The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The greatest threat from the Red Hen flare-up has nothing to do with civility

Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt and opinion writer Molly Roberts debate whether Trump officials should be publicly shamed. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The best laid plans of Red Hen haters went awry at the end of the weekend, when Trump supporters determined to avenge Sarah Huckabee Sanders egged the wrong restaurant. This sticky situation throws into relief a threat more dire than an uncivil society: that retaliation against dissent, encouraged by the president, will lead would-be critics to keep quiet.

It was the owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., who asked Sanders to leave her restaurant after servers expressed their discomfort catering to someone who had spent her week defending the detention of children separated from their parents. But it was the Red Hen in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood that had to de-yolkify Monday morning, as well as field attack after attack on social media.

“You have to be affiliated somehow or you couldn’t have the same name,” declared one Twitter user called GiGi, conspiracy theorizing.

“Can you comment on Gigi Hadid dating Zayn Malik?” the Red Hen replied. This did not seem to placate anyone’s misplaced anger.

All this poultry pother may seem mild, or even amusing. But the D.C. Red Hen’s owner said that after President Trump took to Twitter to smear the Lexington Red Hen, without specifying what city it was in, the vitriol (which included death threats) only increased.

And is that really a surprise? When Trump brought up the restaurant’s name once again to call it “filthy” — inflammatory language that couples nicely with his tweet last week that immigrants “infest” the country — he must have known what his words would do: incite.

After all, Trump has a track record. At his rallies, he used to reminisce about the “good old days” when hecklers got roughed up. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he said of one protester. “Knock the crap out of them.” “The audience hit back. That’s what we need a bit more of.”

Sometimes, the retaliation Trump threatens — or hints to his supporters they should pursue — isn’t physical.

“They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!” he said of the wealthy Ricketts family when they ran ads against him.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he said of Maxine Waters just today, after she encouraged more protests like those against Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave on June 22, 2018. (Video: Allie Caren, Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

It’s bad enough that Sanders identified the Red Hen in her initial tweet about the incident, sparking an assault she hasn’t bothered to discourage. But with Trump’s history, it’s even worse. He clearly intends to encourage.

The president’s eagerness to attack private companies and private citizens already produces a chilling effect. This effect becomes even more pernicious in a crazed environment where, among the red-pilled, all Red Hens are the same and, if the president gives the sign, all are ripe for slaughter.

This reality makes it all the more disturbing to see observers rally so readily to denounce protesters for a lack of decorum. Dissent is under siege. Trump spoke of his desire to “open up our libel laws” even before he was elected; after, at least 18 states proposed legislation aimed at stifling protesters. It’s one thing for people to speak uncivilly. It’s far worse for them not to speak at all.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said at least 18 states had passed legislation aimed at stifling protesters. At least 18 states have proposed legislation to that effect. This version has been corrected.