Isn’t it delicious that after trafficking in racism, promoting sexism and using a lie about US President Barack Obama’s birthplace as a pivot into political relevance, Donald Trump could receive his final death blow from a black woman: the president’s wife?
And isn’t it interesting that after so many years of keeping a studied distance from the ugliness of the political arena, the first lady is throwing herself with such passion into this grotesque campaign?
That says everything about the singular threat that Trump poses, and she’s emerging as the fiercest counter to it: Michelle Obama, octopus slayer. She’s effective because she has never gone looking for a fight — we know that about her. She acts when she has something to defend, and as she made clear in a stirring, searing speech late last week, that’s more than her husband’s legacy, which a Trump victory would decimate. It’s her dignity as a woman. It’s the dignity of all women.
I don’t mean to overstate her impact: Trump was going down before she joined the chorus of condemnation. But her eloquence is sealing the deal. First at the Democratic convention in late July and then in New Hampshire last Thursday, she embodied the nation’s conscience and staked her claim as the most earnest guardian of our most important values.
Hillary Clinton can’t play that part. She has made too many messy compromises and revealed too much rococo calculation. Those hacked John Podesta emails suggest that she doesn’t blink until a sprawling committee of Clinton whisperers has hashed out the wisdom of it.
Barack Obama can’t play that part, not at this exact moment, in his precise mood. On the stump in Ohio last week, he essentially asked voters not just to reject Trump but to punish the GOP, and his obvious, warranted glee over the party’s travails had a score-settling, told-you-so quality to it.
He excoriated Republicans for the “swamp of crazy that has been fed over and over and over and over again.” He told them that Trump is the nominee you get when your agenda is “based on lies, based on hoaxes.” He wasn’t merely safeguarding America’s future. He was revelling in his revenge.
Michelle Obama probably also wants revenge for the worst of what her husband (and she) went through, but you don’t hear that in her words.
That’s largely because she has the luxury of not being a politician. She isn’t and won’t be running for anything. She hasn’t been forced to weigh in on a bevy of issues, potentially alienating voters who disagree, or to exhaust her ammunition on a range of fronts. You want high approval ratings? Exit elected office, or never enter it in the first place.
But in addition to that, she has honed a talent — rare in Washington — for rising above pettiness, and she and her speechwriters have aced a nuanced, soulful alternative to common reproach and garden-variety rancour. I think of the gorgeous passage in her convention speech about moving to Washington and watching her daughters wake up every morning in a White House built by black slaves. That observation admonished America for its sins but also brimmed with appreciation, complimenting and congratulating the country on its progress. It got at something that politics and politicians seldom do: the complicated, inarguable truth.
Her speech last week was just as exceptional, because it was less a summons to the barricades than a cry from the heart, and she’d planned to make remarks along these lines even before she heard the recording of Trump’s 2005 conversation with Billy Bush.
Then that recording came out, intensifying her determination. “It hurts,” she said, referring to the sort of entitlement that Trump expresses, the kind of language that he uses and his obvious belief that women exist chiefly for his pleasure, which takes precedence over their autonomy. “It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body.”
She added that women often “pretend like this doesn’t really bother us, maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak.”
“Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable,” she theorised, but she let her own vulnerability show, in a voice that trembled. It was her bridge to every American she had any hope of reaching.
There has been incessant chatter during this election cycle about authenticity. There has been as much misunderstanding, especially among Trump’s boosters, about what it really means.
Insults aren’t badges of authenticity. They’re evidence of rudeness and frequently cruel. Profanity doesn’t render you authentic. It just proves that you’re a child.
You know what struck me as authentic? The way that the first lady and George W. Bush leaned into each other and held hands at a funeral for police officers in Dallas back in July. Or the way that they embraced last month in Washington at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
To look at those images is to understand Michelle Obama’s power. She isn’t tailoring her behaviour to talking points. She isn’t filtering her emotions through any partisan agenda. She has arguably become the 2016 race’s moral authority, which is why Clinton, in the most recent debate, repeated her widely quoted assertion that “when they go low, we go high.” That’s hardly accurate about everyone in the Democratic Party, the Clinton campaign or the Obama administration, but it’s a fair enough description of how the first lady comports herself.
What a contrast to other political surrogates. What an antidote to all the crazy spinning. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, is playing some parlour game to see how far she can travel from reality, how creatively she can gin up distractions and how subtle an expression — by turns bemused and beatific — she can wear. My favourite Conway-ism was that certain members of Congress shouldn’t upbraid Trump because they are guilty themselves of forcing French kisses on unwilling women. Translation: Let he who is without tongue cast the first stone.
Can you believe that she once marketed herself as a strategist who could help Republicans collapse the gender gap? Trump trails Clinton by 15 points among women, according to an analysis of October polls that Nate Silver did last week. At this point in 2012, Mitt Romney trailed Obama by 8. “It seems fair to say that, if Trump loses the election, it will be because women voted against him,” Silver wrote.
How perfect. Misogyny will play midwife to history. After being treated by Trump as if they’re disposable, women will dispose of him — at the urging of the first lady, in the service of the first female president. They will let him know that no matter how much money he has or how big a star he is, there are places where his tentacles can’t travel.
Not all the Tic Tacs in the world could sweeten that fate.
— New York Times News Service
Frank Bruni is a writer and author of Born Round and Ambling into History.