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Why Nancy Pelosi ripping up some papers has set the internet on fire

The “civility” debate is about more than niceties.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tears up her copy of President Trump’s State of the Union address on February 4, 2020.
Alex Brandon/AP
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

President Trump pulled out all the stops to put on a show at the State of the Union. And then Speaker Nancy Pelosi stole it by ripping up some pieces of paper.

The president pulled some reality show-style tricks out of his hat during Tuesday evening’s address — he gave a young girl a scholarship, reunited a military officer with his family, and presented a medal of honor to a racist and misogynist radio host mid-speech. But the president wasn’t the only one pulling stunts to get some attention — House Speaker Pelosi did, too.

Nancy Pelosi begins to rip a copy of President Trump’s State of the Union address.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

After Trump wrapped up his address on Tuesday, Pelosi, who alongside Vice President Mike Pence was seated behind the president during his speech, stood and tore in half the copy of his speech he had handed her at the outset of the evening. Other Democrats had also protested Trump’s address, with many opting not to attend and some walking out mid-speech. But it was Pelosi’s small gesture that cut deepest. She went about her protest calmly, but she made her point.

Viewers noticed, and video of Pelosi tearing up Trump’s speech quickly went viral online. The speaker of the House delivered yet another GIFable moment — and, with the flick of a wrist, reminded Americans that she, too, has a point to make, and needs a lot fewer words and braggadocio than the president to make it.

Pelosi’s act of defiance is being celebrated on the left as the rejection of a president who has just been impeached and filled his State of the Union address with hateful rhetoric and lies. On the right, it’s being scorned, and Pelosi is being criticized for not taking the “high road” in her actions. (Trump fails to take the high road in most things, but sure.)

Yet again, we are debating what civility means — and whether it matters — in such a polarized, high-stakes era. And everybody’s digging in. Case in point: the hashtags trending on Twitter on Wednesday morning, including #PettyPelosi, #PelosiMeltdown, #NancyTheRipper, and #NancyPelosiROCKS.

There are myriad fact-checks of Trump’s speech, and there’s plenty of coverage of the content of what he said, how it was received, and what it meant. And yet here we are the day after, and what’s getting the most airtime is whether Nancy ripping up Don’s papers was too mean or just mean enough.

The reality of the civility debate, whether it’s Pelosi ripping up a speech or a restaurant refusing to serve Sarah Sanders a meal, is that it represents much more. The emotions aren’t about paper or salad — they’re a stand-in for much more deep-seated, complicated disagreements in America. And in a moment of increasing polarization, everything is a proxy for what we believe.

Papergate, briefly explained

If you opted out of watching Trump’s speech on Tuesday, you probably missed the paper rip heard around the world — and everything else that happened in the hour-plus leading up to it.

At the start of the evening when Trump entered the chamber, Pelosi offered her hand to the president as he gave her a copy of his speech, but he didn’t take it; perhaps he didn’t see it or chose to ignore it.

Trump’s address in and of itself was a doozy — you can read Vox’s winners and losers wrap-up of it here. A lot of the content was typical Trump: touting overstated and false assertions about the economy, fearmongering about immigration and socialism, characteristic bragging.

Trump, a former reality television star, also pulled some reality television stunts — he gave a young black girl a scholarship, reunited a military officer with his family, and gave conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who just revealed he has stage 4 lung cancer, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (The first lady was actually the one to put it on him.) A parent whose child was killed in the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting was removed from the audience after an outburst during Trump’s address.

Nearly a dozen Democrats skipped the State of the Union in protest of the president, and others walked out as the speech got increasingly bizarre.

Pelosi stayed put, but, as mentioned, she stole the show at the very end by ripping up Trump’s speech as she stood behind him and Pence applauded next to her.

The speaker is not apologizing for her decision — and is making clear it was deliberate. “The manifesto of mistruths presented in page after page of the address tonight should be a call to action for everyone who expects truth from the President and policies worthy of his office and the American people,” she said in a statement after the address. “The American people expect and deserve a President to have integrity and respect for the aspirations for their children.”

The president, of course, isn’t going to let this one die out, either. As CNN’s Brian Stelter noted, Trump has actually tweeted and retweeted more about Pelosi’s reaction to his speech than about his own speech.

Whether it’s Rashida Tlaib booing Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi tearing up pieces of paper, this is also about deeper divisions among us

If this “controversy” seems familiar, it’s because it is — civility and just how nicely we’re supposed to play with one another is a conversation we have over and over again. Just look at this past weekend: Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a surrogate for Bernie Sanders on the 2020 campaign trail, booed Hillary Clinton onstage at a campaign event.

But the boo (for which Tlaib later apologized) is about more than some pejorative sound we make at sporting events — it’s a proxy for deeper divisions. Clinton has been taking public swipes at Sanders as of late, and there’s still a lot of bad blood between Clinton and Sanders factions from the 2016 presidential election.

Sanders acolytes view themselves as slighted in 2016 by a Democratic establishment that stacked the deck for Clinton, tilting everything from the debate schedule to delegate structures against them.

The Clinton camp views Sanders and those around him as sore losers who did not wholeheartedly back her in 2016. And beyond Clinton versus Sanders, specifically, the boo results from competing visions on the left of which policies to push for and how to govern: Do you take a moderate approach to try to get things done, or do you try to overthrow the system?

Pelosi’s decision to rip up a piece of paper went viral because it’s a manifestation of visceral, deep divides within the country

For Democrats, Pelosi’s gesture was an f-you to a president who just minutes before told a blatant lie to people worried about losing their health care and gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a man who has spent years pumping racism, sexism, and hate into the American public’s veins. It’s a small but forceful slight to a Republican Party that’s in all likelihood about to acquit a president for impeachable offenses, not even bothering to hear from witnesses. Progressives see Trump as a nefarious and dangerous figure, and Pelosi’s paper tear is a manifestation of that.

Nancy Pelosi tearing up President Trump’s speech quickly went viral online.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Republicans, on the other hand, hold it up as another example of liberal hysteria (though Pelosi, if nothing else, seems exceedingly calm) and over-the-top rhetoric around the president. And they’re crying foul on the civility front — sure, many of them spent years saying Barack Obama was secretly born outside the United States and refusing to even hold a hearing for his Supreme Court nominee, but now they’re horrified at the indignity of the left. To be sure, some of the outrage is disingenuous. But there’s no denying that Republicans have plenty of deep political disagreements with Democrats.

The civility debate won’t be going away, so when it bubbles up again, it’s important to remember what’s at the root of it. When Trump officials are getting booed out of restaurants, the conversation isn’t just about whether they’re getting a comfortable meal — it’s about whether the immigrant families they’re separating at the border are able to eat together.

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