On Friday, the owner of the Red Hen, a restaurant in rural Virginia, asked a customer—Sarah Huckabee Sanders—to leave. The Trump administration's press secretary then exited without complaint.
It's easy to imagine both left and right upping the ante with these performative acts of resistance, further polarizing society in ways that play right into Pres. Trump's hands. Even so, libertarians should defend a private property owner's right to eject a government official from the premises.
The incident became a national news story after a waiter wrote about it on Facebook, and Sanders confirmed it in a tweet. Since then, the conservative and liberal commentariat have been attacking and defending the restaurant owner, respectively. Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown included a useful overview of the controversy in this morning's Reason Roundup.
A summary: Conservatives say that booting Sanders was uncivil, and we should be able to interact with people whose politics we abhor. Taken to the logical extreme, conservatives say, the Red Hen's tactic would result in separate restaurants for conservatives and liberals, which can't possibly be healthy for democracy.
Leftists say that Trump is a fascist—the purposeful separation of immigrant families and mistreatment of children offers better evidence of this than anything we've seen previously from this administration—and Sanders is complicit in fascism. Trump is neither civil, nor likely to be moved by civility, so what's the point of playing nice?
Rep. Maxine Waters (D–Calif.), a frequent talking head on MSNBC and a leader of the #Resistance, made her position clear at a rally is Los Angeles on Sunday, where she said, "For these members of his cabinet who remain and try to defend him they're not going to be able to go to a restaurant, they're not going to be able to stop at a gas station, they're not going to be able to shop at a department store, the people are going to turn on them, they're going to protest, they're going to absolutely harass them…"
"If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them," she added.
Waters seems to be encouraging people to form angry mobs to harass Trump officials; if such a practice became normal, it could very well get out of hand quickly. Besides, Waters doesn't get to decide the rules of engagement in department stores, gas stations, and restaurants—the owners of those properties do. I bet a lot of them would prefer if people didn't harass other customers, regardless of whether those customers work for Trump.
But Sanders wasn't forced from the Red Hen by an angry mob—she was asked to leave by the property owner, who was exercising freedom of conscience. Just as libertarians wouldn't want a Christian cake baker to be forced to endorse a same-sex wedding by preparing a cake for it, we shouldn't force a restaurant owner to serve a government official involved in policies the owner believes are immoral.
The Red Hen's owner is free to deny service to Sanders, so too is everybody else free to criticize that decision. As cruel as it may seem for conservatives to destroy Red Hen's Yelp rating, recall that liberals played this game, too (remember Memories Pizza?).
I think escalation is a real concern, and if the left took Waters' advice, politicizing nearly every commercial decision, we could end up with an even more fractured society. Trump would exploit this fragmentation, happily informing his voters that liberals won't even let them go shopping or fill up their gas tanks without shrieking at them. Trump likes to capitalize on his base's fears; those fears seem more justified when the left peacefully censures and ostracizes prominent conservatives.
At the same time, Sanders not getting dinner is in no way, shape, or form as tragic as the Trump administration's immigration policy. Liberals have every reason to wonder why they need to show Trump officials civility when Trump's behavior is so appalling. Turning away Sanders is thus every restaurant owner's right.
Will doing so encourage the Trump administration to enact more humane immigration policies, or will it cause Trump to double down and produce a toxic blowback? I think more people should be honest about the fact that we don't really know for certain, which is another reason why the libertarian approach of letting people set the rules of engagement on their own property—at the Red Hen, and at Masterpiece Cake Shop—is the best policy.
Photo Credit: PAPPIS JEAN PIERRE POLARIS/SIPA/Newscom