Michael Avenatti
Credit: Luke Harold/Flickr

A factual statement doesn’t become any less factual just because the person who states it happens to be a somewhat controversial figure. To wit:

Michael Avenatti, fresh off his declaration that he may run for president in 2020, used his first big speech as a prospective candidate to call on the Democratic Party to reject Michelle Obama’s oft-quoted advice about President Trump and his allies: “When they go low, we go high.”

Mr. Avenatti, the hard-charging lawyer who represents the pornographic film star Stephanie Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, did not once mention the former first lady in his keynote speech Friday night at the Democratic Wing Ding, a party fund-raiser in northern Iowa. But there was no mistaking his meaning.

“We must be a party that fights fire with fire,” Mr. Avenatti said to cheers from the audience, his voice rising. “When they go low, I say hit back harder.”

He received a thunderous ovation at the end of his speech, notably louder than the applause for the night’s other speakers, including Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio as well as Representative John Delaney of Maryland, who is running for president.

At times, his language verged on apocalyptic. The Democratic Party, he said, is “fighting for no less than the survival of our republic,” and doing so against “a man that wants to turn back the hands of time, to send us back to the Dark Ages.”

In such a fight, he continued, “we must honestly ask ourselves whether those that we fight for can afford our gentleness.”

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Why should any of these remarks be considered eyebrow-raising? Like another man who pursued the Democratic nomination, Avenatti is expressing some inconvenient truths.

Is it not accurate to observe that over the course of the past 30 years or so, generally speaking, Democrats have played by the rules of the Marquess of Queensberry, while Republicans have played by the rules of the Marquis de Sade? Is it not accurate to observe that the Democratic Party has, frankly, not been ruthless enough in its efforts to keep power out of the hands of Republicans?

Avenatti is right that Michelle Obama’s “when-they-go-low-we-go-high” argument is politically naive–just as politically naive as some of the rhetoric her husband expressed in his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. The likelihood of Avenatti becoming the 2020 Democratic nominee is about the same as my likelihood of getting married to Jennifer Lawrence, but his rhetoric in the Iowa speech was undeniably powerful. It’s not off-base to note that Avenatti’s argument about the need to forcefully and not timidly battle the forces of right-wing radicalism echoes Frederick Douglass’s famous words:

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

When your child is beaten up by a bully, you don’t tell your child, “When they go low, we go high.” You tell your child to fight back against the bully until the bully is low on the ground. That’s the core of Avenatti’s message: Resistance requires ruthlessness. His words may strike some as harsh and indelicate–but can anyone honestly say his words are false?

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D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.