Biden’s post found support among abiding DQ fans. “His recognition of Dairy Queen’s greatness is reason enough to make him President,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted. Others came away confused. “Joe wyd?” and “What is this?” read two representative responses. Regardless, it’s shrewd politics, plain and simple, for the Democratic Party’s nominee to display insider knowledge of a small-town staple, especially in the waning days of the campaign. It’s also part of a trope in which American politicians deploy fast food as a way to burnish their everyman bona fides.
Even as fast food is synthetically mass-produced and designed to be impersonal and familiar, more or less looking and tasting the same everywhere you go, it seems to reveal something authentic about American life. Dating back to the 1920s, fast food was initially born out of American uncertainty about the food system — driven in part by exposés such as Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” — at a time of great doubt, danger and income inequality. And, like an incumbent politician, the industry became an institution by offering the comfort of predictability.
Decades later, fast-food restaurants are still unassuming places to be and to eat, democratic in appeal with no hierarchies and no pretense. As a result, it’s hardly surprising that the chains have been a supersized setting for retail politics for decades, from Ronald Reagan stopping for a Big Mac on the campaign trail in 1984 and Bill Clinton and Al Gore power-walking to a McDonald’s in short shorts in 1992 to Mitt Romney and Paul D. Ryan dropping in at a Wendy’s in Ohio on Election Day in 2012.
Biden’s DQ visit wasn’t the first time he had rolled up to a fast-food counter in an effort to court voters and burnish his Average Joe appeal. In March, following a Super Tuesday rally, he joined former congressman Beto O’Rourke for what the Texas politician billed as a “world-class meal” at Whataburger, an iconic Texas fast-food chain.
O’Rourke made regular visits to Whataburger during his erstwhile campaigns for the Senate and the presidency and even featured campaign signs whose logos many considered suspiciously similar to the chain’s beloved Spicy Ketchup packaging. (Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign, when asked about the signs in 2018 and his opponent’s embrace of the company, sought to portray O’Rourke as a “Triple Meat Whataburger liberal.”)
Of course, no national politician has made use of fast food more effectively or regularly than President Trump. During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly posted pictures of himself on social media, digging into fare from McDonald’s and KFC on his private plane. The effort not only helped give the real estate mogul an ordinary edge, but also allowed him to effectively thumb his nose at the many public figures who have looked down on lowbrow grub. “There’s nothing more American and more of-the-people than fast food,” one Republican strategist commented in 2016 in a story about the president’s culinary habits. “It goes with his authenticity,” then-adviser Kellyanne Conway added.
Over the past four years, Trump’s affection for fast food has continued to draw fire, varying in its elitist tenor. That Trump’s diet has been cited for its poor nutritional content and its “cultural vacuousness” says something about the symbolism of his choices. Or, as one headline from earlier this year put it, “Donald Trump’s Populist Genius Even Extends to His Revolting Diet.”
But this highly specific presentation of all-American authenticity doesn’t always work. Take Jeb Bush, who used Dairy Queen as the backdrop of his first television interview in Iowa as a presidential candidate in 2015. During the segment, rather than flip a Blizzard or dive into some chicken strips, Bush ordered an Orange Julius and talked about ethanol mandates and how he lost 40 pounds on the Paleo diet while his interviewer worked indulgently on a chocolate shake. Perhaps not the best exhibition of the common touch at a small-town Dairy Queen, where indulgence and casual conversation is sort of the point. Connecting a grand metaphor to a cause, one pollster even suggested that the characterization of Bush as “low energy” might stem from his diet. Whatever the reason, Bush would finish a distant fifth in the Iowa caucuses and drop out of the race three weeks later.
Then there’s John F. Kerry, who despite springing for a Wendy’s lunch with his running mate in 2004, was lambasted for trying to order a cheesesteak with Swiss in the heart of Philadelphia. “Not a cool move for the Boston Brahmin trying to prove he can hang with youse guys down at Ninth and Wharton,” the restaurant critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote at the time.
What’s ironic is that, in both of these instances, Kerry and Bush were actually being true to themselves. Rather than do the expected, politically savvy, poll-tested thing in each instance, they simply did what they normally would do. Unfortunately, that commitment to authenticity cost them because it didn’t fit the narrow, dust-on-your-boots definition of authenticity that plays well in a country where nobility titles are constitutionally prohibited and nearly anybody can run for president.
In reality, our collective investment in authenticity is itself synthetic. We claim that we want to see politicians as they really are, but when it comes to their culinary affectations in particular, we mostly just want to see them live like ordinary folks, even if it’s just an act. Would it have been ultimately better or worse if Kerry had known to order his cheesesteak “Whiz with,” as the Obamas did four years later, and then sprinted up the steps to the east entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art? This is, sometimes, the paradox of populist political consumption: Only those who refuse to be themselves feel truly real to us. With two candidates who both seem to unabashedly embrace fast food, that’s the kind of enigma we won’t have to puzzle through this time around. But it’s still good food for thought.