Fancy Manhattan restaurants are accustomed to visits from controversial celebrities like Alec Baldwin and the even more controversial celebrity Baldwin plays on “Saturday Night Live,” President Donald Trump. But what should New York establishments – often staffed by Latino immigrants and others who may feel threatened by Trump’s policies – do when Trump or one of his many New York-based family members or other close associates pops in?
That question has been at the center of a roiling debate since a Virginia restaurant called the Red Hen asked White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her dining companions to leave. That followed two incidents in which Homeland Security Chief Kirstjen Nielsen and White House policy adviser Stephen Miller – two officials responsible for Trump’s “baby prisons” for undocumented immigrants – were confronted by outraged citizens in Mexican restaurants. Democratic California Rep. Maxine Waters then waded into the controversy by calling on people to spontaneously protest Trump’s minions whereever they encounter them; she then received a deluge of death threats as a result, according to her office.
Given the opportunity, should New Yorkers shun senior Trump staffers, as the Red Hen did, or confront them, as Waters suggests?
If you look at the question narrowly, without thinking about the larger context of Trump’s policies and rhetoric, then the answer is pretty straightforward. As Sanders herself put it, public servants should be able to dine in peace. Presumably, so too should New Yorkers who have advised Trump privately and egged him on publicly, like Trump’s sons or his former attorney Michael Cohen.
There are also practical considerations. Some worry that such actions might simply fire up Trump’s base and ultimately backfire. And some direct blowback is almost inevitable: Multiple restaurants called “The Red Hen” have reportedly been under siege from irate Trumpers since the incident.
But some things are important enough to justify some risk. And context matters. At present, the focal point of anger toward the Trump regime are the president’s immigration policies. They represent far more than a simple ideological disagreement. While Trump’s “zero-tolerance” approach to immigration has the substantive effect of terrifying immigrant communities, it’s also an expression of the harsh, xenophobic rhetoric that Trump has consistently deployed since he launched his candidacy with a rant about Mexico sending us “rapists.” Since then, he’s continued to characterize migrants, who commit crimes at a lower rate than the native-born, as inherently dangerous. He calls them “bad hombres" who “infest” the United States.
That means New Yorkers should either confront or refuse service to Trump and his cronies for two reasons: First, this is not normal. Trump’s feeding of bigotry is unprecedented for any major-party presidential nominee, much less president, in at least a century. Second, an assault on immigrants is an assault on New Yorkers.
The Empire State has been America’s gateway to the rest of the world for its entire history. According to Pew, the state has the second largest foreign-born population after California. Two-thirds of New York’s immigrants are long-established American residents, according to a 2016 report from the state comptroller’s office. (New York also has one of the largest Muslim populations in the country – another popular target for Trump.)
Social science shows that Trump’s anti-Latino and anti-Muslim rhetoric is not just a reflection of bigotry in society, it actually causes more of it. Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, connects Trump’s brand of dog whistle politics to the spike in hate crimes against minority groups that followed the 2016 election. (New York City has experienced a "sustained spike" in such offenses since Trump’s election, according to police department data cited by New York City Patch.) Schaffner conducted a study in which he showed some respondents Trump’s “rapists” comments and others less divisive campaign pitches about issues like trade. He found that those who saw the inflammatory statements were significantly more likely to express similarly bigoted views than those who didn’t. And, interestingly, they tended to say more offensive things not only about Latinos, but about all other groups.
In an interview on my radio show earlier this year, Schaffner suggested that Trump’s over-the-top statements give his supporters tacit permission to say offensive things themselves. “People aren’t always sure what the norms are in terms of what’s OK and what’s not OK to say,” he said. “There have been several psychological studies showing that people tend to take cues from their peers when they’re asked to talk about other groups. And I think something similar is going on here: People hear a politician who is running for president using this inflammatory terminology, and they think, ‘Well, if a major party’s presidential candidate is using this language then it must be acceptable for me.’ So I think people are changing their understanding about what the norms allow for, or preclude, based on what they’re hearing from Trump.”
Another study, by researchers at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, similarly found that Trump’s “anti-Muslim tweets were a reliable predictor of attacks on Muslims during the presidential campaign and in the months following his election,” according to The Daily Beast.
This one-two punch – policies explicitly designed to strike fear into immigrant communities, including taking immigrants’ children from them, and a president who uses his bully pulpit to tell his supporters that millions of Americans are a problem – is what distinguishes this from a normal political dispute.
A third of New York’s waiters and waitresses are foreign born, as are more than four in 10 of its cooks. Many of these New Yorkers feel that they’re under siege from the federal government, and it’s important to weigh their experiences in Trump’s America against the dinner plans of people like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. When you look at the larger picture, and put the question into context, it seems entirely appropriate for people of conscience to push back on this regime’s attempts to redefine whose humanity is worthy of respect.
Stephanie Wilkinson, who was the manager of the Red Hen restaurant until resigning this week over the backlash that resulted from her decision to not serve Sanders, told The Washington Post that Sanders supports and enables an "inhumane and unethical" administration. "I'm not a huge fan of confrontation," she told the Post, but "this feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals."
She was right.