In the basement of Barrel, a whiskey joint just east of the Capitol in Washington, DC, there’s a speakeasy. It’s normally named the Elixir Bar; it sometimes features more explicit themes—tiki, for example—just for the fun of it. For the past couple of weeks, though, Elixir has taken on a pop-up theme that is both especially timely and especially appropriate for the bar’s Pennsylvania Avenue address: the 2016 GOP presidential nominee. Theme: Make Cocktails Great Again.
The bar is not a tribute to Donald Trump; it is instead, effectively, a live-action satire of him. The speakeasy (nom de pop-up: The Trump Elixir Bar) is aimed at clientele who do not support Trump, and who in fact do not support him so vehemently that they find pleasure in mocking him. It has, as the word about it has spread, presented itself as a kind of catharsis-via-cocktail.
But the real catharsis, a visit to the bar makes clear, comes not so much by way of booze as by way of … selfies. And grams. And snaps. The bar, as you’d expect, offers its patrons a selection of Trump-themed cocktails (including the “Part of the Beauty of Me Is That I Am Very Rich,” a $50 mint julep, and the “I Beat China All the Time. All the Time”—composed of soju, pineapple rum, pineapple, mint, lime, sugar, and Chinese five spice). The sell here, though, isn’t so much the cheekily named craft cocktails as it is the theme park-style appreciation of Donald J. Trump, the human and the meme and the brand. The Trump Elixir Bar suggests not just how deeply the 2016 campaign has permeated the culture of the city that the election’s victor will soon call home; it also suggests how deeply entrenched politics themselves have become in American culture. It’s hard to tell, in the Trump Elixir Bar, where politics ends and everything else begins—and that, indeed, is part of the point.
On a recent Friday evening, if you wanted to do your part to #maga, you’d need to wait in a line that stretched along the wall of the main bar area at Barrel (bartenders softened the sting of the wait by passing out cups of punch to queued patrons—a holdover from Elixir’s tiki bar iteration). But once the punch had been poured and the time had been passed, the bar-goers—almost all of them in their 20s and 30s, almost all of them whiffing of Young Professional—were escorted down a narrow hallway that led, in turn, to a narrow staircase.
And then: A utopia, tailor-made for the age of Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat, awaited.
First came an assemblage of six pieces of paper, pasted onto the hallway’s brick wall, listing the types of people who might frequent such a Trump-mocking establishment: LOSERS IN LIFE, HYPOCRITES, DOPES, TOTAL FAILURES, FRAUD LIGHTWEIGHTS, and INCOMPETENT WEAKLINGS. A paper-printed arrow pointed the way, from there, to the bar. (The insults and the arrow were printed on simple sheets of white 8.5 x 11s; the Trump decor was a decidedly DIY effort.) People paused for selfies; “that sounds like my parents talking to me,” one guy said to another, as both took their pictures.
Then, over the staircase leading down to Barrel’s basement, another piece of paper warned that “LOCKER ROOM TALK” would abound in the room beyond. (The papers expressing this caution were simply hand-written in marker, and complemented with an arrow pointing the way down the stairs.) More selfies, here, ensued.
Then came the narrow hallway leading into the bar, which featured a collage of more paper print-outs, this time with portraits of some of the people Trump has insulted during his tenure as a presidential candidate. (Katie Couric: “THIRD RATE REPORTER.” George W. Bush: “NOT NICE!” John McCain: “GRADUATED LAST IN HIS CLASS.” Super Bowl 50: “VERY BORING.” Alec Baldwin as Trump: “PORTRAYAL STINKS.” Mexican flag: “WE GET THE KILLERS, DRUGS, AND CRIME, THEY GET THE MONEY!” Chinese flag: “TERRIBLE!” ) People again paused for photos and selfies and, in one case, a “jina” joke.
And then came the bar itself. Next to the speakeasy’s entrance stood a life-sized cutout of Donald Trump (material: cardboard; facial expression: light grimace). He was placed next to a lamp-lit blackboard with a chalked-in message: “Barrel is doing SO poorly—everybody knows it—that they had to steal my quotes for their failing bar.” People again posed next to this pulp-bound presidential candidate, slinging their arms around him, their appointed photographers struggling, in the dimly-lit bar, to get the lighting right.
The bar also featured more bits of selfie infrastructure: enormous, laminated menus—“we made the menu huge so it makes the customers feel like they have small hands,” the bar’s manager, Mike Haigis, told the Independent Journal Review; Make America Great Again caps; a Trump wig suspended, rather eerily, above the bar. There was a wall of Trump/Pence signs, for step-and-repeat purposes. There was another cardboard cutout of Trump, this one with its face removed, for those who preferred to pose as, rather than simply with, the candidate.
The speakeasy was on the one hand a typical D.C. basement bar, crowded and jovial and pumping with music from M.I.A. It was also, however, an extremely literal take on the Washington mandate to “see and be seen”: The bar existed, in person, largely to serve the digital world. On Instagram, the Barrel D.C. location is currently tagged with more than 150 Trump-themed photos, among them portraits taken with the Trump cutouts, photos of “nasty women” posing around the speakeasy’s oversized drink menus, and pictures of receipts for cocktails listed as “Beating China,” “ISIS Founder,” and “The P**sy” ($13 each).
The whole thing was at once extremely political and not political at all—a lighthearted way to simultaneously revel in the campaign and to transcend it. It’s an extension of similar efforts around Washington to integrate the election, cheekily, into the culture of Washington: the Donald and Hillary burgers at Del Frisco’s Grille, the Trump-vs-Clinton poll-via-Lite Brite board at the steakhouse Medium Rare (“who’s go the secret sauce?”); the new Trump-themed pop-up, Bar Ilegal, that has set up shop in another D.C. neighborhood. It’s an extension, too, of the late-night shows that have devoted their comedy to the campaign, and an extension of all the Trumps and Hillarys trick-or-treating this Halloween, and an extension of Beyoncé and Jay Z and many, many other celebrities hitting the campaign trail. The 2016 election—and, with it, politics as an infiltration and an institution—are both omnipresent and invisible. They are, at this point, infused into American pop culture—much like the pineapple that gives Elixir’s “Beating China” rum its fruity punch.