What Everyone Should Learn from Michelle Obama

She knows how to tell the cold hard truths and silence Trump.

It didn’t surprise me that Michelle Obama’s speech Monday night at the virtual Democratic National Convention was met with high praise. While her husband developed a reputation as a great orator, the former first lady has always found a way to both connect with an audience and challenge us in a way that stands out in comparison to her predecessors.

That hasn’t just been true of the speeches she delivered in previous years at Democratic Conventions. She’s done so at other moments as well. For example, at a speech in Iowa during the 2008 primary, she gave a stirring reminder of how it is important for us to move beyond a politics dominated by fear. But perhaps her most memorable speech prior to Monday night was the one she gave in response to the release of the Access Hollywood tape. After Michelle said that Trump’s words were cruel and frightening, she acknowledged that they hurt. It literally brought me to tears.

What I realized as she talked is that many of us have been in battle mode against the kinds of things that Donald Trump is spewing and spreading. That is as it should be. But it’s not a bad thing to take a moment and get in touch with how hurtful it all is. There is a kind of cleansing from all the filth we’ve been exposed to that emanates from those tears, and it is the place in which our empathy for each other is rooted. That is the tie that binds and makes us stronger together. Being able to go there is the gift Michelle gave us today.

To summarize, she’s pretty good at this, so Michelle’s speech Monday night was no exception.

What stood out to me this time is that she told two competing stories about America. Here’s one that’s dominating the headlines these days.

[R]ight now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another. They’re looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value.

They see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn’t matter what happens to everyone else. And they see what happens when that lack of empathy is ginned up into outright disdain.

They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists. They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protestors for a photo-op.

Sadly, this is the America that is on display for the next generation. A nation that’s underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character.

But she ended with another story that doesn’t get told as often (emphasis mine).

Look, we have already sacrificed so much this year. So many of you are already going that extra mile. Even when you’re exhausted, you’re mustering up unimaginable courage to put on those scrubs and give our loved ones a fighting chance. Even when you’re anxious, you’re delivering those packages, stocking those shelves, and doing all that essential work so that all of us can keep moving forward.

Even when it all feels so overwhelming, working parents are somehow piecing it all together without child care. Teachers are getting creative so that our kids can still learn and grow. Our young people are desperately fighting to pursue their dreams.

And when the horrors of systemic racism shook our country and our consciences, millions of Americans of every age, every background rose up to march for each other, crying out for justice and progress.

This is who we still are: compassionate, resilient, decent people whose fortunes are bound up with one another. And it is well past time for our leaders to once again reflect our truth.

The choice on the ballot in November will be between those two competing stories. As Michelle said, “A presidential election can reveal who we are.”

As I listened to Michelle’s speech, it struck me that, given what we know about Donald Trump, I doubt he even understood what she was talking about. I’m sure he understood the words she used, but she addressed our common humanity—something his narcissistic ego has never actually experienced.

Perhaps that is another reason why, as I’ve noted before, she seems to be the one person who is able to silence this president. He never criticizes her directly and has no derogatory nickname for her, even though she finally spoke his name for the first time in a speech and said this:

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.

True to form, Trump’s tweets were aimed at her husband and Joe Biden, not Michelle.

Rather than simply deride Michelle for suggesting that “when they go low, we go high,” perhaps we should all be studying her approach and learning something from it. As she reminded us Monday night, that doesn’t simply mean being nice. It means cutting through the mistrust and lies with “the cold hard truth.”

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.