Donald Trump opened his recent State of the Union (SOTU) with a call for unity and to “govern not as two parties, but as one nation.” While the opening lines sounded hopeful, the actions of the onlooking Republican and Democratic parties screamed “division.”
The most prominent moment of division came from Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she tore the SOTU address in half—directly after its conclusion. The move caught fire on both sides of the aisle with praise from Democrats and criticism from Republicans. Many are wondering what motivated the act. Did Pelosi act out of resentment, hopes of re-election, or pure partisanship? Even further, does it deserve praise?
It is important to note that Pelosi is up for re-election in California. Her opponent, Shahid Buttar, claims that she abandoned the people of her district after becoming Speaker of the House. A move like ripping Trump’s most significant speech could be Pelosi buying some credibility from her constituents. However, she has also publicly criticized Trump’s SOTU when she has not been up for re-election. For example, in 2019 she put on a show for Trump during the SOTU by clapping sarcastically after the President ended his speech. All in all, her stunt may not be entirely motivated by her re-election, but it certainly does not hurt her chances.
Pelosi herself commented on why she tore up the speech. She told reporters “It was a courteous thing to do considering the alternative. It was such a dirty speech.” Pelosi’s reference to “dirtiness” likely comes from the inaccuracies strewn throughout. Fact-checkers went to work after its conclusion, pointing out many of the “alternative facts” that Trump presented. Between Trump’s characteristic, over-exaggerated numbers and his touting of the economy, the speech was problematic.
Democrats argued that the speech warranted a reaction because it was inaccurate and divisive. Republicans went the other way and denounced Pelosi. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said that her act of defiance disrespected the “lives we’ve lost and heroes we celebrated at the SOTU,” and that “no matter how you feel or what you disagree with, remember others are watching...” Other Republicans followed suit, attacking Pelosi’s lack of sympathy for those who were honored in the speech.
Fox News published an article presenting the various responses to Pelosi’s move. An analysis of these responses show partisanship to be the main reason behind her act of defiance. By ripping the speech, Pelosi hoped to rally her constituents, unify Democrats, and reject Republicans. Pelosi’s ripping of the SOTU was her own address in a way—one that symbolizes the stark divide in political parties.
The United States is left with one thing after this night: division. Democrats argue that the speech alienated them. Republicans say that ripping it up was a rejection of Trump’s call for bipartisanship. In the end, the speech that should garner feelings of unity in America instead led to more conflict.
Trump’s rhetoric attacked the Democrats, and Pelosi’s counter-attack ripped into Republicans. She may have had her campaign in mind, but it seems all the more likely she acted with the same sentiments of partisanship as Trump. Both sides dealt and received blows, resulting in a more divisive nation. Taking sides in this debate means adding fuel to the fire, and further standing ground in the fight between parties.
The State of the Union, after 2020, is becoming a partisan standoff. The political culture of division continues to grow with party lines tightening. Will it become customary to rip the other side’s SOTU address? It seems that common courtesies are out the window, and it’s only a matter of time before we see another Sumner-style beatdown on the Senate floor.