Donald Trump is, at this point, someone our elites have learned to live and work with. The new normal has fully settled in. There is a column in the New York Times on Tuesday titled ”Why Pasta Is the Answer to Trump.” In it, Frank Bruni, evidently on a trip to Rome, reports that he’s eaten the same dish for dinner—pasta alla gricia—four nights in a row, to his surprise. “It made me realize how much I relish constancy now,” he writes. “And it got me to thinking how underrated sameness is.” He writes, specifically, that eating pasta and other comforting rituals are good ways of coping with the uncertainty of the Trump administration:
Administration officials turn over at a breakneck pace. (Farewell, Rex Tillerson.) Traditional presidential ettiquette is gone. So are traditional presidential ethics. We got our taste of the untried. Dear God, is it sour.
Italians are more practiced at such tumult. Over the past 25 years, Italy has changed prime ministers 13 times. It has swung this way and that. At this point it’s more or less dangling: The nascent, renegade party that got the most votes in the recent election, the Five Star Movement, lacks a majority, not to mention a workable agenda, and doesn’t have a coalition partner.
Bruni writes that Italians can turn to their food and hallowed traditions—the “agents of solace”—to keep them centered and sane in the face of political upheaval, and argues Americans should try doing the same. “I can’t predict where, politically, Italy or America is headed,” he writes. “I can’t inoculate myself against Trump’s oncoming tweets. But I can count on what happens when pork cheek meets pecorino. I can plant myself at that juncture. And I can stand still.”
It seems inarguable that comfort food can be comforting. The notion that, by extension, “pasta is the answer to Trump” seems, on the other hand, rather doubtful. The current political situation in the United States poses quite a few problems that pasta probably cannot solve.
An example: In January, Jorge Garcia of Detroit, a 30-year resident of this country and a father of two, was deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He had been brought to this country by an undocumented parent from Mexico when he was 10, but was too old to qualify for DACA. He had worked for years to obtain legal status. According to his wife, $125,000 in legal costs and fees had been spent on the effort since 2005. He had no criminal record. Nevertheless, the entry of the Trump administration put an end to the stays of deportation he’d been granted in the past—a situation faced and dreaded by immigrant families across the country.
Cynic that I am, I’m rather skeptical that the Garcia family will find true stability in eating well and keeping old habits. In fact, Jorge’s wife Cindy, for her part, has been encouraging herself and others to resist stillness. “As depressed as I am,” she told CNN, “and I just want to scream and cry and lay in bed and not move—I know that I have to come forward for the people who cannot, and tell our story.”
A rejoinder to this might be that Bruni’s column isn’t for people like Cindy or those disturbed by their situation. This is both a fair point and one that raises the question of who, exactly, the New York Times believes it serves. The implication of this column is that it’s a paper precisely for those who can elect to turn away from this administration’s inconstancy and tumult, and not those whose daily lives are inescapably governed by this administration’s uncertainties.
Of course, one might argue that even those who can turn away—people like Bruni, for instance—ought to be asking themselves how doing so will help Jorge, Cindy, their children or anyone at all. One might argue, moreover, that the moral imperative, in this administration, of everyone as privileged as Bruni happens to be is precisely to break from complacency. To inconvenience yourself, make yourself uncomfortable, and find ways, small and large, to help change things.
Much of the recent commentary from those on the Times’ op-ed page has run up against a generational divide: between columnists arguing haughtily that young people ought to learn to live with certain distasteful elements of the status quo—assaultive “bad sex,” professional Islamophobes and sexists, etc.—and young activists who, rudely perhaps, have refused to. Tomorrow, a new crop of activists that have been greeted more charitably than others will be leading a national school walkout over gun control, an issue many had all but given up on. Hopes have been revived by the Parkland students, who, even if a new push at gun control fails, will have demonstrated the virtues of being entirely unable to live with the state of things—the wisdom in refusing to be lulled back into stable routines in the face of a morally intolerable situation.
Beyond gun policy, the list of similarly intolerable problems in American life today is, obviously, long. Inequality is soaring, tens of millions languish in poverty, neighborhoods and schools remain deeply segregated, wages for the American worker remain stagnant, insecure housing and health care remain crises, our criminal justice system remains deeply infected by racism, and our society remains tethered to an energy economy that will be the death of us. It is remarkable that the Paper of Record would treat a readership increasingly attuned to all this—and livid, moreover, about the Trump administration—to a column making the case for decadence. Remarkable, but not, at this point, surprising. Lest these criticisms find their way into the next roundup of readers “outraged” by the latest from the op-ed page, I’d like to graciously wish Mr. Bruni bon appetit and note also that the burden of producing ideas for a regular column can genuinely be difficult for a writer to bear. Sometimes, you just have to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.