There are images you know will appear in a future documentary film, even while they happen in real-time. Nancy Pelosi tearing up the text of President Trump’s State of the Union address is one of those.
The moment spoke volumes, despite the ritual and pomp of the State of the Union, despite the standardized niceties, the Speaker of the House was telling the world that none of this was or should be, normal. It is not surprising that the response has been fierce, and that it maps along the fractious partisan fault lines that split the chamber last night, and are rending the fabric of our nation.
Watching the speech, I felt a deep undertow of tradition. We as a nation have afforded great respect to the office of the presidency. A leader of a country where at least the topline economic news is good can be expected to crow about his success. Yet no one can and should forget all that was unsaid – the record of a president who feels unbound be any limits to his power, who lies with abandon, who undermines the environment, who demonizes and disparages, whose close associates are in prison, who praises autocrats and alienates our allies, and on and on.
During the speech and in its aftermath, many commentators sought to characterize the spectacle of the moment, the great showman, the man who owns narratives and captured the White House. And yet this is a president whose open hostility to the press, whose lack of accountability and truth, mocks the very ideals of impartial assessment.
I can understand the urge to judge the event by the politics, to use the vocabulary afforded to previous presidents. Perhaps that was what motivated Speaker Pelosi. Hers was also an act of showmanship to be sure, literally an upstaging of the President. But it was also a defiant exclamation point to anyone who would argue that this was normal.