Only Burgers Forever Now

WhiteHouse.Gov

Somehow, even after all the shocks and humiliations — adult film actress Stormy Daniels recounting an episode of erotic spanking involving the President, widespread contemplation of a urologic Russian sex tape starring the same, innumerable bullshit tweets and semi-public meltdowns — the fast food burger buffet still made an impression. From your place opposite Trump at the White House’s burger bar, there is no going back.

It wasn’t that the smorgasboard of lukewarm Wendy’s and clamshell-boxed McDonald’s salads was the most proletarian spread ever served at the White House, nor that it represented the greatest disparity in food quality versus guest gravitas: FDR famously served hot dogs and beer to the King and Queen of England, which was likely more vertiginous for the monarchs than a bunch of Clemson football players encountering a respectable stoner’s banquet. Indeed, Clemson’s quarterback, at the very least, seemed perfectly content with the meal.

What made the dinner stand out was partially the context: Clemson’s visit to the White House took place more than three weeks into a government shutdown over Trump’s promised border wall, the crown jewel and primary symbol of his presidential platform. When Democrats wouldn’t supply the votes to appropriate funds for the wall, Trump fans initially poured $20 million into a GoFundMe which is now set to be refunded to donors due to a substantial shortcoming in fundraising. Nowadays GoFundMe is hosting its own fundraiser to aid government workers affected by the long-running shutdown; theoretically among them are the furloughed White House dining workers whose absence meant that Trump had to purchase food for Clemson out of his own pocket, concluding in a table full of burgers, sandwiches, fries under heat lamps.

That in itself should’ve been enough to persuade onlookers that the situation we’re in is unique. We can’t have an operational government because we can’t come to a spending agreement because the values represented by the irreconcilable sides of the argument are wildly, radically opposed. We’re past the point of disagreeing mainly on tweaks and snips: The days of most everyone save a handful of belligerently principled Democrats agreeing that, yes, we need to abolish cash welfare but with which cuts where? are over. The poles have parted, whatever post-war consensus there ever was has disintegrated, and the breach is wide and obvious and pertains to fundamental things — equality, freedom, liberalism itself.

Was the burger spread a vicious snub? That you could be pardoned for suspecting as much about almost any public gesture is just another indicator that there’s no way out of the McMaunder-Minimum we’ve found ourselves in. Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro recently aired the bland but cryptic notion that “brainpower is the currency of success”, but that’s certainly not the case in political media or electoral politics: There, the currency of success is pissing you off. What draws crowds, generates retweets, magnetizes eyes and promises prime-time pundit action isn’t moderation or thoughtfulness or whatever the lifeblood of deliberative democracy was supposed to have been, it’s the most inflammatory material imaginable. Trump specializes in this; it’s why he won, but the new generation of Democrats are no slouches, and the old guard — Pelosi et al — are catching up. There’s no gently backing out of that style of politics come another election, even if a soft-spoken unifier winds up in the Oval Office. The fury and the derision run deeper than that.

But perhaps even more affecting than the shutdown or the paranoia or the ever-spreading miasma of malice was an image the White House decided to share of the event: A photograph featuring President Trump with his face frozen in a nervous smile shading into a grimace under the warm glow of golden candelabras, his hands outstretched in oceanic generosity over the lordly array of boxed burgers stacked atop vermeil platters, polished wood beneath, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln observing pensively in the background. In modern life, what seems to be fake is almost always the most real. Trump seems like a fabrication of a president offering a simulation of food in a stress dream about a strange country: But it’s all real. The illusion is Lincoln in the backdrop. That’s just a painting.