For the first time in his political career, Donald Trump has met his match: someone who will stand up to him, call out his lies in real time, and hand him the rope to mansplain himself into a hole he can’t dig himself out of.
Yes, it’s Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, who womansplained a thing or two to him at their first meeting since the election.
Until then, like a Little Leaguer softened by too many participation trophies and a staff afraid to bring up bad news, the president had soothed himself into believing he’d won the midterms because the GOP captured a few seats in the “upper” chamber. He ignored his loss of a whopping 40-plus seats in the House, and hasn’t absorbed what it will mean to have Paul Ryan, who leapt like a puppy to do his bidding, back in Janesville rereading Atlas Shrugged. As a final gesture of self-debasement, Ryan shoehorned language into the farm bill that would keep the U.S. on the Saudis’ side in Yemen to support Trump in his insistence that maybe the crown prince murdered Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and maybe he didn’t.
Those days are over. The 2018 midterms were a resounding repudiation of the Trump by energized women, one of whom sat across from him in the Oval Office in the first televised episode of the second season of his presidency. Pelosi has been working toward this moment since she knocked on doors for her father, the Mayor of Baltimore. She not only has an algorithm in her head that tells her which arms she has to twist to pass legislation Trump won’t like; she also has subpoenas in her purse.
As of January, Pelosi will stand between Trump and the few things he wants: to build his wall; to escape Mueller’s noose; and to elude impeachment. Trump may have underestimated Pelosi’s impact on those things from prior encounters when he held all the cards. He tricked her on protecting Dreamers, luring her into thinking he was for it before he was against it. Like many in his adopted party, he brushed her off as a San Francisco Democrat, the worst kind. He thought the talk of “generational change” might remove this pesky woman from his life.
Just the opposite. Trump may have inadvertently helped her bat away the insurrection by rogue newbies. Even those who promised to vote against her for Speaker saw you don’t want to send a rookie to negotiate with a rudderless yet wily president who got so rattled he volunteered to put his name on any government shutdown as if it were one of his buildings.
Pelosi doesn’t rattle, which makes her less interesting to cover but a perfect enemy combatant. The main difference between the two is that Pelosi is a grown-up. Trump is roughly her age but a babe in politics. First elected to Congress in 1986, seven years before women could wear pants on the floor, and 21 before there would be a woman in leadership, Pelosi knew she would have a long, hard slog of it when in one of her first meetings on the Hill on how maternity care should be treated in government insurance she was ignored, despite being the only person in the room who’d used such care as the mother of five.
But she worked like a demon, and slowly, everyone heard and saw her. Unlike Trump, whose career was jump-started with millions of dollars from Daddy, she climbed the greasy pole of leadership slowly, serving on the appropriations and intelligence committees, impressing colleagues with her ability to sit in a room until she could find enough common ground to move a piece of legislation, and knowing the ropes of how a bill becomes a law better than the parliamentarian. In 2001, she was the first woman elected House minority whip, in 2003, the first minority leader, and from 2007 to 2011, the first speaker. She will resume that role when the 116th Congress convenes this January.
Even those who don’t like Pelosi respect her. She’s a masterful legislator whose word is gold, pushing through Obamacare and getting Republican votes to pass cap and trade, a miracle even though it would die in the Senate. She’s as disciplined as Trump is lackadaisical, starting her days with a breakfast at the Four Seasons, followed by back-to-back meetings and an evening of official events.
Trump starts his day tweeting from his bedroom, then indulging in “executive time” watching cable in the residence until about 10 a.m., after which he goes to the office phoning people he saw on cable, to scold or to praise or, in the case of Fox personalities, to hire. Many days, the only event on his official schedule is lunch with one of his cabinet secretaries or vice president.
Because they have almost nothing in common, they’re never going to be one of those odd couples of Washington, like Reagan and Tip. When they go toe to toe, Pelosi is likely to prevail because she’s smarter and works harder. It will be her agenda. Trump doesn’t have much of one. Hers includes a minimum wage increase, restoring Obamacare, protecting Dreamers, passing genuine immigration reform, continuing to block his wall, and appropriating funds for infrastructure, doing it her way not his, which means not for the benefit of financiers.
Life would have changed for Trump with the end of one-party rule. But it’s so much more perilous given that the leader of the opposition is a woman. Trump, for all his bravado, doesn’t know how to deal with half the human race, except for close family. His relationships with wives, current and former, and daughters work, when they do, because they’re proscribed by divorce settlements, pre-nups, trust funds, and employment contracts. With female staff, the few he has he prefers to be servile, like Hope Hicks and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. For how he thinks about most other women, listen to the Access Hollywood tape.
On dealing with a woman with real power, he’s flummoxed. We will know Trump is scared when he defaults to overcoming an adversary with a demeaning nickname. Whether he’s not thought Pelosi a worthy competitor, he hasn’t had the nerve, or he can’t find her soft spot, Pelosi has not been tagged. But that day is surely coming. If he’s ever read a bedtime story to a granddaughter, my bet is it will be Fancy Nancy. He’s a simple man. It rhymes and it reminds his base she’s just a silly woman.
In this reality show, scripted by the constitution, he doesn’t have the power to say, “You’re fired.” A silly name will have to do.