If there is one fast-food item that has defined this election cycle, it’s the taco. Not a slice of apple pie, a foot-long sub or even a pizza. A taco.
That simple but endless combination of tortilla and any filling that fits your fancy has popped up repeatedly during the 2016 presidential race, either defining illegal-immigration fears of the right or the liberal love of Taco Tuesdays. The taco: a political football reimagined in flour. But how did we get here?
First there was Donald Trump’s tone deaf “I love Hispanics!” tweet on Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Battle of Puebla, Mexican American cultural exchange and half-priced margaritas. Sitting at his desk in Trump Tower the GOP presidential candidate sent a picture of himself poised to wolf down one of Trump Grill’s $18 “taco bowls,” which according to the former reality star were “the best.” He topped off the missive with an enthusiastic “I love Hispanics!”
Thing is “taco bowls” aren’t Mexican cuisine. They’re an American invention. Trump was warned by his then campaign manager, Paul Manafort, that the tweet could possibly come off as condescending, according to the Huffington Post. Trump gave it the green light anyway. The reaction to “Cinco de No-No” was predictable and swift.
Food writer Nick Kindelsperger, who’s spent the past two years blogging about Chicago’s booming taqueria scene, saw it coming.
“First off the taco bowl thing was amazing because it’s the worst way to eat a taco,” said Kindelsperger, before adding more seriously, “It’s a totally commodified version of Mexican cuisine. The tweet had such subtle racist tones that were just impossible to ignore.”
Rick Phillips, founder of the Arizona-based National Taco Association, a membership organization dedicated to promoting “the taco lifestyle” with the tagline “from beach to barrio,” reasoned that because the taco “crosses all demographics and social statuses,” it was an easy fight to take on.
“When you insult taco trucks everybody now is onboard,” said Phillips. “Its not a Mexican thing, you’re insulting my food.”
After the ground beef had died down a bit, just four months later a Trump supporter likened taco trucks to total Mexican cultural domination of the United States.
“My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing — and it’s causing problems,” said Marco Gutierrez of Latinos for Trump on MSNBC in September. “If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”
It was a double-take moment that backfired into a popular meme. The idea of conveniently located cheap street food went over pretty well with most Americans — or at least the ones on Twitter.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, even took a bite, telling the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, “I personally think a taco truck on every corner sounds absolutely delicious.”
Once again tacos — whether you love them or loathe them — had made their way into the national conversation. But why?
“I feel like tacos, they’re right there at the top of everyone’s brain,” said Bettina Stern, co-owner of Georgetown’s seasonal taco shop Chaia. “I mean who doesn’t like a taco?”
According to Stern, the taco is the great culinary equalizer. It’s an everyman food. “Tacos have a universal appeal whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” she said. Kindelsperger, who compared the increasingly ubiquitous taco of today to the once foreign hot dog of yesteryear, took it a step further: “It’s a food that embraces diversity.”
But not every side sees it that way.
“Tacos are used as a pejorative on one side and on the other they’re used as an incredible positive,” said Kindelsperger, who also writes about food for the Chicago Tribune. “There’s no in-between, you’re either for or against, which reflects society quite accurately at the moment.”
And that leads us to today, less than one week before the presidential election, which just happens to be the day of the week that Mexican restaurants across the country celebrate the taco with deep discounts.
Speaking at a campaign stop in Ohio on Wednesday, President Obama told attendees they should be as excited about voting for Clinton as they were about Taco Bell’s free taco promotion tied to the World Series.
“If you can find the time to get a free taco, then you can find the time to go vote,” Obama told the crowd. “You can vote and then go get your taco. It’s like a combo meal.”