As the president stood near Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s casket, he surely thought he was conducting himself with decorum. He submitted to a mask, which he has not often been inclined to do during the pandemic. He’d shown up to pay his respects to a woman for whom he appeared to have little respect — the day after Ginsburg’s death, he’d cheerfully polled his rally attendees on whether they wanted him to replace her with a man or a woman. But whether the respect was real or feigned, on Thursday he’d come to the court to do something vaguely presidential.
And then the crowd below began to boo.
Loudly boo. A loud boo, followed by a chant, which began as an indistinct rumble and then transformed into something clear enough to be picked up by television cameras: “Vote him out.”
Vote. Him. Out.
The president is well familiar with the concept of a three-syllable chant. Many have held a treasured presence at his own rallies: “Send Her Back,” targeting Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). “Lock Her Up,” invented for Hillary Clinton and later repurposed for Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault, and even later used for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Last week, “Fill the Seat,” arrived, called out by an exuberant crowd. The seat in question had belonged, of course, to Ginsburg.
As a rhetorical strategy, the chants have been effective: They’re easy to learn and easy to repeat. Shouting them provides a sense of togetherness, a landmark around which Trump’s fans can convene and reorient themselves amid one of his nomadic speeches.
As a matter of morals, they’ve been — well, they’ve been awful. The chants always imply a little bit of lawless enforcement, usually directed toward someone who has less power than the president and who is not there to defend herself.
Omar is an American citizen; “Send her back” implied that she wasn’t, and also that Trump’s opinion of someone is what should determine their right to citizenship. “Lock her up,” migrating as it did from woman to woman, became a signal that this wasn’t about criminal proceedings; this was about the notion that nasty women who challenged the president should be treated as criminals.
“Fill the seat” seems tame, but it’s a jeer. It implores the president to flout a rule invented by Republicans in 2016, rushing a new Supreme Court justice into Ginsburg’s chair before the funereal bunting had even been removed from it. It’s naked self-interest: On Wednesday, Trump told reporters that he wanted to appoint a justice before the election in case the court needed to settle an election-related dispute.
But first, a little performance of normalcy, in the form of Trump’s Supreme Court visit.
The president and the first lady flanked Ginsburg’s flag-draped coffin. It was scheduled, the next day, to be moved to the Capitol Rotunda, making Ginsburg the first woman to officially lie in state. Unlike most of his public appearances, the president did not have a lectern or a microphone. He was not surrounded by MAGA hats or campaign signs. Because of the mask, he was not even able to repel the boos with a scowl.
The only resemblance that Thursday afternoon’s appearance had to a typical public appearance was the chanting. And this time, it was directed at him.
Vote Him Out, the audience yelled, while the masked president could do nothing but stand by the casket of a woman the audience loved infinitely more than him. Vote Him Out, they called, while the president’s hands hung by his sides.
One could revel in the cheap-but-satisfying poetic justice of the scene. A man who craves power put in a position of impotence; a man who thrives on mocking others, humiliated.
But something else was happening on the Supreme Court steps.
The yelling crowd outwardly appeared to be indecorous and vulgar, failing to properly respect the solemn circumstances. But what they were yelling was not vulgar at all — certainly not to the woman whose spirit they had come to honor.
This was not rudeness disguised as patriotism, as is often the case in the president’s preferred chants. This was patriotism disguised as rudeness, a vigorous call for actual law and order. The audience was not crying for someone to “lock him up.” They weren’t suggesting he should be thrown out of his own country; they weren’t clamoring for him to be removed from office by force.
They were loudly advocating a democratic solution. They were using the three-word chant to invoke a peaceful transition of power, the foundation on which the Constitution and the country are built.
Vote. Him. Out.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.