The old cliché that a picture is worth 1,000 words really undersells two iconic photos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: One from Tuesday’s State of the Union speech by President Donald Trump, the other from the same speech a year ago.
Each photo will be remembered long after Trump’s specific words from the speeches are forgotten. And both pictures serve as a potent Rorschach test of our fraught political moment.
Let’s start with the photo from Tuesday night.
Yes, that’s Pelosi tearing Trump’s speech in half even as the din of applause from overjoyed Republicans is still echoing through the House Chamber. Asked to explain why she did what she did, Pelosi said that it was “a courteous thing to do considering the alternative. It was such a dirty speech.”
Within seconds, Twitter flooded with reactions to the rip.
Liberals celebrated Pelosi’s move as an act of defiance – a demonstration of the frustration, annoyance and contempt with which she (and they) viewed Trump’s heavily political (and theatrical) speech. Conservatives (and Trump allies) seized on the moment as a sign of the petulance and childishness of both Pelosi and her party, still unable to come to grips with the fact that Trump is president.
“I think it was a new low,” Vice President Mike Pence said of the rip in an interview with “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday morning. “I wasn’t sure if she was ripping up the speech or ripping up the Constitution. It’s clear the contrast here was a President who spent an hour and a half making a speech about America and Nancy Pelosi in the final moments tried to make it about her, and I think the American people see through it.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the nation’s top diplomat, went even more troll-y – tweeting out a picture of a crying Lisa Simpson.
In Democrats’ closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday morning, Pelosi further explained her move: “He shredded the truth so I shredded his speech,” according to one person in the room.
The reaction to the ripping moment is reminiscent of nothing so much as how a photo of Pelosi clapping at Trump during the 2019 State of the Union became a similar litmus test. Here’s that photo:
For Democrats, Pelosi’s golf clap seemed to say to Trump: Congratulations, you read a speech. Good for you! It encapsulated her (and their) frustrations with Republican lawmakers – and some in the media – lauding Trump for occasionally acting like an adult. It became an instant meme.
For Republicans, Pelosi’s clap was symbolic of the condescension that she and the rest of her party had and have for Trump, still unable to get over the fact that he won the 2016 election and was president. The moment captured in that photo was, Republicans believed, how Democrats really viewed them – people to be (barely) tolerated but not really taken seriously.
More so than anything Trump said in either of his last two speeches, these two Pelosi photos, and the reactions they have elicited, tell the real story of the state of the union. Not only do the two parties disagree on the correct policy prescriptions to fix what ails the country – nothing new there! – but they also now simply detest one another. They struggle to spend time in the same room or even be cordial to one another. (Trump snubbed Pelosi’s attempt at a handshake before he began speaking on Tuesday night.) We are increasingly living in two totally separate Americas, each with their own news sources, heroes and villains.
THAT is the state of our union. And it something short of “stronger than ever before” – as Trump described it on Tuesday.