House. They helped us out with this.”
Twitter went wild. And yes, the photo is amazing. (Please note there is a massive stack of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. No one eats those. NO ONE.)
Trump tweeted about the spread Tuesday, saying, “Great being with the National Champion Clemson Tigers last night at the White House. Because of the Shutdown I served them massive amounts of Fast Food (I paid), over 1000 hamburgers etc. Within one hour, it was all gone. Great guys and big eaters!”
But there’s also something interesting – and telling – in the photo. It is, in a word, Trumpian.
I’ve written before about the oddity of Trump’s appeal to the average Joe – a very wealthy man who has lived in New York City his entire life and whose taste trends toward gold (or at least gold-plated). It seems like a very, very weird fit. Most people don’t live and work in a building they own. Or have silk draperies. And wine with their name on it. And, yes, steaks with their name on them.
Part of the answer lies in fast food. Trump loves it. Revels in his love for it. And uses it – as he did Monday night – as some sort of stand-in for patriotism or America First-ism or, well, something.
This, from a 2016 New York Times profile on Trump’s eating habits – and how they differed from past presidents – is instructive on that point:
“In an era of gourmet dining and obsession with healthy ingredients, Mr. Trump is a throwback to an earlier, more carefree time in American eating, when nobody bothered to ask whether the tomatoes were locally grown, and the first lady certainly didn’t have a vegetable garden, complete with a bee hive, on the South Lawn of the White House.”
And then there’s this from a February 2016 CNN town hall:
Anderson Cooper: “I understand that you’re a big fast food guy as well, that you actually bring fast food to your plane sometimes. When you roll up at McDonald’s, what does Donald Trump order?”
Donald Trump: “The Fish Delight sometimes. [laughter from audience] The Big Macs are great, the Quarter Pounders with cheese.”
Fish Delight! (I mean, maybe that explains the overwhelming amount of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches on the table Monday night.)
Trump is best understood as a weird amalgam of high and low American culture. He’s rich but says he identifies more with blue-collar workers. He’s President of the United States, thanks in large part due to his star turn on a reality TV show where he essentially played himself. And he’s a guy who could eat at only Michelin-starred restaurants but, instead, likes fast food better.
Which brings me back to the picture. At first glance, it seems incongruous – to say the least. Stacks of Quarter Pounders and chicken nuggets flanked by two gold-plated candelabra. Trump, in a formal black winter coat, holding his hands gleefully over the food while Abraham Lincoln’s portrait looks on from above.
And it is incongruous. High and low culture smashed together will-nilly, with no seeming sense of how odd it all looks and how different it is from what’s come before it. Exactly like Donald Trump.