Whataburger! It is pretty good. Those enormous hamburgers, that spicy ketchup, that honey butter chicken biscuit—all of those things are good for a quick positive association for most Texans. If you are looking for a fast sandwich that costs a few dollars in the middle of the night, you could do a lot worse. If I am traveling and I know that there’s a Whataburger five exits away, I will often drive past the McDonald’s or whatever else is closer in order to get my meal in an orange-and-white striped bag farther down the road.
However, let’s be clear about something: Whataburger is good, but making your enthusiasm for a regional fast-food burger chain a central part of your personality is weird. There’s something sad about building an identity around a brand like your favorite regional fast-food chain, as anyone who heard the Californians mythologizing In-N-Out Burger learned firsthand when it began popping up in Texas and we all learned that it’s just an ordinary hamburger. The Onion poked fun at this kind of regional burger factionalism in 2013, declaring “Man Derives Depressing Amount of Pride From Hometown Burger Chain” and illustrating the article with a picture of a guy in a Whataburger T-shirt.
On Monday night, former Senate and presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at a pre-Super Tuesday rally in Dallas. He offered some stuff about Biden being “empathetic and caring,” and said the former vice president could “reassert our moral standing” in the world. He also declared, “I am going to treat Joe and Jill right. We are going to take them to a world-class meal tonight—there is a Whataburger less than half a mile from here.” Biden closed out his speech not with a “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America” sign-off, but with “I’m going to Whataburger right now!” And, of course, they did indeed sit down for a burger summit after the rally.
A former vice president and a high-profile former Senate candidate stopping by a fast-food restaurant together after a big rally is cute, and the two should not be ashamed of their visit. But Beto should recognize that his well-documented obsession with hyping up Whataburger is, er, pretty corny at this point.
O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign and Whataburger became entwined in the summer before his narrow loss to Ted Cruz. After reporters noted that the challenger’s campaign signs looked suspiciously like the Whataburger spicy ketchup logo, Cruz’s campaign responded by calling O’Rourke “a triple-meat Whataburger liberal,” whatever the heck that meant. O’Rourke embraced the association, making trips to Whataburger a frequent feature on his campaign livestream, while a Richard Linklater-directed ad targeting Cruz included an actor explaining to the senator that “everybody I know in Texas likes Whataburger.” O’Rourke, by dint of his political celebrity, spread the gospel of Whataburger to political junkies from states that aren’t anywhere near Texas. Biden, upon winning Texas on Super Tuesday, declared his victory with a Whataburger-themed tweet.
Call it a W. Thank you, Texas. pic.twitter.com/iXFI1ys9wi— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) March 4, 2020
In 2018, as a quirk in a campaign during which Beto was still introducing himself to Texas voters, expressing a shared affinity for an iconic local brand made sense. It was an easy pander to the electorate in a lane that his opponent had, inexplicably, opened up to him. But now it is 2020. It is time to leave the Whataburger mega-fandom in 2018.
There are so many things a person can take pride in, express passion for, and talk about in front of a crowd of thousands of voters—it’s time for Beto, Biden, and everybody else, to just let Whataburger be lunch, rather than an identity.