You have by now heard the news, the revelation of the true conspiracy, the last controversy that will, if any fragment of justice yet remains in this hollow world, finally send this whole creaking edifice tumbling back into the depths whence it came: Donald Trump orders his steaks well-done and eats them with ketchup. Plot twist: I’m dead fucking serious. Like, I just got done saying that we need to use this opportunity to start making better arguments, so now would be the time to get on with it.
At first glance, this appears to be the sort of “coastal elitist” posturing that turned Trump supporters off of “the establishment” in the first place. Y’know, how dare you ivory tower eggheads with your fancy cooking science tell me how to eat my steak. This just shows that Trump’s a regular guy: he knows what he likes and he doesn’t let the media tell him what to do. You liberals are so obsessed with trends and popularity, I bet you don’t even know what you like anymore. Can’t a man enjoy a decent meal in peace?
This isn’t actually wrong, it’s just moronic, which is why you have to have a real argument against it. There is such a thing as personal preference, and most of these stupid food trends are in fact stupid. Like, Whole Foods really is a con job. But Trump is on the wrong side of this dynamic: his steak order isn’t a preference; it’s incompetence. He is the one being conned. He’s spending $54 at a fancy steakhouse to get worse results than he could get by spending $2.30 at an In-N-Out Burger.1
The key here is that this claim can be substantiated. As this article explains, the reason this cannot be a matter of preference is that ordering an expensive steak well-done undoes the very thing that makes it expensive in the first place:
Aaron Foster of Brooklyn butcher and market Foster Sundry explains the science behind why overcooked steak tastes worse: “When you take a lean and tender cut past 130 degrees or so, the muscle tenses up and squeezes out moisture — read: flavor — like wringing out a sponge,” he says. “A steak cooked this way is basically one of those shitty bodega limes that you can squeeze and squeeze but no juice comes out.” He adds, “Don’t do that to your steak. Only schmucks and rubes eat steak well done. POTUS included.”
Broadly speaking, medium-rare — when steak is deeply seared on the outside and registers about 135 degrees in the center, which will stay rosy — achieves a kind of perfect sweet spot between eating meat like a caveman and a modern gourmet. As White Gold Butchers meat maven Erika Nakamura explains, cooking a steak to medium-rare gives the beef enough time for the exterior to caramelize (deepening the flavor) without drying out the meat inside. Basically, you get the best of both worlds.
. . .
The point of a sauce is to amplify the best qualities of the food to which it is being applied. Bordelaise sauce enriches a great steak’s deep beefiness. Bearnaise, on the other hand, amplifies a steak’s wonderful fattiness. Ketchup, which is great on things like fries, is too assertive for steak — it masks the flavor. There’s a reason McDonald’s uses it on cheap, low-quality burgers. But with steak, the value proposition makes no sense: Why spend $54 on a piece of meat, only to make it taste like something that costs far less?
But there are reasons why someone like Trump would eat a steak like this. First, the reason he was at the steakhouse at all is because he thinks spending $54 on a steak is a fancy rich guy thing to do – he is, in this regard, exactly the same person as the clueless city liberal spending $20 on an organic gluten-free juice cleanse.2 Second, he’s afraid of having real experiences, so he falls back on the safest and blandest option. Third, he justifies this to himself as above, by imagining that he “knows what he likes” and isn’t going to let anyone “tell him what to do.” If we believe that he is wrong, we must advance the preferable alternatives to these behaviors. We must argue against status signaling, for unfamiliar experiences, and against aesthetic parochialism. Politics, like food, cannot simply be a matter of giving the people want they want. “Have it your way” is the slogan of American nihilism.
And this really is about politics. Every issue is ultimately a “quality of life” issue. The reason being shot dead in the gutter is a bad thing is that it’s a bad experience, and then after that you don’t get to have any more experiences. In the same way, anti-racism is only justified as an endeavor if the world without racism is fundamentally a better world than the one we have now – a world where people have better experiences. If it’s merely an amelioration of existing externalities, then it’s just one more interest group jockeying for status.3 Were this the case, the dismissive use of the term “identity politics” would be apropos.
We must, then, be able to argue that this is not the case. That is, we have to stop relying on the sort of easy cultural signaling where we furrow our brows over issues of “systemic racism” and proclaim our support for “intersectionality.” These terms have to have referents, and they have to be things that people actually care about in their own lives.
If, for example, to continue with current events, you argue that Moonlight should win Best Picture over La La Land because of “what it represents,” you are in fact full of shit, and people are right to understand you as a petty cultural gatekeeper and to dismiss you accordingly. Whereas if your argument is that Moonlight is the better movie, and that part of the reason why it is better is that it engages with real human issues instead of being a self-indulgent wad of nostalgia and pablum, then you have something that is actually capable of convincing people. You can help them towards watching better movies and having better experiences. Of course, you can’t do this in the context of an awards show, since you have to actually make an argument rather than just parading a bunch of fancy dresses down a carpet, which is why awards shows are inherently bullshit. Ergo, by celebrating Moonlight‘s Oscar win as an Oscar win rather than celebrating Moonlight itself as a good movie, you are making the reverse of the argument that you want to be making.
We can’t allow the threat of populism to occasion a retreat to elitism, but we also can’t allow aversion to elitism to prevent us from insisting on things that are genuinely good – that are substantively preferable to their alternatives. Because when you argue that one thing is better than another thing, all that really means is that you have values. There is something that you are willing to fight for – that is, for the sake of. Attempting to improve the lives of ordinary people – to give them something better than what they already have – is not elitism. It is the only thing that politics can justifiably be about. Real steak, real values.