The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, stands behind President Trump at his State of the Union handle on Tuesday evening, she a imaginative and prescient in suffragist white, head tilted simply so, lips pursed in a smirk and arms outreached.
Her arms come collectively in what one Twitter person referred to as a “walrus clap,” nevertheless it resonated round the world.
In the picture, captured by Doug Mills of The New York Times, and in different pool video footage, the web noticed acres of shade allotted by a expert politician firmly in management, and social media customers instantly turned Ms. Pelosi’s wordless gesture into a viral meme.
Cross-party applause for the president on such a evening is often a professional forma affair, neglected in the sea of stirring phrases penned by a speechwriter and recited from a teleprompter.
This time, the House speaker’s clapping nearly stole the highlight on an essential evening for a president searching for to ship to tens of millions of viewers his delayed speech — a speech she beforehand blocked.
Ms. Pelosi — Democrat of California, self-described “mother of five, grandmother of nine” and the first woman to take up the speaker’s gavel — was applauding a political sparring partner whom analysts have concluded she had roundly outfoxed twice before.
Many called her gesture a “clap jeer.” Some called it a literal clap back. One Twitter user said it was the “read your tweets” clap, in reference to Mr. Trump’s penchant for weaponizing his Twitter feed. The comedian Patton Oswalt congratulated Ms. Pelosi for “inventing” an obscenity without using a certain finger.
Another went so far as to call it “the photo of the century.”
To find a similarly fraught gender-tinged meme in Washington, one may have to go back to 2017, when “nevertheless, she persisted” became a rallying cry after the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, tried to muzzle Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Some took offense at the clap, with one person tweeting: “Nancy Pelosi’s sarcastic clap is a consummate example of the biggest breakdown in American society: lack of respect. We don’t have to agree, but we should #respect each other.” And another noted that if her gesture is now the official political clapback, “We Republicans can use it too.”
Observers accused Mr. Trump of rushing into his speech on Tuesday and not waiting for the speaker to introduce him, as if out of fear he would not get to talk at all. But Ms. Pelosi later said that he did not break protocol.
During his speech, Mr. Trump said, “Together we can break decades of political stalemate.” But many pundits wondered how long the comity would last.
To understand the rapturous response by the liberal wing of the Twittersphere, it may help to recap how we got here.
Mr. Trump, 72, and Ms. Pelosi, 78, had fierce, public clashes since the 17-term representative returned as speaker in January, after the Democrats wrested back the House in bruising midterm elections last year.
The brewing rancor kicked off again on Jan. 23, when in the middle of the partial government shutdown, Ms. Pelosi sent a letter to the president suggesting that he delay his State of the Union address, set for Jan. 29, until after the government reopened.
The extraordinary request escalated the partisan battle over Mr. Trump’s demand for more than $5 billion to build a wall at the border with Mexico.
He retaliated by grounding a military plane that had been scheduled to take Ms. Pelosi and other lawmakers on a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan. When Mr. Trump pressed ahead, insisting he wanted to give the speech, Ms. Pelosi promptly disinvited him. That sent late-night comedians into a tizzy.
The talk show host Samantha Bee crowed: “Dude, I know it’s driving you crazy that a woman turned you down, but this is the point in your life where you’re actually going to have to learn that no means no. There will be no grabbing this podium until Nancy is good and ready.”
As the shutdown dragged on to become the longest on record, 35 days, the consensus was that Mr. Trump had met his match in Ms. Pelosi, so much so that a man known for giving foes insulting nicknames like “Cryin’ Chuck” and for labeling women “horseface,” “ugly” and “dog” could come up with only one term to refer to Ms. Pelosi: Nancy.
But Ms. Pelosi’s playbook for handling the president was evident back in December, when she and Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, attended a televised Oval Office meeting with the president that went haywire.
In the verbal barrage that followed, the Democrats got Mr. Trump to take ownership of any shutdown that would follow, and Ms. Pelosi snapped: “Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats.”
That round, too, went to Ms. Pelosi, according to political analysts.
Soon afterward, word leaked that in a closed-door meeting with her Democratic colleagues, she had called the wall debate “a manhood thing” for Mr. Trump, likening the meeting to “a tinkle contest with a skunk” and adding, “I was trying to be the mom.”
On Tuesday night, some Twitter users saw echoes of a stern matriarch in Ms. Pelosi’s countenance. She stared at notes in front of her and appeared to roll her eyes and shake her head at some points.
But it was the speaker’s fleeting “bless your heart” expression as Mr. Trump looks back at her — as if for approval — with the clap that had the internet buzzing.
Christine Pelosi, a political strategist and a daughter of the speaker, weighed in on the chatter in a post on Twitter: “Oh yes that clap took me back to the teen years. She knows. And she knows that you know. And frankly she’s disappointed that you thought this would work.”