Like Pelosi’s pointed clapping at the 2019 SOTU, her small act of #Resistance was guaranteed to go viral. NowThis had video within minutes. It’s already a GIF. It’s also a completely hollow, feckless gesture that perfectly encapsulates Pelosi’s view of what politics is: a battle of symbolic power where the only casualties are expensive stationery.
The visual is great. Pelosi, poised all in white, red-lipped mouth pursed throughout Trump’s lackluster, lie-filled speech, glaring daggers at the president’s back after he rejected her handshake at the beginning of the night. As the Republicans applaud, she stands and rips the heavy-weight, tabloid-size printouts of Trump’s speech in half. Who can argue that she is not a queen, a girl-boss, who came to slay and throw shade?
But that was it. Pelosi tore up the speech, but she also allowed the president to give it in the first place. All her actions after that are basically moot.
The State of the Union is a mostly useless affair in modern politics. Even Trump, who’s usually at his happiest when he’s ranting in front of a captive crowd for more than an hour, is often more subdued on the occasion, for once actually sticking to a prewritten script.
But to people like Pelosi, the speech matters, largely as a reflection of the power and ceremony associated with all parties involved. A true State of the Union requires the Speaker to formally invite the president to a joint session of Congress called by both House and Senate. It is entirely in Pelosi’s power to simply not invite the president. And she’s done it before! Last year, during the height of the government shutdown, Pelosi uninvited Trump from the House chambers, saying he should postpone the speech until after his administration had made a deal to reopen the government. After some consternation and drama, the government reopened on January 25th, and Trump gave the speech as planned on February 5th.
This year, even after the House had literally impeached the president, there was never any question of whether Trump would give the speech. After all, this is the norm, and Pelosi’s Democratic Party is one that values norms above all else, completely unable to realize that they no longer apply to exercising political power.
The Republicans are not bound by this way of thinking. For years now, the GOP has made the Democrats look like a soccer team kicking at air while their opponents run around carrying the ball in their hands. That’s not to suggest the Democrats should sink to Trump’s level and openly commit crimes in the name of furthering their political agenda. But it’s completely possible to violate norms without breaking any laws. It’s not unethical to deny an openly fascist leader a platform from which to extoll his views.
If we toss out the norms, it opens up so many more ways to exercise power. Don’t invite a president you’ve just impeached to deliver a speech. Block the concurrent resolution vote using your heavy majority in the House. Or better yet, just refuse to show up. Some progressives, including Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, did exactly that. If Democrats lose the House and Trump gets re-elected, there’s no law that says they have to attend the next event at all.
No small part of the Trump administration’s power stems from the trappings of the office of the president granted by Washington’s culture of formalities and respect. Force him to give a sham “State of the Union” in a non-legislative building somewhere else. Article II of the Constitution just says the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union.” For all it actually matters, he can and almost certainly will perform that duty on Twitter. Nowhere in that document does it say you have to bow and scrape to a ruler that you can oppose through the legal application of political power.
Even Pelosi’s guest at the State of the Union outdid her. Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter in the Parkland shooting, shouted at Trump shortly after the president remarked the that Second Amendment was “under siege.” Guttenberg was escorted from the room by security. Pelosi stayed in her seat.