How does that line go? All fast food served warm is alike, but every fast-foodstuff consumed after it gets cold is unhappy in its own way?
Regardless: Taste was not, by all appearances, a top concern when it came to the culinary offerings that the White House presented to visiting members of the Clemson Tigers football team on Monday evening. It was the visuals, instead—items from McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Burger King and Domino’s, many of them piled, in their branded packagings, atop silver platters—that were the point: the gleaming tongs next to the wilting boxes of Filets-O-Fish. The plastic containers of dipping sauces, sorted by flavor, stacked cheekily inside gravy boats. The many faces of Wendy, wrapped recursively around a series of Singles. The French fries arranged, haphazardly, in cardboard cups bearing the seal of the White House. The gilt candelabras lending soft light to the guilty pleasures. A little bit P. T. Barnum, a little bit Hieronymus Bosch, a little bit Beauty and the Beast, had “Be Our Guest” been staged by Willy Wonka and also set in the apocalypse: The scene was grinning and a bit grotesque, and that was the point. A portrait of Lincoln gazed down upon the spread and at the man who would claim credit for it, perhaps wondering anew what God hath wrought.
The answer was as evident as the silver-plattered salads: This was a thoroughly Trumpian strain of spectacle, its images meant to hijack attention and go viral. The president invited members of the press into the State Dining Room on Monday, before the diners were invited in, to take photos and shoot video of the tablescape, rendering an otherwise ordinary White House event—a victorious athletic team, rewarded with a presidential visit—into something remarkable. And the feast that ensued (“great American food,” Trump called it), was the distillation of some of his fondest visions of the country: corporate, homogeneous, teasing, unapologetic, and revolving, above all, around the whims of Donald Trump. Images of the president, presiding over piles of cardboard-boxed burgers, quickly attained their virality; there was pretty much no way for them not to. Trump bragged like so about his own role in the procuring of these postmodern loaves and fishes: “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!”
A dinner of champions, with only one winner: The event was thus very little about the Clemson Tigers, whose fate, on Monday evening, was to dine on lukewarm Whoppers, and very much about the man who hosted them. The leader, that leader wants you to know, MacGyvered some McDonald’s, and in that fact is an argument not just about the powers of the one politician, but also about the limits of the others. The pragmatic reason for the McMeal, as the president noted, was the partial government shutdown, which Trump himself initiated, and which he refuses to end, and which has resulted in, among many other things, the reduction of staffers at the White House who might traditionally prepare a sumptuous feast for visiting dignitaries. (Adding to the limitations: a snowstorm in Washington, D.C., that kept even some non-furloughed workers homebound on Monday.)
The broader implications of the meal, though, are philosophical. Lurking at the edges of the shutdown—wrapped, along with Wendy, around those rows of wilted burgers—are deeper questions about what government ultimately is for, and about what government can truly accomplish on behalf of a vast and hectic nation. Trump’s feast was in that sense also an argument, one that aligns him, to an unusual degree, with the most conservative elements of the party he is steadily remaking in his own image: Government, all those neat lines of Big Macs insist, isn’t as important as some Americans have assumed it to be. Institutions, staffs, committed teams striving on behalf of the country: overrated. The government is shut down, and yet the Filets-O-Fish appeared nonetheless, each one alleging that, shutdown or no, the people shall have their feast. A McChicken in every pot.
The burger buffet also made a different kind of argument—this one about the ways political communication will work in the age of viral iconography. In her remarkable new book Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power, the digital-culture scholar An Xiao Mina argues that memes, even the seemingly silly versions of them, can drive profound political change. Mina delves into the origin stories of the Grass-Mud Horse protests in China, and of the Arab Spring, and of Black Lives Matter, and of the many more movements around the world that were born online and radiated out to shake the complacencies and complicities of the physical world. One of the book’s sweeping ideas is that these movements, though they vary considerably by country and context, are united by fundamental dynamics: Memes, participatory and productively remixable, tap into the deep desire for storytelling—and for story-receiving—that is such a profound part of being human. The most powerful among them can summon what the UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, whom Mina quotes in a chapter aptly titled “Chaos Magic,” calls “the deep story”: the set of beliefs and feelings that underscore the stories we tell, and that spread, quietly, along with seemingly superficial takes and jokes and images. “Indeed,” Mina puts it, “memes allow us to more quickly develop the visual and verbal language around which movements organize.”
I thought of Mina’s book when I saw Donald Trump, hands outstretched, welcoming reporters into the State Dining Room to bear witness to a pile of Big Macs. Here was the American president, standing before the whirring cameras, willfully making himself into a meme, and using the particular power of the meme—deep stories, shared symbols—to do exactly what Mina’s argument predicted he might: to advocate for disruptive political change. The viral images of Trump and his McFeast allege, in spite of so much evidence to the contrary, that a functioning government is not fully necessary; the only thing Americans really need, the Quarter Pounders whisper, is Trump himself. He is both the strict father of political discourse and the generous father of ancient myth, capable of providing the American family with the 21st century’s version of the fatted calf. He is all you—all we—require. I alone can fix it.
Trump may be exceptional in his nourishment of authoritarian impulses; his use of memes as tools of argument, though, is becoming more and more common in American political discourse. While Bill Clinton might have sent the first presidential email, and Barack Obama might have posted the first presidential tweet, Donald Trump is, meaningfully, the first of the internet presidents. He embodies some of the core logics of the internet as a medium: He presents, through his angry and smirking and sometimes typo-laden tweets (before he bragged about “1000 hamburgers” on Tuesday morning, he boasted of the same amount of “hamberders”), a version of transparency. He responds to Americans’ fatigue with institutions by insisting that he is a one-man show. It was once understood that politicians, at the highest levels, doubled as embodied committees, their words and actions the result of the work of a team of behind-the-scenes advisers and writers and editors and handlers and image-makers. (The West Wing wrung seven seasons out of precisely that understanding.) But the internet, which prizes immediacy and amateurism and the illusion, at least, of authenticity, is rapidly changing those assumptions.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of course, understands that shift. Ilhan Omar understands it. Beto O’Rourke, who last week broadcast a dental cleaning, understands it. Elizabeth Warren is coming to understand it. Many of this moment’s rising leaders are coming to understand it. Donald Trump, however, was one of the first national politicians to fully weaponize the understanding: to use memes, at once facetious and deeply serious, to make his case for himself, seemingly by himself, to the American public. “We did it. We memed him into the presidency,” an attendee of Trump’s inaugural DeploraBall—the party derived its name from a gaffe that became its own kind of meme—told a reporter in 2017.
As politics bends to the will of the web, it is very likely that other wes will help to meme other politicians into positions of power. And it is very likely, as well, that Trump’s fast supper, for all its gaudy absurdities, will become, in its way, a more common kind of occurrence. The president used the circumstances created by the shutdown he had caused to argue for more shutdown; he used repetitive rows of congealing mass productions to insist that government itself is redundant. It was genius; it was pernicious; it was extremely fitting for the times. Politics is, and always has been, a project of image-making. Now, however, its spectacles can be assembled at the speed of a Big Mac.