Editor’s Note: At the news of Nancy Pelosi’s retirement from leadership of the House, we pay tribute to her by re-publishing this insightful article by veteran political correspondent Nina Burleigh. It was originally written right after the government shutdown in 2019 that ended up being a showdown between Pelosi and Trump. Pelosi won, which means she managed the most unmanageable politician ever. We will miss you on the national stage, Nancy Pelosi!
When the government shutdown ended in 2019, one thing became clear. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had outmaneuvered Donald Trump, which served as a landmark moment in the status of older women in American life and politics.
Nancy Pelosi, a spry and seriously well-maintained 82, has been around the block a few times. She’s a mother and grandmother, and, professionally, has been working with egomaniacal political men since she was a girl in Baltimore, helping her father, a Baltimore mayor and a Congressman, at campaign events. She even attended JFK’s inauguration.
This is a landmark moment in the status of older women in American life and politics.
The list of nicknames Trump has come up with for women is long, but to take just a few among the politicians: he’s dubbed Hillary “Crooked Hillary” and “nasty woman,” Elizabeth Warren is “Pocahantas,” and there’s “Sneaky Dianne Feinstein” and “Crazy Maxine Waters.”
As a MAGA rally in Nashville in May last year, he called Pelosi “MS-13 Lover Nancy Pelosi,” but he doesn’t seem to have returned to it. It’s a cumbersome epithet, not one that’s easy to feed to the mob for chants.
Most of the time, he just calls her “Nancy.” But more oddly, for him, Trump seems to respect and maybe even like her. And that makes perfect sense when one looks back over the handful of women Trump has trusted in his life.
Pelosi may well remind him of some of them.
Pelosi, though, didn’t gloat over Trump’s cave. On the contrary, she invited Trump back to her domain, the U.S. House of Representatives, and offered him her podium from which to give his State of the Union address next week. That act of forgiveness and forbearance, after withholding it during the 38-day Trump border-wall tantrum, speaks volumes about how this woman played Trump.
The incident also showed that Pelosi had the upper hand with Trump in a way that no woman, at least publicly, ever has. Pelosi played Trump with such finesse for a number of reasons.
First, she possesses specific attributes that affect Trump deep in whatever part of the cortex where he processes women. Pelosi has real power, the kind of power his German immigrant grandmother had over his father and, by extension, over the Trump family when Donald was a rambunctious boy in Queens.
Pelosi had the upper hand with Trump in a way that no woman, at least publicly, ever has
To understand Trump’s relationship to Pelosi, one must first understand Donald’s primary relationships with the first women in his life. The stern German-speaking Elizabeth Christ Trump, who was part of the Trump household until she died when Donald was in his late teens, had true grit. She was widowed while still a young woman with three children under the age of 12 and was the actual founder of the Trump Organization, although the company never touts this fact. When her husband Frederick Trump died of the Spanish flu, he left her a small nest egg in the form of a piece of property in Queens. While her eldest son, Fred, was still under age, she incorporated Elizabeth Trump and Son, got a mortgage, built on the lot, and sold it.
Grandma Trump played a more important role in young Donald’s life than most grandmothers when his mother Mary temporarily vanished from his life at a crucial developmental age.
Trump’s mother, Scottish immigrant Mary Trump née MacLeod, immigrated to the US from an impoverished Outer Hebrides fishing village in her late teens, and her first job in New York was as a maid in the Carnegie Mansion. The experience of living with and watching Louise Carnegie, the closest thing America had to a queen at the time, left her with a lifelong yearning for the habits and trappings of the upper class—a yearning that her thrifty mother in law scorned. When Donald was two, Mary suffered a serious infection after the birth of her last child, Robert Trump. Peritonitis set in, and she nearly died, enduring numerous surgeries and a months-long hospitalization. Stern Grandma Trump stepped in.
Professionally Trump’s inner circle has always included at least one efficient mother figure to tell him what to do.
The loss of his primary caretaker at age two explains much about Trump’s neediness and his relationships to both men and women. He learned even before he could talk that he couldn’t trust women he loved.
He could, however, trust another sort. And as an adult, while he has been a practiced adulterer and philanderer, professionally his inner circle has always included at least one efficient mother figure to tell him what to do.
These women have certain commonalities. They are usually plain,and they don’t sexually threaten him like his supermodel wives and girlfriends. Those who have played significant roles in his life include Barbara Res, a Trump Organization engineer; Louise Sunshine, one of Trump Towers’ first saleswomen; executive assistant Rhona Graff; and before her, longtime gal Friday Norma Infante Foerderer, who maintained order during the chaos of his affair with Marla Maples and subsequent divorce, and who, according to reports, kept him abreast of the doings of his children, whom he rarely saw.
The key to the successful role these women played in his life is that their sexuality was well-concealed.
What Trump Fears About Women
A professional ranker of female hotness for the second half of his pre-presidential career, Trump suffers from a phobia about actual female biology. The plastic-fantastic Vegas showgirl/ Playboy bunny/airbrushed porn star is his ideal female. After his wives had babies, he was out the door, even saying to Liz Smith, “I can’t have sex with a woman who has had children.” The primordial taboo against women’s bodies infected him at a young age: his fastidious German father Fred Trump even forbade the use of the word “pregnant” in the Trump home, according to his daughter.
Trump has conceded his fear of the female. “Women have one of the great acts of all time. The smart ones act very feminine and needy, but inside they are real killers,” Trump wrote after his second divorce in Trump: The Art of the Comeback. “The person who came up with the expression ‘the weaker sex’ was either very naïve or had to be kidding. I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye—or perhaps another body part.”
Trump has conceded his fear of the female.
His wives understand this well. Trump bragged to Howard Stern that Melania never seemed to “doody” or pass gas, and first wife Ivana has written about it explicitly. “I kicked Donald out of the room,” the first Mrs. Trump wrote about giving birth, touching on her husband’s reproductive squeamishness. “Let him witness the birth? Never. My sex life would be finished after that.” Marla Maples somehow coaxed him into the birthing room for Tiffany’s arrival, and that marriage was the shortest of all, lasting less than three years. Notably, Trump commenced his affairs with Playboy bunny Karen MacDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels in Melania’s postpartum year.
Nancy Pelosi has remained youthful, pretty, and vigorous. But her years as a biologically fertile woman are long behind her. There’s no “blood coming out of wherever” as Trump sneered about Megan Kelly, and Pelosi, as attractive as she is, doesn’t radiate the kind of sexiness that Donald is both threatened by and attracted to mostly, my research indicated, as a way to impress other men.
That Trump seems to like and respect Pelosi makes perfect sense based on the handful of women he has trusted.
Nancy Pelosi hasn’t attracted the kind of contempt and scorn for older women that he spewed on Hillary and, to some extent, Elizabeth Warren. That’s because Pelosi possesses an unusual element—in Trump’s experience: Real worldly power. And she knows how to wield it.
Trump’s only experience of such a woman is stored way back in the dim recesses of his 1940’s toddlerhood, when hyper-efficient and no-nonsense Grandma Trump was a stand-in for his absent mother. Grandma Trump knew how to make things right. She knew how to make him clean up his act. And she was not a hugger.
The Shutdown Showdown
The video of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in their first televised wall/shutdown negotiation in the Oval Office on December 11, 2019 is, in one sense, with the sound down, a spectacle of man spreading—the male ape competing in all his chest-thumping and threat—while Pelosi observes like Jane Goodall.
Trump, Schumer, and Pence are posed in various degrees of space-hogging, while Pelosi sits perched and still, hands clasped, legs together, at attention. Throughout the 16-minute taped interaction, even as it gets heated, she maintains a non-threatening, attentive pose—the pose that every woman will recognize as natural to take in a roomful of men.
The clash between patriarchy and democracy: You could teach that from that 10-minute video.
As Trump blusters and threatens and Schumer smirks, jokes, and goads the president into agreeing that he would be proud to call it a “Trump shutdown,” Pence sits immobilized like a wax figure, mirroring the president’s physical posture in a tableaux of total subservience to the alpha male.
Pelosi, being talked over and interrupted, holds her ground and repeatedly steers the conversation back to the actual issues—the cost of the wall, logistics, and the political calculus.
After that incident, I enlisted feminist author and communications theorist Carol Gilligan to watch the video and conduct a play by play, for Newsweek. “She keeps insisting we have come to have a negotiation. And he says, ‘My way or the highway.’ And she supports the idea that we solve human conflicts by talking and listening. This is the key thing. She listens. He doesn’t. She says it even by her presence. Then he really rides over her. He talks over her.”
Gilligan concluded, “The clash between patriarchy and democracy: You could teach that from that 10-minute video.”
In the end, Pelosi’s real power—six decades of political experience and a battle-tested speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives—spoke louder than her quiet, polite voice. The combination and its effect on the most bullying American president in modern history was and is historic.
Nina Burleigh is the author of Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women. She is an award-winning journalist and the author of six books. Her book, The Fatal Gift of Beauty, was a widely praised New York Times bestseller. Find her at ninaburleigh.com.