Concluding the opening night of a Democratic Convention that until a few minutes earlier had felt overly platitudinous, centrist and bloodless, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that was the opposite—impassioned, uplifting and, at the same time, full of truths about America that this country rarely likes to acknowledge about itself. One of the most astounding moments in a speech filled with them came when the former first lady revisited a line that has been endlessly quoted since she uttered it 2016.
But this time around, the ex-FLOTUS—in tacit recognition of the toll that four years of Donald Trump’s bottom-feeding, “no low is too low” style of leadership has taken on the nation—necessarily amended her words to line up with the darkness of our times. It’s worth quoting her at length here: “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,” Obama stated. “But let’s be clear: going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty…. 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.”
The moment was part of why Obama—and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who also gave a strong rebuke to this administration—stood out so boldly from the pack that preceded them on Night One. She did not mince words, and instead spoke honestly about the cruelty of this president and his abettors with a full-throatedness we haven’t seen from her in the past. This was Michelle going after Trump, and to a certain degree, the voters that would prop up this president, in a way that was both eloquent and frank, relatable and empathic—all while showing how the current president lacks all of those traits.
In fact, a whole section of the speech was essentially a damning laundry list of the ways in which Trump’s endless narcissism and incompetence have damaged the country. She noted the 150,000 dead and the economic devastation that have resulted from “a virus that this president downplayed for too long.” She called out how Trump has tarnished America’s image abroad, destroying “alliances championed by presidents like Reagan and Eisenhower.” And she went hard at Trump for the most overt characteristic of this presidency, its unchecked, vicious racism.
“As George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and a never-ending list of innocent people of color continue to be murdered,” Obama said, “stating the simple fact that a Black life matters is still met with derision from the nation’s highest office.”
“This was the speech that so many folks who fall right into the pit of the enthusiasm gap needed to hear. I know because I’m one of those people. ”
Here again, Obama called back to her “we go high” rhetoric from four years ago, using it as a lead-in to one of her most devastating slams.
“Going high means unlocking the shackles of lies and mistrust with the only thing that can truly set us free: the cold hard truth,” Obama stated. “So let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can. Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he 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 was the speech that so many folks who fall right into the pit of the enthusiasm gap—folks who are planning to vote for Biden only because voting for Trump would be crazy; folks who saw tonight’s DNC speaker lineup as the RNC lite; folks who believe the Democrats are phoning in it and ignoring the progressives in their party despite how that turned out last time; folks that know that all those protests in recent months weren’t so we could go back to a “normal” that was so fucked up it got us here—needed to hear. I know because I’m one of those people.
It was Obama acknowledging that a lot of us feel like Biden is a lot more than just “not perfect,” and appealing to us to let the horrors of another Trump term motivate us. In some ways, was it a lesser-of-two-evils speech? Sure. But it was effective in reasserting what’s on the line with four more years of Trump. Voting for Biden might be the bare minimum, but it’s the bare minimum we have to focus on for now.
(And to make clear that she understood how Trump voters would use her words to brand her with the same “reverse racist” nonsense they’ve thrown at her regardless of what she said, she noted that her “message won’t be heard by some people. We live in a nation that is deeply divided, and I am a Black woman speaking at the Democratic Convention.” I felt that truth.)
“If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can, and they will if we don’t make a change in this election,” Obama said. “If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”
Tomorrow, Trump and his garbage supporters will spend the day tweeting racist jabs at Michelle Obama—same shit, different day—but tonight belonged to her. And with such a pitch perfect takedown of this president, it’ll be awful hard for Melania to try stealing this speech.