Comment: Culture warriors in white turn speech into spectacle

Marjorie Taylor Greene and Sarah Sanders managed to sling mud without sullying their outfits.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., had a very busy Tuesday night as President Biden was delivering his State of the Union address to Congress.

She called him a “liar” from her seat in the chamber, opening her mouth wide with a full display of her pearly whites to bellow an insult at the commander in chief, one that was articulated with enough precision that it was picked up by the microphones for the television audience to hear. She was a sideshow in the chamber. She wasn’t alone in interrupting the president with high-school-cafeteria-style brutishness, but she seemed to have dressed and prepped for the attack. She relished the one-way verbal brawl and bragged about it later.

Greene spit out other angry little pellets of belligerence during Biden’s speech: “China is spying on us!” She yelled: “Secure the border!” As cameras caught her outbursts, her expression was not one of fear or exasperation or even righteous indignation. She looked delighted by her own audacity; she looked pleased that she had made heads and cameras swivel in her direction.

Greene was a spectacle in her white coat with its giant white fur collar. She wore it over a sleeveless white knit dress with a slit at one leg and a pair of dark pumps with sensible heels. Her congressional pendant served as her main accessory. Greene heckled the president from her seat, but she also stood up to attack him with gusto. She cupped her hands around her mouth to create a makeshift bullhorn. She raised her right hand to give him a dramatic thumbs-down. She jabbed her finger in the air. She took on the demeanor of a hooligan in a chamber where violent insurrectionists remain a vivid memory; insurrectionists she has defended and an incursion she has played down. The institution’s decorum has been surrendered. To what? The incivility of social media, the country’s love for partisan trolling, existential road rage. To whom? The gentlelady in white.

That coat. It was not the first time she’s worn it. But it stood out in the neighborhood in which she sat, surrounded by men in dark suits and women in the occasional bursts of red and yellow. Its enormous fur collar framed her face like some kind of modern-day ruff and gave her presence heightened significance. She now sits on committees; she’s cozy with the new House speaker. She dressed up for her reinvention.

Greene kept the coat on for the speech. It was chilly in the room, and she was not the only person who didn’t shed their outerwear. But Greene, who regularly goes sleeveless on the floor even when the room is cooled to suit jacket weather, had a look to keep intact. The coat matched the dress. She was swatting at style.

The ensemble also echoed the choices made by the Democratic women who wore white to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2020. They chose that color to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave white women the right to vote. They wore white to express solidarity, and to signal their outrage with the impeached Trump. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was wearing white when she extended her hand to Trump, and he did not shake it. She wore white when she ripped up his speech. She also wore white for his address in 2019 when she applauded him the way an exhausted parent might satisfy an endlessly needy child.

And so, there was Greene aglow in white and thumbing her nose at Biden, sticking it to the Democrats. Later, she put her own assessment of the union on Twitter. In the video, she’s still wearing the coat. She addresses the president as “Joe,” and says that she frankly couldn’t really understand what he was saying during his speech because he was “yelling” and “mumbling,” but the thing she definitely didn’t hear him do was apologize for the “Chinese spy balloon.” And then she reaches just out of frame to grab hold of a white, helium-filled balloon on a string. It was an evening-long set piece of grievances and grudges.

The official Republican response to Biden’s address was delivered by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She bragged about being 40 and the youngest sitting governor in the country. She worries that “our children are taught to hate each other.” She frets that the “dividing line isn’t between right or left. It’s between normal or crazy.” She was wearing a winter white dress, and she was talking like the nation’s Nurse Ratched, someone trying to snap people out of what she has diagnosed as a woke delirium.

At the end of the day, these two culture warriors in white had aimed rocks at progress and change; they poked at the president. They derided those deemed unlike them as not “normal” and as sinful. On Capitol Hill, Greene flung her pebbles and stones unconcerned with any blowback. In Little Rock, Sanders kicked up dust without regard. And when they were done, despite all the mud they had thrown, not a speck of dirt sullied the white.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.

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