Everybody with a pulse has long since heard about Donald Trump’s Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, being asked by the owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia.
Most of the commentary I’ve read just channeled people’s rage. But I ran across a handful of people, maybe three or four (they know who they are), genuinely struggling to reach a reasoned, principled assessment of what Wilkinson did. At the risk of being drowned out like them, I’m going to join that little band’s effort.
Why, you may well ask, am I lingering over this minor act in the Trump circus when journalists have since been slaughtered at their desks? All I can say is, that’s exactly why. We’ve been told repeatedly that Trump thrives on chaos and turmoil, keeping everybody so agitated that neither opponents nor supporters have the presence of mind or energy to think carefully about anything he does. With outrages coming at us at warp speed, gnats have longer attention spans than we do, to Trump’s benefit, not because we don’t know what he thinks but because we don’t know what we think.
For example, in the media frenzy over this, I didn’t read anybody suggesting that L’Affaire Poulet Rouge might have been a set up. But think about it. Within the span of less than a week three high-profile administration figures all did the same thing: go out for dinner under circumstances virtually guaranteed to attract media attention.
The lead diner was Trump senior policy advisor, Stephen Miller, a hard-right provocateur since his high school days. After triggering the utterly predictable reaction, his outing to a Washington Mexican restaurant (Mexican. Get it?) was followed two days later by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson’s visit to a Washington Mexican restaurant to exactly the same effect.
Then with Trump opponents’ cries of outrage ringing in her ears, Sanders turned up three days later apparently unannounced at a restaurant in a liberal enclave two hundred miles southwest of the District. Since Lexington doesn’t, as DC does, prohibit business owners from refusing to serve patrons because of their political affiliation, Sanders and her party were asked to leave and did. The predictable media storm followed right on schedule, Sanders deftly exploiting it to play the aggrieved victim.
Maybe all of this was just coincidence. But it did coincide with the administration’s “zero tolerance” antics at our border with Mexico, Miller being perhaps the most heartless White House advocate of taking children away from immigrants as a “deterrent.” All of this makes these dinner outings look less coincidental than like diversionary operations to deflect attention from the cruelty at the border. If that’s what was going on, it wouldn’t be the first time nor will it be the last that Trump’s minions have deployed in such campaigns. It’s what they do.
So against that backdrop, if you were Wilkinson, what should you do? I think that depends on what you reasonably believe about the circumstances.
According to Wilkinson’s account, she refused to serve Sanders and her pals because they didn’t meet Wilkinson’s moral standards. That’s troubling in a way that goes beyond the “incivility” that some commentary charged.
Although surveys show that many believe merchants do nothing wrong when they refuse service for any reason, that confuses a private business with a private home. If somebody shows up at your home uninvited, except in a case of dire emergency, you do nothing wrong if, for any reason or no reason, you order the interloper off your property.
But a business, even though private property, isn’t like that. Because our commercial space admits as merchants anyone who can clear the barriers to entry and as patrons anyone who can afford whatever lawful services and products are on offer, that arrangement encourages expectations that it’s not just impolite but morally wrong to frustrate.
There’s a kind of “no ambush” principle that governs both sides of commercial transactions.
The merchant has a right to expect that patrons will meet basic standards of decorum, won’t create a disturbance or otherwise interfere with the conduct of the business and will pay for services rendered.
Patrons, for their part, have a right to fair notice of any special house requirements of the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” variety, and to service in an environment that meets prevailing standards of health and safety.
All the anti-discrimination laws that are so contentious right now show that we’re not in Miss Manners territory here. Those laws make sense only on the assumption that everyone has a moral right to any goods and services they can afford. (The sectarian court challenge to these laws is a story for another time.)
What’s problematic then about Wilkinson’s service denial, however well-intentioned, is that the morality of the market doesn’t permit merchants to accommodate only people who meet their personal moral standards. If it did, there would be no such thing as a public commercial space. Rather, the market would be a vast collection of private clubs whose perks are doled out at the arbitrary, shifting whims of their respective owners.
So if Wilkinson had no reason to believe that the Sanders party was there for anything other than a quiet dinner, she violated the implicit “no ambush” principle in asking them to leave with the cheese course still on the table.
But changing the story a bit puts Wilkinson on firmer ground. I don’t know whether she ever connected the Miller-Nielson-Sanders dots the way I have. But suppose she did and reasonably believed that Sanders wasn’t there for a quiet dinner out but to open a Lexington front in Stephen Miller’s relentless trolling campaign against the liberals he’s on record as despising.
If it was reasonable for Wilkinson to believe that, then it was also reasonable for her to believe that Sander had violated the “no ambush” principle by coming to the restaurant not for rest and relaxation (Did she really think that nobody in Lexington would recognize her?) but to conscript Wilkinson’s business in a political war.
That changes everything, freeing Wilkinson from the obligation, central to marketplace morality, to accommodate all comers. She might have concluded that it was better, all things considered, to treat Sanders as just another ordinary customer. But since she believed that Sanders had “ambushed” her, contrary to what market morality demands, Wilkinson wasn’t obliged to do that.
So here’s a way to think about Red Hens. A market economy like ours can’t disperse its blessings of efficient preference satisfaction unless all the players abide by certain principles of fair play that they accept as binding. But as in other cooperative arrangements, if you don’t hold up your end, I’m absolved of the duty to hold up mine.
Anonymous administration West Wing grunts can circulate in the hospitality sector without arousing reasonable suspicions of trying to subvert it for political ends. But people like the Miller-Nielson-Sanders troika can’t. Their history and high visibility put them under blanket suspicion of exploiting a business’s hospitality for ends having nothing to do with a fun-filled evening out on the town. A merchant’s reasonable suspicion of them leaves all the tactical questions open. But market morality is on the “ambushed” merchant’s side.