The Meaning of the Scene: When Pelosi Clapped at Trump

It should go without saying that our national health relies on a grown-up relationship between the president and the speaker of the House. But Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi are more like the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner of American politics, our Karen and Jack, our Alexis Carrington and Dominique Deveraux, our Ren and Stimpy. She has been speaker for roughly two months of his presidency, but it’s as if they’ve been on the Cartoon Network for 20 years. He tries to drop an anvil on her. She lures him over a cliff. We care about the nation’s health, but we seem to enjoy the anvil business even more.

Look at the visual highlight of the State of the Union address. It’s only a few seconds long — Trump turning to absorb Pelosi’s smirking spin on a routine stand-and-clap — but it proved more noteworthy than the hour-plus of speechifying. It comes at about eight minutes in. The president’s on an alliterative high, talking about rejecting the “politics of revenge, resistance and retribution.” When he gets to the part about embracing “the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good,” the room erupts in approval.

But something tells Trump to turn around. He rotates toward Pelosi, who has thus far been clapping tepidly, here and there, when not inspecting her paper copy of the speech the way people search certain restaurant menus for something they can eat. What Trump glimpses is stranger and more pointed than Pelosi’s previous handwork. Now she is extending her arms all the way out, toward him, applauding him the way you might applaud a little kid who wants credit for behavior that warrants none or a dad proudly announcing that he has finally changed a single diaper.

I watched the speech on C-SPAN, where it wasn’t so remarkable in the moment. Mike Pence’s unbreakable gaze at the back of the president’s head was actually more striking. The instant Pelosi extended her arms, the C-SPAN feed cut to the Democratic women of the House, presumably looking for another puckered expression from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose face suggested the whole night was one long lemon. The networks were trying their best to make lemonade out of that.

But within minutes, the internet had mined gold from that brief shot of Pelosi: elbows bent, palms together, arms extended — aimed. What turned the image truly infectious was the tilt of her head into her body, the rictus of hauteur. This was somebody feeling herself. Her eyes were meeting the president’s, and her arms appeared to be transferring, conveying, zapping something at — or into — him. The most powerful woman in American politics appeared to be laser-beaming the most powerful man, one who really does seem bedeviled by her grasp of the game of being political. In this micromoment — which omits his haplessly mouthing “thank you” to her, and the smirk releasing into a smile — he still seems, what, zung?

Political speeches might strive to nourish us, but lately nobody wants a salad; this president got where he is by slinging red meat. Trump could talk about comity and unity this time, but if you were watching his speech, you were also watching television — a dramatically ripe encounter between two people who had just faced off over a historic, harmfully long government shutdown, and over whether this speech could happen in the first place. You would have wanted a moment that captured the conflict hiding behind the pleas for civility — an emblem of the anomie sizzling beneath the surface of most politics at the moment. Something small and arguable and maybe a little bit beneath us that alluded to the stratospheric stakes of the discord. And this woman, clapping at this man, was the reddest meat. It was an image that registered on the Richter scale of beef.

The internet is great at rooting out, freeze-framing then fan-ficking this kind of interpersonal drama. It has become downright masterful during the Trump era: the meme-ing of his appearing to stalk Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate, of Melania swatting his hand away. It’s a terrible way of following politics. But it might be the only sane mechanism for digesting the politics we have — as must-share TV.

Pelosi’s clap ate both the internet and the national news, which ran endless stories parsing its meaning. Pelosi’s daughter Christine offered an interpretation: “She knows,” she tweeted, “and she knows that you know. And frankly she’s disappointed that you thought this would work. But here’s a clap. #youtriedit.” The clap became all things to lots of people. Most of them supposed some kind of triumph for Pelosi and humiliation for Trump. The clap was seen as loaded and self-amused and captivatingly sardonic. “Saturday Night Live” whipped up a 1970s-era action-TV sketch called “Women of Congress,” in which Pelosi was identified as “Madame Clap Back.” At a Grammys-weekend celebration for Dolly Parton, Pelosi herself stood between Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom, who got her to do the clap with them. It’s possible that was the moment when the image started eating itself.

Most of the clapping at a political address is obnoxious for the way it disrupts any kind of oratorical rhythm and for its partisan clinginess. Pelosi’s clapping might have been obnoxious, too, but it was also piquant, rather than fawning or confused. She was adding some static to all that cling. The next day she denied any perceived sarcasm. “Look at what I was applauding,” she told reporters about the president’s call for cooperation and compromise. “I wanted him to know that it was very welcomed.” What a wonderfully slick deflection. You might wryly applaud your boo for changing that diaper, but that’s behavior you also wholeheartedly endorse.

The naughtiness of the gesture is what made it popular. And maybe, given decades of popular music built out of hand claps, what made it a hit was that it was a clap at all. Pelosi’s particular method — her arms out in front of her — struck me as instantly familiar. I didn’t grow up in the church, but I went often enough to remember a clap like that. It’s not the sort of plain old clapping a choir does in time with a song or even the kind a choir does against the beat (a gospel clap). Those you can do the regular way, with your elbows bent.

I’m talking about a clap you do with your elbows almost locked, that’s pointed at somebody in the room. That’s what you see the Southern California Community Choir doing at Aretha Franklin in “Amazing Grace,” the documentary of her live recording of her best-selling gospel album. Franklin is in the middle of “Climbing Higher Mountains,” poised between the church congregants and the choir. As she’s belting, the choir long-claps her in a way that says: We see you. I suppose that’s what Pelosi was saying, in a very different way, during the State of the Union: I see you trolling me. The choir’s clap was pious. Hers was triumphantly petty, another lure off a cliff. But look up: The forecast calls for anvils.

Wesley Morris is a staff writer for the magazine, a critic at large for The New York Times and a co-host of the podcast “Still Processing.”

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