This act of viral reclamation wasn’t the first the Democrats have carried off during this administration, and it also wasn’t the first fueled by resist-and-persist-style feminism. There was Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) bah-humbug silencing of Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on the Senate floor turned liberal rallying cry. And before that there was the pussy hat.
“Grab ’em by the p---y,” Trump said on a bus with Billy Bush back in his reality-TV-star years. “Pussy grabs back,” read the signs hovering above the pink-knit-clad heads of women at their march on the Mall after his inauguration.
This is the sort of political jiu jitsu that works well in an age of Internet-enabled mass mobilization: Turn the attacker’s energy against him not by pushing back against his words but by absorbing them to your advantage. It works in the other direction, too: Remember Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”? There’s another reason, though, that the tactic is so effective today.
“We must have been at two different meetings,” Pelosi said in a news conference the day after the confrontation. In a way, they were.
The tale of the pussy hat is not the same as the tale of “nevertheless, she persisted” and unlike the tale of this week’s Cabinet Room snapshot. Almost everyone agrees that Trump’s language with Billy Bush was disgusting and degrading; women were attempting to transform it into something else entirely.
McConnell’s language, on the contrary, wasn’t disgusting or degrading. Women and their allies didn’t have to transform what he said. They just had to repeat his words to point out their absurdity, because persistence — in their eyes — was objectively good. Whether you agreed depended on whose side you were on.
This week’s photograph has provoked the same phenomenon, only more pronounced. This time, the object of debate isn’t an argument from the mouth of someone with an agenda. It’s just a picture, depicting what’s supposed to be unvarnished reality. The problem is, the reality people see when they look at it is split right down the middle.
Progressives look at the image and see a woman doing her job well and powerfully. They see a petulant man with his lips open to interrupt her and the men around him with their hands clasped and heads down in submission. Trump supporters look at it and see, well, a meltdown. Here’s a lady throwing a hissy fit in the White House, and how dare she display such disrespect toward her exalted host?
It’s a Rorschach test for an America cleaved into two. Tell us what you see, and we’ll tell you which world you’re living in.
The country takes this same test every time Trump employs his typical “no, you are!” tactics to accuse his opponents of whatever flaws or whatever malfeasance he himself is guilty of. Donald Trump Jr. proved on Fox News this week that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree — by arguing that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“Dude your name is literally your dad’s full name,” someone replied on Twitter after Trump Jr. attacked Hunter Biden on Fox News for profiting off nepotism in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Only when a nation’s citizens occupy distinct realities can some actually think Biden capitalized improperly on family ties five years ago and not think Trump Jr. capitalized improperly on family ties as soon as he woke up this morning. Only then can the villain and the hero in the same picture swap places depending on who’s viewing it, and only then can “I hate ISIS more than you do,” as the president claimed about Pelosi in the same meeting, be presented as a testable proposition.
But that’s the America we inhabit now, and it’s in this landscape that impeachment is about take place. Laying out the facts doesn’t change anything when at issue isn’t only what the facts are but what they signify. The transcript is the transcript, but whether it’s diplomacy as usual or an criminal abomination depends on whether Nervous Nancy had a meltdown or she melted down the panicked man across the table.
The only hope of progress or persuasion? Those Republicans in Congress with enough constituents who are looking at the Rorschach and still trying to figure out what they see.