In Trump Sexual Assault Speech Michelle Obama Articulates a New Political Morality

Michelle Obama delivered an incredibly strong—and deeply personal—speech Thursday morning at a rally for Hillary Clinton in Manchester, New Hampshire. Mrs. Obama is often overshadowed by the better-known rhetorical gifts of her husband, but she is a powerful speaker in her own right. As she demonstrated in Manchester, she is often capable of bringing to light political realities that have been previously hidden or incoherent.

In this case, the speech was indeed political, but in large part not directly partisan. She took on the specter of sexual abuse directly. Talking Points Memo transcribes:

“The fact is that in this election, we have a candidate for president of the United States who, over the course of his lifetime and the course of this campaign has said things about women that are so shocking. So demeaning,” she said. “I simply will not repeat anything here today. And last week we saw this candidate actually bragging about sexually assaulting women. And I can’t believe that I’m saying that.”

She went on to connect Trump’s behavior to the experience of many women in America (again via TPM):

“I feel it so personally. And I’m sure that many of you do too. Particularly the women,” she said. “The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman. It is cruel. It is frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business. Some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares just a little too long, you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.”

There’s more, much more, twenty minutes of forceful confrontation with the abuse and diminishment of women’s bodies, and the male entitlement that drives it. This was truly an extraordinary speech, if for no other reason than that it laid out the problem for the first time on a national stage. I suspect Obama’s words will last, not least for the impact they will surely have on the women whose votes will determine the election.

Those women will no doubt feel the power of naming the challenges they face and connecting them to the candidate who exemplifies them. As a man and father of a son, I appreciate her words on how sexual abuse warps male identity as well.

But Obama had another very strong, very subtle message that bears teasing out: “Strong men,” she said, “don’t need to put down women to make themselves feel powerful. People who are strong lift others up.”

That line is as strong in its own way as Ronald Reagan’s “Government is the problem.” With it, Obama made it possible for voters to make politics about caring for others, breaking the liberal frame of “we have to be generous to the less-well-off” and turning it into something new and surprising. I am strong when I lift others up. I am good when I make it possible for others to have a good life, not when I care for my own at the expense of all others.

Obama exposed two lies in those words. She showed that the conservative agenda of “I got mine, screw you, Jack” was for cowards, people too insecure in their social and economic status to make others’ lives better. And she exposed the lie of bullies: they’re not strong, they’re weak. Like a toothless dog, they got nothing. As with “Have you no sense of decency, Sir?” this names something we’ve all intuited, even said explicitly. We recognize its truth.

You could put this down to common human decency and not be wrong. I at least thought it picked up resonance in the ways it echoed common religious lessons.  “When I am weak, then I am strong,” to take St. Paul a little out of context, “for God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.” Jesus himself taught that “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” We could probably come up with a dozen similar citations from Judaism, Buddhism, or Islam. The point is the same: building one another up is preferable to tearing one another down.

You don’t have to be religious to recognize how old these teachings are, how deeply ingrained they are in a thousand moral threads. Obama may not have checked this ur-ethics explicitly, but even tapping into it implicitly was enough to turn the post-Reagan notion of compassion on its head. No longer is it a matter of charity or noblesse oblige, of greaters reaching down to their lessers with a generosity that can be curbed at any moment or hung up on a smug peg for the poors’ own good. Compassion is now, in Obama’s formulation, a matter of reciprocity, of mutual upbuilding, subtly tying back to Clinton’s campaign theme “stronger together.”

Christian, Muslim, secular, Democrat, Republican, black, white, male, female, it doesn’t matter. This was a master class on how to bring moral sentiments into political discourse, building from the small scale to an articulation of where Americans, as a community, should head in the future. Like Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama always was more than just another First Lady. She could have a bright political future of her own, though every indication she’s given so far is that she doesn’t want it. Many of us liberals will miss her time in the spotlight, but we and conservatives alike should remember her for these remarks.

(Featured image via Bustle Magazine)