I would like to take a moment, here on this calamitous anniversary, to contemplate the political and cultural impact of bad pizza upon our zany little world. I am, of course, referring to the massive international chain restaurant called Papa John’s, and to its wealthy owner, Mr. John Schnatter of St. Louis. The two entities — the subpar pizza joint and the man with all the dough — sit at the core of a small confluence of absurdity that explains nearly everything you need to know about Year One in the Age of Trump.
Ridiculous? Certainly. True? You tell me.
There are more than 5,000 Papa John’s pizzerias in 45 countries around the world. It is the most widely recognized advertiser for the National Football League; if you watch the NFL on Sundays, like as not you’ll see the face of “Papa” John Schnatter a dozen times mugging it up with the likes of Peyton Manning and the guy who mows the playing field. His connections to the NFL run deeper than TV commercials. Dallas Cowboys owner and billionaire oilman Jerry Jones owns more than 120 Papa John’s franchises.
Schnatter played in Republican politics behind the scenes for a time, holding fundraisers for Mitt Romney in 2012 and donating to Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016. He made his first ham-fisted entrance onto the public political stage about five years ago, when the passage of the Affordable Care Act motivated him to take out his rage on his customers and employees. If the ACA wasn’t repealed, he said at the time, he would be forced to jack up the price of his pizza, and some of his franchises would have to cut workers’ hours. Because this was nonsense, there was a fairly damaging backlash and Schnatter backed down.
Odds are Schnatter would have kept his head down for good after that mess, but then several things happened almost simultaneously: NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police violence against people of color, several players joined him, Donald Trump attacked them repeatedly and viciously, a whole slew of players then joined Kaepernick and the protest became a national thing, the NFL commissioner and ownership predictably redefined the term “clumsy reaction” in response, and somewhere in there a whole lot of people realized, for reasons having nothing to do with protests or presidents, that Papa John’s pizza is just awful.
That last bit is important, because Schnatter recently announced that he is considering pulling his advertising from NFL games. Why? His sales are way down and, according to him, the NFL’s refusal to come down hard on the anti-racism player protesters is the reason behind that decline. “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders,” said Schnatter last week during a call with analysts. “This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago. Good or bad, leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership.”
“Good or bad,” said Schnatter. An interesting choice of words, given the fact that he has amassed a tremendous fortune peddling food that can only be called “pizza” because it is round and has “cheese” on it. Any reputable consumer survey puts Papa John’s product somewhere between sewer rat and used floss on the quality scale. To quote Deadspin writer David Roth, “It’s pizza that tastes the way long-distance bus travel feels.” Occam’s Razor would suggest that protests seldom televised by the NFL are less to blame for Schnatter’s woes than market oversaturation of a crummy product. P.S., NFL: That means you, too.
Hot on the heels of Schnatter’s broadside against the NFL and its ownership came another proclamation: The Daily Stormer, the white supremacist website which gained notoriety after the horrific violence in Charlottesville and Donald Trump’s subsequent reaffirmation of his embrace of Nazis and Klansmen, announced that Papa John’s was now the official pizza of racists everywhere. To underscore their zeal for Schnatter’s product, they published a photo of a pizza bearing a swastika rendered in pepperoni slices.
This forced the public relations wing of the Papa John’s empire to release a statement requesting that white nationalists, white supremacists, Nazis, Klansmen and racists in general refrain from purchasing their product, which is exactly how you want to spend your Friday when you’re the press office for a well-known multinational corporation that is already collapsing under the weight of its own inadequacies.
When the long tale of this dented era is finally unspooled, “Papa” John Schnatter and his serial woes will wind up as a footnote for an afterthought. Yet this dim little parable perfectly illustrates the time and place we find ourselves in, one long year down the line. At the bottom of it all sits an execrably unpalatable product with a swastika squished into the middle. I think it is safe to say we could all use some better ingredients.
My country, ’tis of thee I sing.
Three more years. Maybe.