What it means that Trump served Big Macs at White House

Of all the bizarre images that have come from the Trump White House, this one will endure: On Monday night, as President Donald Trump hosted Clemson's national champion college football team, a White House worker lit the candles of a gilded candelabrum in an elegant room, which had been laid out with a banquet. The feast came in cardboard boxes, stacked in neat piles. There was Filet-O-Fish. There were Quarter Pounders, too, and Big Macs, and — perhaps the piece de resistance — a tray of silver bowls full of single-serve tubs of dipping sauce for chicken nuggets. President Trump stood proudly before it.

Everything a supporter or detractor of the Trump administration could possibly hope to see was contained within this image. It was symbolic and decadent, evocative of a baroque painting.

To the president's fans, it was an example of Trump's resourcefulness, his relatability, his rule-breaking moxie. He had ordered the McDonald's — there was Wendy's, Burger King and Domino's, too — because the government shutdown had furloughed White House staff who would have otherwise prepared a meal, he said. He served the players fast food, he said earlier in the day, because he "would think that's their favorite food." He would think that because it's his favorite food, too: "Great American food," he pronounced it. "We have pizzas, we have 300 hamburgers, many, many french fries. All of our favorite foods." And, according to press secretary Sarah Sanders, he had paid for the feast himself. (The Washington Post's Philip Bump crunched the numbers and came up with an estimated tab for the spread: $2,911.44.)

There was even more for his followers to like: The juxtaposition of the White House's elegance with the ordinary Big Macs made him seem like a man of the people. Someone who ate what regular, furloughed Americans ate — but with golden candelabras, and the wealth and success one needs to possess them. And he used the attention the food had gotten to change the topic to the reason all those Quarter Pounders were stacked up before him: They were understaffed in the White House because of the shutdown, because of the wall, because of — it was implied — the Democrats. "The Republicans are really, really sticking together. It's great to see it because we need border security," he said, before exiting and telling a reporter to "grab one" of the hamburgers.

But for those who dislike the president, the image of him and his 300 hamburgers was something altogether different. It was chintzy, boorish, brazen. It was an example of him trying to get sympathy for the shutdown when he was the one who had triggered it. It was disrespectful to the players, who had come to the White House expecting elegance and were served nothing but empty calories. "Our nutritionist must be having a fit," one Clemson player reportedly said. It was yet another example of how, in the Trump White House, you might think you were getting one thing (a nice dinner at the White House; getting Mexico to pay for the wall) and end up with something altogether different and worse (a pile of cold, limp fast food; the longest-ever government shutdown). The Filet-O-Fish were symbolic of a bait-and-switch.

The players, by many accounts, enjoyed the food. Some reporters said they "whooped" when they entered a room with burgers piled up like croquembouche. There are pictures of them with towering stacks of Big Mac boxes, and cocktail tables littered with crinkly wrappers. When Trump addressed the room, he told the players that he had considered recruiting Melania to make a meal for them.

"Or do we give you some little quick salads that the first lady will make, along with the second lady; they'll make some salads," the president continued. "And I said, 'You guys aren't into salads.' "

President Obama was mocked for his love of arugula, you'll recall. Republicans want meat. Salads are effete. But our salad days have been topped with Russian dressing (er, Special Sauce), and now they're over. What the picture seems to evoke, as well, are the banquet scenes from Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette": A leader who inflicts more harm as he tries to sympathize with his constituents' struggles. Let them eat burgers.

Maura Judkis is a reporter for The Washington Post, covering culture, food and the arts.

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