House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have spent the last few months painstakingly laying out a case for impeachment, but during the last few seconds of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, she did something much less prudent and prepared. In what at least seemed like an impulsive, gut reaction, the speaker started ripping up the president’s speech behind his back as he took his metaphorical (and later physical) victory lap.
Pelosi tore up the president’s speech. Not once, not twice but three times. Actually, she did it a fourth time, leading some people to wonder if she had even ripped up the large envelope the speech came in. A source close to the speaker told CNN that the moment was an entirely spontaneous expression of anger.
Why was the famously calculated Pelosi so angry? Maybe she was upset that the president, who has practically admitted trying to manipulate the next presidential election, will probably face no consequences for it. His Republican yes men have been gearing up for Wednesday’s acquittal for months. Or perhaps it’s the transfer of wealth from the poor to the very rich that Trump instituted with his signature tax cut. Or perhaps it’s his efforts to curb access to safe abortion,food stamps programs and SNAP programs.
Or, maybe, it was all the lying.
The night started with Trump declining to shake Pelosi’s hand, a snub that she later underlined with a tweet in which she said “Democrats will never stop extending the hand of friendship.” As the night continued, the tension was palpable. Pelosi clearly wasn’t thrilled with the president’s address which, like the vast majority of his speeches, contained a litany of half-truths, misleading statements and outright lies.
The president lied about his expansion of Social Security and Medicare. But perhaps most galling was his pledge of unflinching commitment to preserving protections against preexisting health conditions. In fact, his administration is actively defending a lawsuit that would eradicate those protections. At this moment, Pelosi seemed visibly unsettled. She started biting her lips and shuffling papers in what appeared like an effort to remain calm.
And let’s not forget the part where Trump awarded a surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, a conservative radio host who traffics in xenophobia, racism, misogyny and who has been leveling sexist attacks against women in politics for over a decade. Limbaugh has obsessively bullied Pelosi, often attacking her physical appearance. He once said on the air that if the speaker “wants fewer births,” she should hang pictures of her face “in every cheap motel room,” because “that will keep birth rates down because that picture will keep a lot of things down.” Limbaugh is also known for harassing Sandra Fluke, a young college student who was advocating for birth control at her school in 2012. He called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” In other words, Pelosi had a front row seat as Trump, a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women and who has been credibly accused of assault, praised another man who has been sexually harassing women publicly and without shame for years.
When you take into account the abundance of contempt Trump has shown Pelosi, not just during his State of the Union, but over the course of his entire presidency, ripping his speech into pieces honestly feels like an understated reaction.
And yet, the backlash has been fierce. Republicans such as Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Sen. Marco Rubio and the White House’s Twitter account called into question the speaker’s integrity. Trump has personally retweeted and amplified dozens of similar attacks Wednesday morning. The irony, of course, being that many of those calling the speaker uncivilized are the same people who are about to let a president get away with metaphorically shredding the Constitution — or at the very least, disrespecting it.
Of course the speaker is getting pushback. Pelosi displaying the tiniest bit of rage exemplifies the scrutiny that awaits her and women in politics — a scrutiny that is even worse for women of color. Women learn early on to mask anger because they know they’ll be punished for it. While Trump gets to have a meltdown almost every day, female politicians have to be much more savvy and calculated when communicating even the slightest bit of emotion.
But as I watched the twittersphere debate whether Pelosi's small act of civil disobedience was out of line or not, all I could think about were the Democratic voters I got to interview in Iowa this week leading up to the Iowa caucus. And how desperate they are to win this November. The stakes in the 2020 elections are higher than ever and the voters feel it. Every single caucusgoer I spoke to said the same thing: “We need someone who can beat Trump.”
So will the Democrats continue to play nice? Will they smile through their frustration as the president hurls insults and disgraces the office he is privileged to sit in every day? Or do they want to win?
Because if Democrats do decide to maintain the status quo and end up losing on Election Day, a few torn pieces of paper will be the least of their — and America’s — problems.
- Liz Plank is an award-winning journalist and author. Her book "For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity" was published in 2019.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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