It’s unclear why Trump called the press in to witness him get into an awkward fight with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer (Mike Pence was also there, but he might as well not have been). Perhaps he did it to traumatize those of us who grew up sitting through atrocious family dinners, staring at our plates and occasionally side-eyeing our siblings and cousins in teeth-grinding horror.
The scene appeared to be a meeting about whether Trump will get his wall, and his threat to shut down the government if he does not. As the legislative leaders heading up the opposition party, Pelosi and Schumer are tasked with negotiating with Trump to figure out how he can get enough of what his people want and they can get enough of what their people want that everyone can keep puttering along and government workers can continue to show up to work and get paid. If all goes well, the national zoo will be open during the holidays for people who want to spend Christmas with a wallaby.
But watching their exchange before the cameras Tuesday felt like sitting through the worst family dinner anyone has ever had in 16 excruciating, almost endless minutes. Trump was the drunk uncle who remembers one thing he heard on TV and won’t stop repeating it (“Wall! Ten Democrats! Wall!”); Schumer was the surly brother back from his first couple months of college with too much self-righteous knowledge to keep his damn mouth shut so we can get through this stupid dinner and all go to our respective rooms; Pelosi was—as women far too often are in the workplace—the mom trying to keep the peace through gritted teeth.
"I don’t think we should have a debate in front of the press,” Pelosi ventured. She tried to cajole Trump to cut short the strange exhibition so she and Schumer wouldn’t “have to contradict in public the statistics that you put forth.”
Not in front of the kids, Bob.
“We’re doing this in a very friendly manner!” Trump declared. “See, we get along!”
We’re not fighting, Karen, we’re just having a conversation.
Trump’s truly painful insecurity was on full display whenever he would cast about for someone to share an “Am I right?” moment with him—Schumer wasn’t in the mood and Pence appeared to be having a well-timed out-of-body experience. Pelosi, of course, is not there to share “Am I right?” moments because she’s a woman.
Misogynists often condemn women in the workplace: too emotional. But here we had two of the country’s most powerful men bickering on national television, while the only woman in the room remained calm, gingerly walking the fine line between affirming a man’s utterly incorrect statements and having an embarrassing spat in front of the entire nation.
After the Oval Office meeting, Pelosi reportedly told House Democrats, “I was trying to be the mom.”
This worked in her favor, to a degree, in a way it rarely does for women who step or are pushed into this role in the workplace. She came off as that ever-lauded “grown-up in the room.” But it’s only because of the bizarrely childish behavior of the men there with her that she had to “be the mom.” (Schumer is 68 years old and Trump is 72. Pelosi is 78.)
It’s unusual for Schumer to behave so petulantly. He slouched on a couch in the Oval Office, fidgeting and occasionally tossing out barbs at the president, often ramping him back up into a tizzy right after Pelosi managed to get him to calm down and behave like something resembling an adult human. “Elections have consequences, Mr. President,” Schumer jabbed. “When the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in trouble,” Schumer said, leaning toward the press, attempting his own “Am I right?” moment but only confirming middle America’s worst suspicions about New York Democrats.
It’s unclear why he slipped into this behavior. Perhaps it was an ill-timed loss of self-control. Perhaps, after catching heat from his constituents for not being a forceful enough combatant against the president, he was performing a little bit, trying to give the people what he thinks they want. Perhaps he feared the backlash if he were seen sitting quietly while Trump raged incoherently about his wall.
That is itself a problem, and one that seems to be a direct result of the Twitter Presidency. Electeds are not only eager to tweet statements, but they’re rewarded for it, with retweets and likes and emoji-laden praise. What gets lost in all of the noise they’re making, however, is the actual legislating and governing.
Party leaders were never really meant to be charismatic. They were meant to hustle, to deal-make, to cajole and negotiate and ultimately get shit done. It is, in some ways, very much a stereotypical “mom” role, in that regard. Nancy Pelosi isn’t well-liked, even among many of the Democrats she leads. But she is hard-working and effective at what she aims to do.
Perhaps Chuck and Nancy’s good mom and cranky dad routine was strategic. After all, Pelosi reportedly told her House Democrats that the meeting was successful: “The fact is we did get him to say—to fully own that the shutdown was his. That was an accomplishment,” she reportedly said.
But the indisputable and obvious fact is that Pelosi did indeed play mommy to these two large adult men, and their deeply embarrassing display likely would have been a lot worse if she hadn’t. And while it’s commendable to see her subvert gendered stereotypes by being the cool head in a room of bickering men who can’t control their emotions, it’s frustrating that she was forced to play into a different gendered stereotype to try to keep those emotionally out-of-control men on track to do the important work they are tasked with.
Office Mommy is not a role anyone should have to take on. Office Mommy cleans up other people’s messes, takes on responsibilities beyond her own and has to spend time covering for or soothing the bruises on outsized egos. She is a scold and she does everything and she is compensated for none of it. With a slate of new young women joining the legislature, I hope that she becomes a thing of the past. But that can only happen if their male colleagues quit acting like poorly behaved children melting down at the end of a long day at Chuck E. Cheese.