Just last year, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s security chief defended the need for his boss to fly in first class to avoid hostile confrontations with the “vulgar” and “threatening” occupants of coach-class seats. Pruitt was widely mocked for his expensive tastes, and for the presumption that public officials should be shielded, at public expense, from expressions of opinion by members of the public. But since then, the breakdown in civility that began during the 2016 campaign with chants of “Lock her up” has accelerated, with a prominent Democratic House member, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, calling over the weekend for what amounts to vigilante harassment of administration officials in public places.
In a video posted on YouTube, Waters exhorted a crowd to confront Trump Cabinet members “in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station. [Y]ou get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
That was already well under way last week. With emotions running high over the separation of immigrant families, presidential adviser Stephen Miller and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the two officials most closely identified with the policy, were jeered and heckled in separate incidents as they ate at — pointedly, or just coincidentally — Mexican restaurants. Then on Friday, the owner of a small restaurant in Lexington, Va., politely asked press secretary Sarah Sanders to leave — which she did, along with her party of eight. Since the restaurant, the Red Hen, seats only 26 altogether — and the owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, didn’t charge them for what they had already been served — it was an expensive way for Wilkinson to register a protest against what Wilkinson calls an “inhumane and unethical” administration.
It was also, presumably, a somewhat futile gesture. Wilkinson said she took action to preserve the feelings of her gay workers, who are upset about the Trump administration’s policies on LGBTQ issues, so that point was made. But Sanders, of course, doesn’t make policy in this or any other area, and even if she did, the chances that she would be deterred by missing a meal are probably negligible. The controversy, needless to say, went viral on social media, with posts defending and denouncing the restaurant — as well as a number of unaffiliated restaurants with the same name as far away as Connecticut, one of which reported receiving “thousands” of hostile messages and even death threats.