When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore up President Donald Trump’s speech at the end of the State of the Union last night, she knew the image it would create: As Trump acknowledged the applause of the chamber, she stood up behind him, and with a fleeting look of disgust on her face, ostentatiously ripped in half the sheaf of paper he had handed her when he first came to the dais.
Pelosi wasn’t the only woman triggered by Trump yesterday. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained to her social media fans—oops, I mean constituents—that “after much deliberation” she was boycotting the SOTU because “I will not use my presence at a state ceremony to normalize Trump’s lawless conduct & subversion of the Constitution.” She reassured everyone, however, that she would be “hopping on Instagram Live later this evening” to give her hot take on the speech. Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Rep. Maxine Waters, among a handful of other Democrats, also refused to attend.
Other Democratic women attended but made sure to describe themselves as somehow both protestors and victims of Trump’s speech. “I am attending on behalf of all of those targeted by this President to say, ‘We are greater than hate,’” Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted. “My presence tonight is resistance.” Her presence might have been resistance, but her Twitter feed was a pitch-perfect example of the kind of juvenalia that has become unfortunately all too common among elected officials active on Twitter. Omar tweeted, “Funny to see these Republicans claim we are irrelevant, yet pay such close attention to us while attending the #SOTU.” She included a crazy-faced emoji and the hashtag #rentfree, meaning, she believes she is living rent-free inside the heads of Republicans.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib is also certain the eyes of the world are upon her. She attended the speech only to march out of the House chamber ostentatiously when Trump mentioned the Supreme Court, claiming, “We aren’t part of a reality show.” She further explained her motivation for leaving as follows: “Even the mention of Brett Kavanaugh is for me a trigger.” If the name of a Supreme Court justice is triggering enough for Tlaib to have to flee a formal speech by the president, then her constituents might want to reassess her fitness for office. Who knows what dangerous triggers might render Tlaib mute during the next Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing?
Then again, Tlaib isn’t exactly known for her sense of decorum or devotion to civility. And it’s not just Kavanaugh she finds triggering. Last weekend she encouraged an audience to boo when Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned at a Bernie Sanders campaign event, only to be forced to issue a halfhearted apology later. (And not that anyone asked, but Tlaib said, “I would have shredded it,” about Trump’s SOTU.)
Although tensions in Congress are understandably high given the impeachment trial and the Senate’s likely vote today to acquit Trump, the SOTU was an opportunity for a brief moment of detente. Even if Americans don’t tune in for the duration of the SOTU, its function as political theater isn’t without usefulness. At a time of polarization and decline in faith in political institutions, it’s even more important for people to feel like Congress is not perpetually teetering on the edge of partisan, kindergarten chaos, and to see their leaders behave respectfully towards each other. Trump’s behavior last night was also disrespectful of decorum: he appeared to ignore Pelosi’s attempt at a handshake at the beginning of the evening and left without shaking her hand at the end.
But stunts and incivility are a particularly misguided strategy for Democrats, who like to claim the moral high ground when dealing with Republican misbehavior in Congress. Remember the outrage on the left when Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during Barack Obama’s 2009 SOTU? Wilson’s behavior was deemed rude enough for the House to rebuke him for the outburst, and he was forced to apologize to the president and to his colleagues.
By contrast, Pelosi was hailed as a “queen” across social media by Democratic partisans for shredding Trump’s speech, even while #PelosiTantrum trended on Twitter. It’s not an ideal position for the third most powerful official in the government to be in. Until now, Pelosi’s strength in dealing with Trump has been acting as the adult in the room. Regardless of what you think of her politics, her strategy for handling a volatile president (until impeachment, that is) has been largely effective and has allowed her to claim a sliver more of the moral high ground from Trump and the Republicans with regard to civility. She squandered that last night.