Politics

The Lousy Tippers of the Trump Administration

They were exhausting, impossible, stingy, and cruel, just like at their day jobs.

A red MAGA hat sitting on top of a restaurant bill and a one dollar tip next to a black leather bill presenter on a white tablecloth
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Brand X Pictures/iStock/Getty Images Plus, natthanim/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Yurii Sliusar/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Emilio Takas/Unsplash, and 279photo/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

One chilly morning early in the Trump administration, a guy with an unnervingly unpleasant countenance sat down in my section, ordered a green tea, and immediately started interrogating me about the caviar. While diners will prod you all day about the terroir of a white Burgundy or West Coast oyster, they don’t ask too many questions about caviar, maybe because the people who order it tend to represent cultures and/or generations that don’t expect service workers to pass daily food knowledge quizzes. Also, usually they’re on dates.

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This guy was with his almost equally off-putting brother, and he wanted to know exactly which bodies of water had produced the caviar and how precisely it had been extracted from its mother. I was ashamed to admit I had no idea, but then it turned out the chef, who could have given a TED Talk about any other ingredient on the menu, didn’t know either; his old boss had switched purveyors right before quitting the restaurant. For what seemed like 15 frenzied minutes but was probably five or six, we rifled through glossy brochures and battled glacial Wi-Fi speeds in search of answers.

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“I am sorry to report my research has not been entirely conclusive,” I finally announced upon returning to the table. “But it looks as though the provenance of your Oscietra is”—and here I hesitated, having spent some formative years in an apartment overlooking a rather unappetizing river in said country—“China?” The brothers exchanged inscrutable glances, then ordered another 2 ounces. Then the manager on duty beckoned me over to look at a New York Times story he’d called up on the host-stand iPad.

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“This is table 60,” he said. “Stephen Miller.”

We stood there taking in the article’s lurid contents, uttering “Oh, my God” every few seconds. As an unreformed Bernie Bro, I had been pretty confident people hated Donald Trump for essentially the same reason the Trumpers hated immigrants, bureaucrats, globalists, etc.: The ruling class had identified in him an easy stand-in for the legitimate fears and grievances of a populace it was not yet finished humiliating in the pursuit of profit. As a waitress, it was hard to hate anyone who ordered 3 ounces of caviar at brunch, and yet as I read about a teenage Miller delivering a speech to his class decrying the laziness of the school janitors and defriending a childhood buddy on account of his “Latino heritage,” I wondered if I had been too busy crumbing tablecloths and marking silverware to notice something radiantly new and unprecedentedly horrible about this new strain of right-wing ideology. I felt lucky when he tipped 18.5 percent, though my average was usually around 23; I honestly felt charmed he’d tipped at all, considering my pitiful performance on the caviar-knowledge segment of the meal. Had Miller left me five bucks on a $500 check, it wouldn’t have ranked in the top 10 worst things he had done that day.

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So went the peculiar misery of waiting tables in D.C. during the Trump era. We absorbed all the cultural alienation of the Pantsuit Nation, with none of the spectacular gains in our nonexistent retirement funds. Fine dining is one of the few economic sectors that on occasion adheres to the trickle-down theory, and the Obama administration had been almost as good for chef-driven D.C. dining as it had been for Citigroup. (The two things weren’t entirely unrelated; the man who’d led government relations for Citi throughout its multitrillion-dollar bailouts was an investor in my Michelin-starred restaurant group.) While most Washington politicians before Obama returned over and over to the same regular table at Cafe Milano or Kinkead’s, the first couple had made a point of spreading the wealth around, bringing national attention to a different spot every time they had a date night. Their staffers and allies had lived inside city limits and loved ordering things like sea urchin and microbatch bourbon. They tipped as reliably as normal Democrats but on substantially more hedonistic check averages.

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But by the summer of 2016 the Obama cliques had started clearing out, and summers are always slow, and the hours between 2:30 and 7 p.m. are always death, and when your base pay is $3.33 an hour and a babysitter is feeding your kids, you often find yourself in the throes of an existential breakdown by the time your first four tables show up, as they inevitably do, all at once.

When Trump won, all the slow-night anxiety hardened into something like an ulcer. In hindsight I should have been more fearful for my overwhelmingly Salvadoran colleagues, but it was entirely about money. During the primaries, a lot of guests, mostly Republicans, had made a point of volunteering their disdain for Trump before I’d even taken their cocktail orders. The new president clearly had no political or institutional machine inside the Beltway, which didn’t bode well for the power lunch economy. What organization he did control consisted of, inter alia, a bunch of fancy restaurants inside his own self-branded hotel, which would obviously be reaping the cream of whatever expense-budget spoils accompanied his electoral victory. Also, his favorite meal was well-done steak with ketchup and Diet Coke—we stocked just one of those, and only in that obnoxious 6.8-ounce Euro bottle you can hardly blame the MAGA hordes for bitching about.

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The Thursday after the election, I waited on a 12-top of jaded Clinton administration veterans who spent the whole lunch venting about the clueless incompetence of Hillaryland. They were neither shocked nor upset; they actually seemed a little relieved she’d lost, which was understandable but enraging. People like them had forced a broadly unpopular candidate upon the populace, a sizable swath of which would now spend the next four years in hell. In D.C. that meant anyone who worked for a regulatory agency, anyone with a complicated immigration case, and anyone, it turned out, in the business of selling moderately esoteric food.

When Trump supporters started dining at our restaurants (which wasn’t enough—with no large steaks on our mostly seafood menu, business plunged as the last Obama veterans decamped for Big Tech gigs), the experience was painful for all. Baseball caps violated our dress code, so for those more decorated Trumpets, most meals began with an unwanted amuse-bouche of flambéed persecution complex. Knowing they would otherwise tip badly, I’d fall all over myself to send them little comps—a round of prosecco even if I wasn’t sure that seat 3 was 21, gratis simple salads for the 90 percent of guests who hadn’t ordered apps, gelato and a few slices of “celebration” cake at the end of the meal—and they would still, more often than not, tip less than 18 or even 15 percent, which wouldn’t have been ruinous if the tip-out had been less than 10.5 percent of sales.

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My most polite guests during inauguration weekend 2017 were a consultant who charged a $30 ride back to his hotel on my Uber account and never paid me back (though he did leave a fawning Tripadvisor review, which was not nothing) and a man whose date was so verbally abusive to me he literally asked how much I’d charge to let him take me to his party instead. Once I got a manager to concoct a fake military discount for a guy who asked if we gave military discounts (we didn’t), and still that guest tipped 10 percent. (“You’re lucky,” one of the old heads at the restaurant told me. “One time I had a Marine write ‘Zero dollars, my SERVICE is my service charge.’ ”)

Our owner’s then-wife had tried to boost morale by assuring us Republicans were typically pretty good for business once their administrations got staffed up. Sen. Ted Cruz, for his part, had been an impeccable regular: gracious wife (poor thing), amenable to Sancerre at any price point, takes literally 15 seconds to order, reliable tipper, doesn’t make you “work for it.” That’s how you knew he wasn’t a real Trumpist, because the Republicans who followed 45 to town were exhausting, impossible, often stingy, and—because the restaurant was never busy enough anymore to soothe the sting of a bad table with a full section—memorable.

The perma-scowling almost-billionaire Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, became a regular despite what always seemed to be a vibe of great displeasure enveloping his presence when I approached his table. He ordered the cheapest wine on the by-the-glass list and didn’t tip more than 14 percent, no matter how often you topped him off without charging. His fellow near-billionaire Gary Cohn, Trump’s first chief economic adviser, was a bigger spender who still couldn’t bring himself to tip more than 18 percent, though it’s possible this was retaliation for my failure to remove every pin bone from his turbot, which was one of the first I’d deboned. (They say the big perk of a blue-collar job is the ability to leave work at the workplace, but here I am years later still wondering why some obnoxious banker stiffed me $15 after I’d meticulously removed at least 96 percent of the bones in his fish.)

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I assumed the Trumpers acted differently in less aristocratic environments. The Washington Post published a column about one visiting supporter who had left a $450 tip for a waitress at the social-justice-y bookstore/cafe chain Busboys and Poets. “We have to think about being better Americans, we have to look into ourselves and how we treat one another,” the “devout Christian,” a dentist from Lubbock, Texas, told the newspaper. Revisiting this sentiment was so jarring in light of the abuse Trump zealots have unleashed upon flight attendants, police officers, and service workers in recent months that I thought about calling the guy. Perhaps he’d returned to D.C., hardened or softened by the interim years of nonstop culture war and death.

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He wasn’t available. Turns out the $450 tipper is in jail on child pornography charges. The FBI raided his office just last month.

The restaurant adapted to the Trump era. We introduced a $45 three-course early bird special, which I recall was still too pricey for Wilbur Ross, though the unusual influx of right-wing tourists who visited appreciated it. Betsy DeVos became a regular, and unlike the others she was a paragon of superficial graciousness, even if she didn’t tip quite enough to compensate for two or three tables that would ask to move if she was seated near them.

Paul Manafort and family came in under a fake name for an inexplicably awkward “celebration” dinner and tipped 25 percent. A creature of Washington who spent decades trickling the spoils of global kleptocracy down to the fine-dining servant class, Manafort obviously knew how to act. I never saw him again, possibly because the dinner had been a premature victory lap over an immunity deal he ended up not getting? A group of socialite regulars threw a luncheon to welcome Steve Mnuchin’s wife to town, but she had so many dietary restrictions the whole meal was just awkward, and after she made headlines insulting an Instagram commenter for having less money than she did, I never saw her again either. I got a standing OK to comp grilled calamari to the administration’s newly broke Secret Service agents, who would otherwise sit for hours nursing no more than a Coke or a cup of coffee and never to my knowledge did anything to disrespect our restrooms.

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But then the Obamas would stroll in like a gorgeous, happy ex, to celebrate a birthday or throw a party for Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg, and you could feel the whole restaurant swoon. “Now listen, I’m so Republican I literally am the vast right-wing conspiracy,” a sixtysomething Red Cross official told me one afternoon after watching Michelle and the girls glide toward a secluded table. “But my goodness, Michelle Obama is such a lovely, gracious woman, I adore her, and it really pains me that she doesn’t get enough credit for that.” In those moments, remembering the way Valerie Jarrett had always interrupted her regular Sunday brunch at table 87 to visit with the ancient Bob Dole, who had a standing brunch reservation at table 69, or the way Michelle would stop to shake the sweaty hands of adoring fans on the jogging path beside the restaurant, I understood why so many could so easily pretend away the Obama administration’s awful legacy of robbing from the poor to foam the runway for the banks.

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In fact, when in 2017 Timothy Geithner, the man most thoroughly responsible for bailing out the plutocracy at the expense of the 99 percent, came to Washington and nearly sat down in my section, oh, God, how I mourned when the hostess led the former treasury secretary to a table in the adjacent server’s area instead. I knew from his mostly fictitious memoir that Geithner had been a line cook in Cape Cod one summer before a stint at Kissinger Associates catapulted him up the ranks of neoliberal technocracy. He’s now president of the heinous private equity firm that gave the world TransDigm, Grubhub, and the worst nursing home chain in Florida; I knew he would order a few bottles of extreme status wine and a seafood tower and, as long as I managed not to let my contempt somehow spew out onto the tablecloth, tip well. I loathed myself deeply for wanting so badly to wait on Geithner, but the Trump years were lean ones for fancy restaurants in D.C. not located inside the Trump Hotel. I even found myself getting annoyed at the activists who slipped into the bar of our sister restaurant to heckle Ted Cruz during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. C’mon, man, I remember thinking. All these people are awful, but Dianne Feinstein is a way bigger pain to wait on. (Feinstein had the impossible habit of accusing you of forgetting about her drink when you hadn’t even finished taking the orders of the other people at her table; as it turns out I shouldn’t have taken this personally.)

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I quit working nights around the time my son started preschool, a few months before the 45th president pardoned Eddie Gallagher, a man who bragged about killing “10 to 20 people a day” and threatened to kill and/or destroy the careers of anyone who blew the whistle on him but was nevertheless such a monster that nearly a dozen Navy SEALS ultimately did. I began to see how so many well-educated women with little “I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford” pins on their status handbags seemed to believe Trump was actually worse than Dick Cheney, because he clearly seemed determined to outdo the sadism of the Bush years without succumbing to the tedious wars he had no desire to maintain. So instead he deliberately forced the country’s most exploited workers to come to work sick for the sake of lower beef prices, “joked” about drinking bleach, and pardoned the Blackwater mercenaries who’d butchered 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in one of a gruesome conflict’s most famously depraved episodes. Where the typical Washington career revolves around suppressing the worst and marginalizing the central role of barbarism and brutality in so many of the institutions that are ultimately picking up the tab, Trump brought our boys home so they could follow in his footsteps and leverage their noxiousness into their own spinoff lifestyle brands.

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The week of the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt, the hotel at which my husband works as a chef reopened its Starbucks for the first time in eight months to serve the hundreds of out-of-town Trumpers who’d checked in to “Stop the Steal.” The whole town had been in hibernation for the better part of a year, and the predominantly Ethiopian baristas were preparing to return to the unemployment rolls again at the end of the month. And despite the multitude of portentous red flags on the internet, no one at the hotel was prepared for what would happen if one of them asked a guest to please put on a mask before coming inside. “In 10 years of serving hundreds of customers a day, 52 weeks a year,” one of the baristas told my husband, eyes wide, “no one has ever … ” It didn’t need to be said; a front desk employee confirmed that the N-word had been repeatedly invoked. Terrible customer behavior was not news. But until the anti-maskers stormed my husband’s hotel, the true legacy of Donald Trump had not quite hit us.

Trump couldn’t pull off a coup, but he had inspired thousands of regular-ass Americans to roam the streets of their own country like Blackwater mercenaries screaming obscenities to $12-an-hour retail workers and restaurant hostesses for having the audacity to ask them to don masks during a pandemic that was killing more than 100 fellow citizens every hour. My husband was almost shaking as he related their stories: He’d been too preoccupied trying to nail down a room service special that might entice the Trumpers to think about the physical threat they might pose to the front lines. Like everyone else in the restaurant industry, we’d all been too desperate for business to turn up our noses at Trumpers, both the Ivy League–educated insiders and the steal-stopping legion.

But now that they’re gone, good God it must be said: They really were the scum of the earth, and while some of them, I’m sure, are good people, I’ll be plenty happy with merely a $1,400 check if I never have to see another one of them in my section again.

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