On the 16th of July, 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed a resolution condemning President Donald Trump’s supposedly racist comments on Twitter the day before. Because of her endorsement and the way she stated it, a floor fight ensued. Later that day, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer ruled her statements “out of order”. He elaborated, explaining, “The words used by the gentlewoman from California contained an accusation of racist behavior on the part of the president” and that “The words should not be used in debate”. However, this move was not a show of Hoyer’s demure sense of civility. Rather, it was a mistaken, though well-intentioned, dismissal of any harsh moral critique of the president.
Nancy Pelosi Breaks Tradition
Nancy Pelosi broke a long-standing precedent baring the character defamation of a president in such an extreme way. Make no mistake that the label of a “racist” is not one to deal out lightly. This is especially true when directed onto figures as supposedly culturally relevant as the president. No matter how tyrannical every president has been and will always be, the majority of people still consider him to be a person worth paying attention to– if not a role model. Thus, the things that President Trump says matters. The factual and moral quality of what Trump says also matters.
The tweets in question refer to the Democratic congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley. Trump says, “These are people who in my opinion hate our country” and “All I’m saying is, if they’re not happy here, they can leave.” Essentially, he tossed out the old chestnut about “if you don’t like it, heave”. It isn’t exactly a new take, but it isn’t racist. However, he continued saying, “…when I hear the way they talk about our country — when I hear the anti-Semitic language they use, when I hear the hatred they have for Israel — and the love they have for enemies like al Qaeda — then you know what? I will tell you that I do not believe this is good for the Democrat Party”. The public can far more easily construe this as racist.
A Sloppy Statement
The real problem with these tweets is not that he was the grandfather telling the teenage socialist at the dinner table to “leave if he hates the country so much”. It was instead how President Trump so flippantly compared these four congresswomen’s critique of Israel to a critique or hatred for the Jewish people in general. That is what we can call irresponsible and defamatory. But neither of those carry the same weight as racist. He did, after all, rather crudely and baselessly insult four women of color. Trump couldn’t have given the Democratic Party any easier of an opportunity to tear down his character, rightfully or not.
The truth is, it doesn’t particularly matter if Trump’s remarks were racist or not. Some people, apparently Nancy Pelosi, can consider the critique and insult of non-white people itself to be a racist action. That is a perfectly necessary thing for her to think and to voice. If people remain unconvinced by her musings, that is no one’s fault but her own. On the other hand, if she convinces people, can we assume that Pelosi is correct?
To be called racist is to have a serious action levied against you. To call someone racist is to hold yourself accountable for proving the accusation necessary and true. The actions of Nancy Pelosi, however disagreeable, broke a dangerous precedent everyone else has set. No one had ever had the gall to call the president a racist. This is to say that no one ever had the gall to cross this metaphorical border from criticizing a president’s action to critiquing his character. Because the truth is, it is not just necessary to criticize the actions of a president. A president is not just his actions; He is his thoughts, his belief, and his image.
A president who is racist, be it publicly or personally, reflects poorly on the nation even when signing egalitarian legislation. A concern with international image is not petty or shallow and instead is the clear-headed acknowledgment that how others perceive us matters tremendously. Nancy Pelosi’s statements calling Trump’s words racist violated House rules and were “out of order”. But, however agreeable or disagreeable, she opened up a vital and previously locked door of criticism. We and the Congressional body may criticize her timing, tone, or accuracy. But the simple ability to question and critique our President’s moral character can never in good faith be infringed.
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