Last week, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats met with President Trump at the White House to discuss the situation in Syria, an image of their interaction took social media by storm. The photograph featured Pelosi standing up at a long conference table full of men, pointing her finger at Trump, and saying something, while he looked back at her with a petulant, angry expression. Evidently she told Trump, “All roads with you lead to Putin,” and he called her a “third-rate politician” before the meeting abruptly ended when the Democrats walked out.
The interaction has become the new normal in Washington, and the image prompted the kind of over-the-top meme-ification that happens every time Pelosi tangles with Trump. Left-leaning Twitter exploded with “Yasss Queen!” praise and #PelosiOwnsTrump hashtags. The response was predictable and tiresome, as even some of her supporters on the left admit.
It also misses the point about how Pelosi uses her power. She is effective not because she’s a woman in a man’s world schooling them like a boss or a queen. She succeeds because she expertly exploits an old trope to great effect: For lack of a better phrase, she’s the Mean Mommy. (One of the few people to note this was Pelosi’s daughter, who tweeted at Trump, “Looks like she owned you on #NationalBossDay. Been there. Don’t mess with mama!”)
Pelosi herself seems to view her relationship with Trump this way. Consider the language she used when she told reporters after the meeting: “Now we have to pray for his health—because this was a very serious meltdown.”
Trump responded like a kid who had just been scolded by a parent. He ran off to complain to his friends (which in Trump’s case means Twitter) by posting the image and commenting, “Nervous Nancy’s unhinged meltdown!” He went on to rant, “Nancy Pelosi needs help fast! There is either something wrong with her ‘upstairs,’ or she just plain doesn’t like our great Country. She had a total meltdown in the White House today. It was very sad to watch. Pray for her, she is a very sick person!”
It’s not the first time she’s infantilized him and he has responded like an undisciplined toddler. In May, before a scheduled meeting to discuss infrastructure, Pelosi criticized Trump for withholding documents from Congress. Trump effectively shut down the meeting by walking out (after insulting Pelosi and others).
Pelosi’s response? She called it a “temper tantrum” and later tweeted, “When the ‘extremely stable genius’ starts acting more presidential, I’ll be happy to work with him on infrastructure, trade and other issues,” which is the political equivalent of a parent telling an angry child that she will discuss today’s snack choices with him once he’s calmed down.
Many feminist theorists like to argue that if you put women in power, the world will change for the better because women will rule with more compassion, empathy, and cooperation than men do. This is ridiculous (as history has proven). Pelosi is as cunning a manipulator as any male politician, cunning enough to figure out that in dealing with Trump, being Mean Mommy is an effective strategy.
The problem with Trump isn’t, as many on the left assume, that he dislikes strong women. He has many strong women around him and in his administration. The problem is that Trump’s strong women are always his defenders, never his challengers.
And while Trump likes to feminize his male rivals (“Little Marco” Rubio, “Sleepy Joe” Biden, “Low Energy” Jeb), he appears flummoxed by what to call Pelosi; trying to label her crazy hasn’t worked.
Pelosi has figured out that the Mean Mommy role is the one female stereotype that Trump can’t seem to fight back against without looking ridiculous. It’s far more effective than her original strategy: complaints that Trump and men in his administration didn’t listen to her and man-terrupted during a meeting at the White House.
Of course, Pelosi’s matriarchal power moves don’t work with everyone. She has a spotty record of success controlling kiddie progressives in her own caucus, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, and her Trump-scolding doesn’t play as well with those who aren’t partisan Democrats.
Still, say what you will about Pelosi’s political beliefs (and I disagree with most of them), she cares about the process of governing. Like a good matriarch, she is not above wielding her considerable power when necessary to defend that process.
Pelosi understands how power works (or at least how it works in Washington). Trump doesn’t, which is why he’s compelled to take his complaints to social media. The fact that Trump thought the meeting that prompted that viral image would be a victory lap for him (when he showed to assembled leaders and invited press the unhinged letter he’d written to Turkish president Recep Erdogan) demonstrates this. He didn’t look powerful; he looked weak and defensive in the face of justifiable criticism of his administration’s policies.
Pelosi, by contrast, made the viral photo the official cover image for her Twitter account.