Trump’s attack on Red Hen sends a chilling message to 29 million US small businesses

Passersby gather to take photos in front of the Red Hen Restaurant, Saturday, June 23, 2018.
Passersby gather to take photos in front of the Red Hen Restaurant, Saturday, June 23, 2018.
Image: AP Photo/Daniel Lin
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It’s going to be a tough week for the twenty restaurants, bakeries, and coffee houses in the United States with “Red Hen” in their name. Over the weekend, several were bombarded with death threats, nasty online reviews, and even eggs, after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Twitter she was was asked to leave the “Red Hen” restaurant in Lexington, Virginia.

This morning, Donald Trump tweeted a new criticism of the restaurant, without specifying where it was, putting the rest of the US’s Red Hens directly in the line of fire:

Trump has tweeted criticism of plenty of big US companies before, from Boeing to Ford to Lockheed Martin, breaking with presidential tradition and sometimes wiping billions off of their market caps, at least temporarily. But targeting a 26-seat restaurant marks a new use of the US president’s platform.

America’s 29 million small businesses (defined as those with less than 500 employees) are responsible for 48% of the US’s jobs. They employ almost 57 million people, according to government data. They’re also much less likely to be able to afford the crisis communications teams that big companies started hiring when Trump took office—or the in-house security teams to defend against any threats.

The Lexington Red Hen’s Facebook page has been inundated with tens of thousands of critical messages. Meanwhile, the owner of an unaffiliated Red Hen in New Jersey said on Facebook “my telephone has not stopped ringing, angry ill-informed callers threatening my staff, our business, cursing and swearing at us.” Another unaffiliated Red Hen restaurant in Washington D.C., was bombarded with eggs and fake, negative online reviews.

Private citizens and politicians who criticize Trump or his agenda often face abuse from his fans after he tweets about them, which can go beyond just verbal threats. He endorsed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, for example, even after multiple women said Moore had sexually assaulted them. After Moore lost, the home of one of his accusers was destroyed by a fire that officials are investigating as arson.

Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson told the Washington Post that her decision to expel Sanders wasn’t taken hastily. The press secretary wasn’t asked to leave until after the table got its first course, and after Wilkinson asked her employees what they thought she should do. “The restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation,” she said she told Sanders, who has a record of making misleading and false statements from the press podium.

Wilkinson is also the executive director of “Main Street Lexington,” a pro-business group that promotes local shopping. The group’s Facebook page is being inundated with calls for her to resign and pledges to never visit the town.

The administration’s attack on a small business doesn’t just incite vengeful actions from their supporters—it also breaks US ethics rules. As former head of the the White House ethics office Walter Shaub responded to Sanders’ tweet over the weekend:

Lexington Police referred an inquiry about any threats against Red Hen to city manager Noah Simon, who emailed Quartz: “We do not comment on the public safety issues in our community and strive to ensure the highest level of public safety.” The city “welcomes everyone to enjoy the many wonderful business, cultural, natural and educational assets this small charming city has to offer,” he said.