Pelosi’s Symbolic Politics Won’t Actually Stop Trump

The problem with acts of resistance intended for media consumption is that they don't lead to concrete action or organization against the oppressor.
Nancy Pelosi has made protesting Trump an annual event at the State of the Union. Last year it was sarcastic clapping and this year it is tearing up the speech. At the culmination of President Trump’s State of the Union Address Tuesday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore her copy of the speech in half, which she claimed “was the courteous thing to do.” This action has been condemned by conservatives as a “new low,” somehow surpassing sexual assault, caging children, and racism in a race to the bottom. However, to progressives, the action was a symbolic act of defiance to the lies and criminality of the current administration.


However, Pelosi’s act of ripping the State of the Union address and the reactions to it reveal something else entirely—the meaninglessness of these actions as they are immediately turned into memes intended for consumption on social media while the action is parsed ad nauseum on cable news programs. Given the opportunity to decisively resist the lies, criminality, and brutality of the Trump administration and its policies, Pelosi has instead delivered a series of vacuous gestures intended to go viral that provide images of “resistance” for social media. All the while nothing of substance actually takes place.


While protesting may be an annual Pelosi tradition, in the rest of the year Pelosi proves herself to be an ally in moving Trump’s agenda forward. She approved Trump’s military budget (the largest in history), gave Trump the necessary funds for his racist border wall, and allowed cuts to Obamacare while Americans are literally dying because they cannot afford healthcare. Pelosi has not resisted Trump in any meaningful way. This should not be surprising, since both Trump and Pelosi push a neoliberal economic agenda that undermines democracy, social stability, and the environment for the sake of profits for the ruling elite. They are playing for the same team, though Pelosi hides this cruel neoliberal agenda behind meme-able actions like the one on display Tuesday night, which has been shared millions of times on social media. If she claps back at Trump, she can’t be that bad, right?


While ruling elites symbolically fight each other while enacting policies that line their own pockets at the expense of the working class, there are real, tangible actions that we can take to improve our own lives and the lives of our neighbors. We must not be consumed by the media spectacle and the narratives it generates. It has been nearly seventy-two hours since the State of the Union address, and media outlets are still publishing articles debating whether ripping the paper was classless or a strong denunciation of Trumpism. Pelosi’s action had its intended effect. She is praised for stealing the headlines from Trump, but she has really only diverted our attention from the fact that she has failed to hold Trump accountable for his actions in any substantive way.


The problem with acts of resistance intended for media consumption is that they don’t lead to concrete action or organization against the oppressor. To restate a passage from the New Testament Epistle of James, memes without works are dead. Not only this, the curated micro-gestures of resistance help distract us from questions of organization and solidarity against capitalism, by creating what Jodi Dean calls a neverending “circulation of affect.”


Pelosi’s actions are received so well on social and digital media partly because they play into the hands of liberal identity politics, which celebrates individual acts of resistance (especially acts of the privileged) and discourages coalitions of struggle and solidarity. Meanwhile, Pelosi’s celebrated act has done nothing to change the fact that families are still being separated and children are dying at the border, that Trump has added additional countries to the travel ban, and that Trump’s policies are accelerating climate change, to name only three of the myriad issues facing the country.


In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord observed that the word “media” was too neutral to capture the role of the spectacle as capitalism’s way of distracting the masses. He wrote, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” The spectacle affects the way we interact and relate to each other. Memes and gifs of Pelosi ripping up Trump’s State of the Union address have become part of the spectacle, distracting us from the ways in which the neoliberal agenda, which Pelosi has helped to lead and enable, has brought about insecurity, suffering and destruction for the majority of working people. 


Real resistance to the neoliberal capitalist agenda comes from the collective power of the working class, not from the eye-rolling, clapping, and paper-tearing of a steward of neoliberalism.



Brandon Massey lives in the Chicago suburbs. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies and is working on a PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity.



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