In the image, the speaker of the House stands frozen behind President Trump at his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, she a vision in suffragist white, tilted head, pursed lips and outreached arms.
The hands came together in a clap that resonated around the world.
Cross-party applause for the president on such a night is normally a pro forma affair, overlooked in the sea of stirring words penned by a speechwriter and recited from a teleprompter.
But this was no ordinary House speaker, and her wordless gesture almost stole the spotlight on an important night for a president seeking to deliver to millions of viewers his delayed speech — a speech she previously blocked.
This was Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, self-described “mother of five, grandmother of nine,” and the first woman to take up the speaker’s gavel. And she was applauding a political sparring partner whom analysts have concluded she has roundly outfoxed twice before.
In the image, captured by Doug Mills of The New York Times, and in other pool video footage, the internet saw acres of shade dispensed by a skilled politician firmly in control, and social media users turned Ms. Pelosi’s wordless gesture into a viral meme.
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.”
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.”
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 clashed fiercely and publicly since the 17-term representative returned as speaker in January, after the Democrats wrested back the House in bruising midterm elections last year.
Observers accused Mr. Trump of rushing into his speech on Tuesday and not waiting for the speaker to introduce him, out of fear he would not get to talk at all. But Ms. Pelosi later said that she had not felt snubbed, that he did not break protocol and that she had, indeed, introduced him by saying, “Members of Congress, I present you the president of the United States.”
Transcript: Trump’s State of the Union, Annotated
New York Times reporters analyzed the 45th president’s second State of the Union Speech on Tuesday.
During his speech, Mr. Trump did acknowledge the record number of women in Congress, leading female lawmakers to high-five one another and chant, “U.S.A.!” He also said, “Together we can break decades of political stalemate.” But many pundits wondered how long the comity would last.
The rancor this year can be traced to 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 promptly 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 podium until Nancy is good and ready.”
As the shutdown dragged on to become the longest on record at 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 in December, when she, then the likely House speaker, and Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, attended a televised Oval Office meeting with the president that went haywire.
In the verbal barrage and taunts 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. The speaker’s “bless your heart” expression as Mr. Trump looks back at her, as if for approval, is perhaps best appreciated in video footage.
As one Twitter user wrote: “Holy hell that look. When your Mom looks at you like that, don’t walk. Run.”