Republican response to Biden State of the Union speech speeds decline of civility in politics

The response from many Republican lawmakers to President Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday marked a new low for civility in politics in the United States.

Marjorie Taylor Greene
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yells while President Biden delivers the State of the Union address. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

The response from many Republican lawmakers to President Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday marked a new low for civility in politics in the United States.

Interrupted multiple times by jeering, boos and accusations of lying by GOP members, Biden gamely endured the taunts, at times seeming to revel in the prospect of egging on his political opponents, calling them out over threats to refuse to raise the debt ceiling and other contentious issues.

That led to an outburst by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who called the president “a liar.”

Moments later, when Biden was discussing overdose deaths caused by fentanyl, another Republican House member shouted, “It’s your fault!”

State of the Union addresses, which are mandated by the Constitution, have, for most of the nation's history, been rather staid affairs. The president reports on the progress being made, outlines policy priorities for the year ahead, while the members of the opposing party or parties choose either to applaud unenthusiastically or sit on their hands in protest. Debate over the substance of the speeches had, until recently, been reserved for after they were finished.

Even then, the official rebuttal given by the opposing party only made news headlines when the person who delivered it needed a sip of water to get through it. On Tuesday, by contrast, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former Trump White House press secretary, came out with guns blazing.

“He’s the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is,” Sanders said. “In the radical left’s America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire.”

In his own rebuttal, former President Donald Trump was equally subtle. “Joe Biden’s weaponized Justice Department, and I’m a victim of it, is persecuting his political opponents. His administration is waging war on free speech,” Trump said. “They’re trying to indoctrinate and mutilate our children. He’s leading us to the brink of World War III.”

But tonight’s State of the Union and the response to it, while perhaps more coarse and unsparing than those in the past, is simply another step in the decline of civility. Here’s a look back at the recent developments that got us here.

Rep. Joe Wilson yells 'You lie!' at President Barack Obama

Rep. Joe Wilson
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who yelled out "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's speech on health care in September 2009, calls out to a colleague before Obama's arrival to deliver his State of the Union address Jan. 27, 2010. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

During a joint address to Congress on Sept. 9, 2009, then-President Barack Obama laid out the details of his signature health care reform bill to Congress and the nation. Republicans in the chamber who voted against its passage stewed as they listened.

But it was Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who was unable to control himself. “You lie!” Wilson shouted, interrupting Obama, and drawing a chorus of boos from Democrats and Republicans alike for the breach in decorum.

At the urging of leadership, Wilson later contacted the Obama White House, telling them his statements were inappropriate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rips up Trump's speech

Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., tears up her copy of President Donald Trump's State of the Union address after he delivered it to a joint session of Congress, Feb. 4, 2020. (Alex Brandon/AP)

At the end of President Donald Trump's final State of the Union address on Feb. 4, 2020, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi angrily tore her copy of the speech into shreds.

The address was given the day before the Senate acquitted Trump in his first impeachment trial on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress stemming from his request that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky launch an investigation into Hunter Biden ahead of the presidential campaign.

Like virtually all of his speeches, Trump's State of the Union address was highly combative and riddled with what outlets like the New York Times deemed to be falsehoods and exaggerated claims.

“It was a manifesto of mistruths,” Pelosi later told reporters regarding the speech.

Reps. Greene and Boebert heckle Biden's first State of the Union address

Lauren Boebert, left, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene with Rep. Byron Donalds
Rep. Lauren Boebert and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene with Rep. Byron Donalds during Biden's first State of the Union address, March 1, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via Reuters)

In a preview of Tuesday's State of the Union response, Reps. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Greene repeatedly heckled Biden during his first speech to a joint session of Congress in 2022. The two congresswomen, who have since experienced a falling out thanks to different views on who should be named House speaker, attempted to whip up a chant of "Build the wall!" during Biden's address.

At the time many Republicans criticized the two lawmakers.

“It’s something that I think that there’s a place,” Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., told reporters. “That’s not the place to do that.”