The Gender Games: Nancy Pelosi versus Donald Trump

I have been fascinated by the dynamic between Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump. Unlike with his other adversaries where Trump goes aggressively on the attack, calling them insulting names and ridiculing them at every opportunity, he has been remarkably restrained with Pelosi. It cannot be just a gender thing because Trump has been savage with Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, giving them both derisive nicknames. So what is the deal with Pelosi that finds him consistently wrong-footed and awkward?

I think it is the US constitution that is the key. That document states that there are three co-equal branches of government: the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. But over time the executive has seized more and more power, often aided by a judiciary that has either ruled in its favor or refused to intervene, and the legislature has declined in clout. The reduction in the legislature’s power has been aided by the leaders of the parties themselves who have deferred to the president’s encroachment of their powers if he was a member of their own party.

Republican Mitch McConnell was aggressive in his efforts to thwart any and all of Barack Obama’s initiatives during the latter’s presidency but has completely rolled over for Trump, doing his bidding even if it means reversing himself totally such as on the resolutions to fund the government. So Trump has been getting his own way because the only people with real power who could defy him, the leaders of the House of Representatives and the Senate, were until now completely subservient to him, while those who were hostile to him had no power.

But the Democrats winning control of the House of Representatives and Pelosi becoming Speaker has changed all that dramatically. Pelosi seems to have decided to show Trump that as the head of a co-equal branch of government, she does not have to do his bidding and indeed has real power and is willing to use it to defy him. He has not encountered this before and this is why he has been repeatedly caught wrong-footed by her, starting with the White House meeting in December where she goaded him into boasting that he would take responsibility for the shutdown (something that has come back to haunt him bigly) to the State of the Union fiasco where he seemed to think that telling her he was coming to the House to give the speech despite her telling him not to would somehow cow her into agreeing. She of course, called his bluff, and he had to back down.

This is not to say that gender is not playing a role. It is, but in a way that works against Trump. He is used to treating women like dirt. But Pelosi has been used to dealing with powerful men underestimating her and trying to intimidate her all her life and knows how to deal with them, while this is an entirely new experience for him. Amanda Marcotte explores more carefully the role that Trump’s sexism is undoing him in this power struggle.

Pelosi is a compelling foil for Trump in many ways, bringing experience and intelligence to bear in a battle against a man whose overconfidence is only matched by his inexperience and incuriosity. But her gender adds an interesting dimension to the drama, creating a far different dynamic than would spool out if the Democratic leader were, as most members of Congress still are, a man. Many people in politics and media are still not used to female power, and Pelosi’s novel position, while creating some pointless problems for her, also gives her some surprising advantages.

More subtly, however, Pelosi is also using her gender to put Trump — who is visibly unnerved by having any woman around that isn’t clearly there to serve him, sexually or otherwise — on his heels. Trump is already a terrible politician with no discernible deal-making skills, and he’s clearly rattled by Pelosi in the same way that he was rattled by Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential debates. So he’s avoiding direct conflict and hiding in the White House sending out tweets, rather than deal with this woman who unnerves him by merely existing and refusing to be subservient.

Pelosi, however, doesn’t have to let Trump do anything. Faced with this highly unusual situation (for him) of facing a woman who isn’t being paid to cater to his whims, lost his bearings and was forced to back down quickly. He’s spent the hours since then holed in the White House, watching Fox News and tweeting out whatever the network is currently going on about.

The good news is that Pelosi seems to have a knack for using this tendency to underestimate women to her advantage. Certainly that’s true with Trump, who was foolish enough to think sending a petulant letter demanding his State of the Union address would be enough to convince Pelosi to back down. That move ended up making Trump look even more foolish than usual, like a bully who talks big but can’t make good on his threats.

How this ends remains to be seen. But that there’s any hope of a resolution at all is due largely to Pelosi’s ability to see through Trump’s posturing to see the insecure brat that he actually is. Throughout this, she has shown that we need more women in power not just because of fairness, but because they bring different perspectives. Trump likes to play macho games, and it takes a woman to disrupt his boys club strategy.

Pelosi’s latest taunt was to joke that if Trump is so determined to get funding for his wall, she is willing to give him one dollar, and then uses that question to pivot and clearly explain what Trump is trying to do with his diversionary tactics, and that the wall is just one of them.

That joke did not go over well with the Trump team.

I get the feeling that Pelosi is enjoying toying with Trump and he just does not know what to do about it.


  1. says

    This is why Pelosi has always been the correct choice for Speaker of the House, regardless of the complaints from her right and left (though at least the left didn’t make fools of themselves like the attempt from the right to get someone else in the role). She is very smart and she knows how to use the speakership. She has been doing an incredible job so far.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    “Nancy Pelosi, or Nancy, as I call her…”
    says Donald Trump

    WTF was that about? Is Trump trying to imply that he has a close relationship with her? Because he should be calling her “the Speaker of the House” or something similarly formal and respectful. She is a very powerful person.

    Or is he trying to say that he is being nice by not using a derogatory nickname, as he does for so many other people? Pointing out that you are being nice 0.1% of the time only underscores the other 99.9%.

  3. Holms says

    We already knew from his habit of never firing someone to their face, but this also shows that Trump really is a coward. He just can’t face confrontations.

  4. lanir says

    I’m sure there are times Nancy Pelosi does get some enjoyment out of outmaneuvering Donald Trump. But on the other hand, gestures like his letter to her after being disinvited to his state of the union speech seem to show he doesn’t even fully realize when he’s being outmaneuvered. I don’t think she enjoyed her second letter to him on that subject at all. I also suspect that if she hadn’t pointed out how the process really worked he would have continued pushing as though it were a holiday party he could crash because no one would have the chutzpah to throw him out on his arse.

    It is no fun to act clever only to later realize the nuances of what you’ve done were lost on your audience. Like spending hours making a great meal for guests only to have them commend your efforts by comparing it favorably to White Castle or McDonald’s.

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