Washington, DC / USA – June 13 2019: Nancy Pelosi conducts her weekly press conference (Shutterstock)
By Michelle Ruiz, VOGUE
Sure, Real Housewives is fine, but are you familiar with the ongoing rivalry between President Donald Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi? The friction between the notorious misogynist and the woman leading his impeachment peaked at the president’s third State of the Union address on Tuesday night, in a show of pure political theater, including a spurned handshake and a historic speech-ripping.
First, Trump appeared to refuse to shake Pelosi’s outstretched hand after entering the House chamber (the second handshake denial of the political season, following Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders’s tense exchange on the recent Democratic debate stage). Pelosi shrugged, as if to communicate a high-level “WTF?” and subsequently skipped the customary introduction of the president.
Then, Pelosi proceeded to tell a complex and stirring story through her facial expressions alone—sort of like the time she strutted out of a White House meeting to avert a government shutdown wearing a smirk and an excellent Max Mara coat. While Trump dispensed with a charade of a speech that, drawing on his reality-show roots, included—surprise—awarding Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Pelosi called bullshit with a series of sighs, lip purses, widened eyes, and bows of her head. She appeared to mouth, “That’s not true,” as Trump lied about Democrats wanting to give free health care to undocumented immigrants. Even Pelosi’s act of glancing down and shuffling the papers before her—as if, many noted on Twitter, she was knocking out her tax prep—spoke volumes about the president’s worthiness of her attention.
Her inner struggle to appear calm in the face of chaos felt all too familiar to so many women watching. Who among us has not had to physically restrain ourselves while listening to an absolute blowhard at a big work event? The only (and big) difference is that Pelosi’s workplace is the United States government.
The pièce de résistance of Pelosi’s performance, of course, came at the end of the State of the Union, when she rose, lifted Trump’s speech, and ceremoniously tore it apart—literally ripped it into pieces—for the world to see. Half the country (or, at least, social media) rejoiced, while the other half deemed her “rude,” “childish,” even “vicious”—all more apt words to describe the scathing presidential bully in front of her, really. Is it Pelosi’s ripping of paper that should disturb us, or, um, Trump’s trampling on democracy? A double standard looms unavoidably large: He has a long and revolting history of bullying women (he’s called Pelosi herself “crazy” on Twitter) and allegedly sexually assaulting them, but his female targets are supposed to play by the usual rules of decorum? Sexism is holding the most powerful man and the most powerful woman in the country to different standards.
But the gender dynamic between Trump and Pelosi is also what makes her protests feel so exquisitely satisfying: that it’s a woman leading the impeachment inquiry against him, a woman, in a sea of men, standing and pointing at him in that memorable, practically artful cabinet room meeting on Syria last October. This president has a unique talent for making women feel small and powerless, what with his abominable record on women’s rights. How rich that there’s a woman at the top, checking his privilege.
It’s understandable to want to cling to some sense of propriety—when they go low, we go high and such—and to see Pelosi’s speech-rip as a blow to that. But three years into the nightmare of the Trump administration and Pelosi’s resistance and rage are more than warranted. I think about Hillary Clinton keeping her cool and saying nothing while Trump lurked behind her at the second 2016 debate: an act of restraint that hasn’t aged well, and one that Clinton herself, as she wrote in her memoir, might well have handled differently today. At a certain point, when faced with a person as egregious and dangerous as Donald Trump, decorum doesn’t feel like an adequate enough response. I’d rather Pelosi be called “rude” today, and remembered by history as someone who took the speech of a president who caged children, tore it apart, and threw it in the garbage.