The leading Democrat is a social media star as well as a thorn in Donald Trump’s side, writes Jena McGregor.

US President Donald Trump said more than 5200 words during his State of the Union speech this week.

Nancy Pelosi didn't say one.

But with an arched eyebrow, a cocked head and extended hand clap dripping with shade, the Speaker of the House said more in her wordless response to Trump that has since ricocheted around the internet than any public speech, hallway interview or Sunday talk show appearance might ever reveal. Call it leadership in the age of the GIF.

At a time when officials' every public move is captured on video, passed around in brief viral tweets and texts, often featuring GIFs (files used on the internet for sending images, especially moving images), a quick, visual meme-worthy moment has become one of the most powerful — if risky — ways for leaders to burnish their image and send a message, even if an unintentional one.


"Folks aren't spending more than a couple seconds on any piece of content, so things have to be visual — by definition," said Adam Shapiro, a principal in the digital strategy group at Sard Verbinnen & Co who has worked on political campaigns at several digital agencies. "There are shorter and shorter attention spans. So you have to be visual."

During Wednesday's speech, Pelosi was certainly that. She glared down at papers in front of her on the dais, shuffling them and pursing her lips. She clapped downward toward Trump in a gesture that sent the internet ablaze with comparisons to a disappointed mother reprimanding a wayward child. She appeared to smirk when Trump glanced over his shoulder, a look some considered disrespectful or rude but others cheered as a physical manifestation of the politely cutting Southernism "bless your heart". That split-screen response makes such body language powerful — but risky — for any leader in a meme-hungry social media world.

The internet was quick to react after Pelosi donned a pair of sunglasses after leaving the White House.
The internet was quick to react after Pelosi donned a pair of sunglasses after leaving the White House.

"It's like the Zapruder film [capturing John F. Kennedy's assassination] — everyone's watching it from 20 angles," said Jeff Davenport, an executive speaker, coach and body language expert who works for the presentation firm Duarte. "I've watched [the Pelosi clap video] like 20 times now. It's become like a Rorschach test — people see what they want to read into it."

That can backfire on political leaders. "There's a base, but there's a persuadable middle that you're trying to influence or reach out to when you create a certain imagery," Shapiro said.

And it can set an unsustainable bar: Someday, Pelosi-the-clapbacking-shade-queen could fumble a negotiation or overplay her hand. "It can create blowback if you don't live up to the imagery that you create," he said.

Yet it can also help a narrative stick to a leader's image and make them seem more authentic. Pelosi's State of the Union scene stealer didn't stand on its own.

Nancy Pelosi - Speaker of the House, US Congress. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Nancy Pelosi - Speaker of the House, US Congress. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson draws US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi. Video / Rod Emmerson

It followed a series of moments since the 2018 midterm election won her back the House — she told Trump in front of news cameras "don't characterise the strength that I bring" during a meeting in the Oval Office, set social media memes when she left the White House wearing sunglasses, and scored an unmitigated (if temporary) win when the government shutdown ended without funding for Trump's border wall.

Such episodes have painted her as the Capital's Democratic doyenne who worked the "feisty grandma" image in her favour, going toe-to-toe with Trump's bluster while talking about not engaging in a "tinkle contest with a skunk". For those who wanted to see it that way, Pelosi's gestures on Wednesday were a logical, tailor-made-for-Twitter coda.


"It can be used like theatre — the human faces and gestures," said Gina Barnett, who coaches executives and TED speakers for the stage and has written a book about body language and communication. Barnett notes that in the now famous moment, Pelosi's "face is different from her hands. While her hands are clapping, her facial expression is her signal, which is 'I don't buy your message'." Pelosi made the gesture after Trump said "we must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of co-operation, compromise and the common good".

Meanwhile, body language alone can also be powerful by making the moment seem more credible, experts said.

"Memes, by definition, are people's diverse takes on an image. They allow [the audience] to have some of their own personal input, and that provides authenticity," Shapiro said. Without words, viewers are even more able to read their own interpretation into the moment.

"It makes it even more compatible with your viewpoints."

Pelosi said on Thursday that her now infamous gesture was actually not meant to be sarcastic.

"Look at what I was applauding," she told reporters, referring to Trump's call for bipartisanship. "I wanted him to know that was a very welcome message."

And People reported that Doug Mills, the New York Times photographer who took the shot and was watching the two leaders closely, said he saw it as genuine.

"I saw it as her responding to the call for common ground and saying to him, 'Okay, this is on you. It starts with you. I'm clapping to you. You're saying it, but you're also the one who has to follow through'."

Davenport said the differing interpretations is why it's so critical for leaders and other public figures to be aware of their expressions, body language and actions any time they're in public, and to be careful when trying to generate such moments themselves.

"Everyone is over-analysing everything. They are thin-slicing every moment, and you're either praised or you're a pariah," he said. "What I tell my clients constantly is everything means something when it comes to body language. And what the person doing the body movement intends is a thousand times less important than what the audience perceives. You're being watched at every turn."