Michelle Obama rocked the DNC this week with powerful, plain-spoken, post-partisan logic.
On night one of the convention she said Trump, “is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.” This is not a politicized position—you don’t have to be a Democrat to accept this notion. Some people still love Trump as a person, which is bizarre, but if they’re at all honest, and they think about why they’re wearing a mask everywhere and why they made a lot less money this year and why someone in their life got really sick or died, it’s not because of Trump’s politics, it’s because he has just not been up to the job. She’s not saying that he’s racist and she’s looking beyond politics, it’s not about conservatism or the GOP, it’s about his mental fitness. He is “in over his head.” (Which fits because we all feel like we’re drowning.) He’s clearly not up for the Presidency. As Obama said, “being president doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are,” and the last few years have revealed Trump to be what we thought—a mental gnat, a self-centered person, a non-reader, a racist, a man who has so little empathy or dignity that he seems to lack a soul. Last week Trump’s brother died and in his statement about him Trump repeatedly noted that Fred was “not jealous” of Donald. Even at his brother’s end he cannot stop thinking of himself. This is why he has been unable to think of us during his Presidency, why he was asleep at the wheel as COVID emerged, why we are now dealing with a massive medical and economic emergency. Because Trump is “in over his head.” Obama was not trolling Trump with that line, even though she tagged it with the phrase he infamously used to dismiss all the Covid deaths on Axios: “It is what it is.” She was telling the unvarnished truth. She was just keeping it real.
That is what Michelle Obama has done throughout her life on the political stage. She has kept it real. In a world of politicians giving highfalutin speeches, she has reached for direct, simple language and easy to grasp but necessary truths. She has often spoken to us through the prism of the lessons she teaches her children and it’s like we were either her fellow parent or her children. She has been a mom who was urging us to be our best selves for the good of our children. I mean, at this DNC she gave us a speech rooted in empathy. At a moment of national division and rancor and protest, when videos of hate and Karening are ubiquitous, she said, “Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division, and a total and utter lack of empathy. Empathy: that's something I've been thinking a lot about lately. The ability to walk in someone else's shoes; the recognition that someone else's experience has value, too. Most of us practice this without a second thought. If we see someone suffering or struggling, we don't stand in judgment. We reach out because, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." It is not a hard concept to grasp. It's what we teach our children.”
She speaks to us about what she teaches her children and in that way reminds us to be our best selves because they need us to guide them through example. And there lies the root of why Obama has been such a powerful communicator—she comes to us not as a politician or as a lawyer but as the ultimate mother reminding us of the humanity that great mothers teach. She talks to us the way she talks to her children—with love and respect and a desire to teach us about the things that make us great human beings. This week it was empathy. In the past, at the 2016 DNC, it was dignity in the face of the ugliest impulses of the human spirit. She said that what she teaches her daughters that, “when someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don't stoop to their level. Our motto is, when they go low, we go high.” That’s dignity in action. She said even if it’s raining evil, you can still rise above all of that. And in sharing the message that she gave her daughters she was reminding us to be our best selves, and saying that we must be our best selves because of our children. Right after “when they go low, we go high,” that inspiring, unforgettable message that has guided so many of us through these difficult last few years, she said, “With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us. We as parents are the most important role-model.” We can’t get so caught up with fighting the other side that we become like them because then what will happen to our children?
And this “when they go low, we go high” message is not some pollyanna plea to respectability politics. It’s King-esque. It’s Gandhiesque. It’s a call to be our best selves no matter what the other side is doing because that, in and of itself, is a profound victory. Obama returned to that theme at this year’s DNC, updating it because she knows the last four years have been rough and a very hard time to urge us to be our best selves. But that’s still her message. She said, “Over the past four years, a lot of people have asked me, "When others are going so low, does going high still really work?" My answer: going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that's drowning out everything else. We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight.” It’s not enough to have a great message, we must be great messengers as well. We must be great examples for our children. She continued, acknowledging what “going high” really signifies. “Going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we've got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences. And going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold hard truth.”
That’s when she laid the wood to Trump, dismissing him as not up to the job, which is obviously true. He hasn’t built a wall, hasn’t made great deals, hasn’t boosted the economy, and hasn’t protected us from Covid. It would be easy to be angry with Trump for having done such a bad job, for being unserious and uncommitted to doing the most important job in the world well, but no. Obama dissed him and dismissed him while maintaining her own dignity. She went high while pointing out that he stays low. “He’s in over his head… It is what it is.” It’s not a fiery denunciation. It’s not playing the dozens. It’s just keeping it real. The way great moms do. Michelle Obama is the mom America needs, one who instructs us about our soul, one who urges us to be best person we can be, one who tells it like it is.
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