Thanks to Donald Trump, American women have a fresh, iconic photo of Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the White House on Wednesday. There she is, the only woman at a table of two dozen men, standing up to object to what lawmakers confirm was Trump’s verbal abuse. Meanwhile, the white male power elite of the United States look down uneasily at their collective hands.
This White House meeting with congressional leaders was supposed to be about the unfolding conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. Before they even got down to business, however, the conversation, perhaps predictably, unraveled. In situations like this, as the only woman in a room full of men — a woman who is not there as eye candy to help close the deal, but who is present to actually close the deal herself — Pelosi pushes all Trump’s buttons at once.
"He was insulting, particularly to the speaker,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters. “This was not a dialogue, it was sort of a diatribe. A nasty diatribe, not focused on the facts."
Pelosi later said Trump referred to her as a "third-grade politician.” Schumer and other Democrats heard “third-rate.” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham instead implied that Trump was the soul of calm. Pelosi "had no intention of listening," Grisham said in a statement, and Trump had been "measured" and "decisive."
Throughout his public interactions with Pelosi, Trump has deployed a combination of patronizing and condescending behavior — his go-to strategy for dealing with female political opponents. He calls her “Nancy” — she is not even worthy of title, much less a last name — while she calls him “Mr. President.”
Pelosi has emerged as a key a problem for Trump precisely because he has never had to deal with women who don’t depend on him. The women in his life — a few Trump Organization executives, his wives, his daughter and daughters-in-law — have all been dependent on him for their power.
Pelosi, however, is powerfully independent. And as she keeps having to remind him, she is the leader of a co-equal branch of government.
“Nancy” was always going to pose a problem for Trump because she doesn’t fit neatly into his two simple categories for all women. She is neither hot and camera-ready nor “nasty.”
But his efforts to bring her to heel have backfired. The White House insisted Trump himself selected the photo and wrote the correctly spelled albeit characteristically juvenile caption. But this tactic — tweeting a photo that makes Pelosi look like a female Abraham Lincoln — did not come off the way Trump and his team seemed to think it would. What woman — or man — doesn’t look at that photo and recognize its courage?
And the “Nervous Nancy” nickname — a dated but still useful female stereotype — is the opposite of Pelosi’s sure-footed strategic political moves.
The image joins two other memorable shots of Trump and Pelosi. The first was from December, in a brief Oval Office video that Trump insisted on recording against Pelosi’s wishes. In it, Pelosi, perched on the edge of a couch, schooling the president in the role of the legislature and his need to respect her as speaker of the House. Schumer smirks beside her and Vice President Mike Pence sits like a wax-figure, all three men sit manspreading in their chairs like walruses in the sun.
The second iconic photo is the famous “Good Boy, Donald!” Grandma-to-toddler clap she directed at Trump from the rostrum during the State of the Union this year.
For Trump, meanwhile, Pelosi has long served as a reliably sinister figure around whom he can rally his base. The thousands of replies to Trump’s recent tweet show there is still enough Pelosi-hate in the hearts of the right to indicate that the president and his strategists aren't totally off-base.
Pelosi has been a key target of fierce right-wing attacks for more than a decade. She has served as a conservative punching bag since she helped President Barack Obama push the Affordable Care Act through the House.
Trump and his team have also learned that you can never underestimate the power of misogyny to bind up and motivate key bits of the electorate. Now, she has risen above Hillary Clinton in the broomstick pantheon.
But 2019 is not 2016 — and Pelosi is not Clinton. She is leading a movement of more than 50 percent of the American people who want Trump impeached and removed from office. She has played the politics of impeachment with a sure, steady hand — undeterred by calls from her party’s left flank to move faster or by furious attacks from the right.
As for dealing with Trump, Pelosi deftly steps out of the dynamic that he is trying to create. He revels in trading insults, a childish tit-for-tat. She not only refuses to engage in this, Pelosi looks down on it from above, assessing him like a kindergarten psychologist reporting some bad news to the parents.
“What is truly sad about this”, Pelosi said back on Capitol Hill after the White House incident, “is I pray for the president all the time and I tell him I pray for the safety of him and his family. I think now we have to pray for his health because this was a very serious meltdown on the part of the president.”
In May, after Trump stormed out of a meeting on infrastructure, Pelosi called on Trump’s family to stage an “intervention."
Yet anything resembling an intervention seems unthinkable to the men around Trump. They have made it clear time and again that they don’t intend to let mere norms — including reining in an increasingly unhinged leader — loosen their grip on power.
Trump has taught his supporters to project his problems back onto critics. On Wednesday, he called Pelosi “a very sick person” in a separate tweet. The last time Pelosi talked about Trump’s instability, someone produced, and distributed on Facebook, an altered video of Pelosi that made it look like she was slurring her words.
Trump’s shadow foreign policy minion, Rudy Giuliani, tweeted that clearly fake news — then deleted his tweet. Trump, meanwhile, tweeted a Fox Business News clip of Pelosi edited to made her look like she was stammering.
It’s unclear which, if any, of Trump’s advisers suggested this latest photo as a worthwhile salvo against Pelosi. But combined with the president’s crazy “Don’t be a fool!” letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the witnesses and whistleblowers testifying before the House impeachment inquiry, the image clearly shows that the last man standing in that room is, in fact, Nancy Pelosi.
- Nina Burleigh is a journalist whose work has appeared in Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and Medium.com. Her most recent book is “Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump's Women.” She is now a visiting lecturer at the Institute for Religion, Philosophy and History at the University of Agder in Norway.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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