Michelle Obama’s Rebuke of Trump Saved a Pretty Weird Night

Michelle Obama speaking on video at the DNC
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Handout/DNCC via Getty Images.

Jeremy Stahl: Hi again, Jim. This felt like a story of two conventions to me. The first half was incredibly chintzy, low-rent, and full of too many generic twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom lines to remember. The last 30–40 minutes or so were about everybody who’s ever worked for or ridden on Amtrak being a close personal friend of Joe Biden, about Bernie Sanders warning that we’re all gonna die if Trump’s reelected, and about Michelle Obama saying roughly the same thing. Basically, the concluding stuff—including Stephen Stills and Billy Porter’s camp/dadaist closing rendition of “For What It’s Worth”—was actually fairly gripping as far as these things go, and almost everything that came before was as painfully tedious as these events get.*

Let’s start with the good stuff. Sanders made the case that he deeply understood the stakes of losing to Donald Trump again, possibly well enough to actually convince some of his fence-sitting supporters. His closing line on Trump’s “authoritarianism” was devastating: “My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.” He also made the substantive case for Biden’s platform being a genuinely progressive one, listing once-fringe progressive policies that are now mainstream Biden policies such as the $15 minimum wage, universal pre-K, and lowering the Medicare eligibility age. It was, as I recall, the only portion of the night when somebody actually talked about what Biden might do as president. It was, to me, the most effective portion of the evening and the highlight. What did you think, Jim? Did he lose you when he compared Trump golfing to Nero fiddling while Rome burned?

Jim Newell: Jeremy! I’m used to the golf put-downs at this point.

I felt much the same. Parts of the first hour were … difficult. OK, I get it, Democrats have to first prove when they start a convention that they don’t hate America, so they get a bunch of Zoom people to sing the national anthem. But I felt like I was watching an introductory video at a tour of the Smithsonian Museum of American History narrated by Eva Longoria. As the event went on, it settled into a well-paced groove, mixing in some well-done breather videos—all of the loser candidates talking about losing to Biden, and then the Amtrak video, which was among the best of the vast “Did you know Joe Biden rides trains a lot” library of content—with compelling speeches about the ol’ prevailing hellscape that is Donald Trump’s America.

The lack of audience applause—let’s not count the Zoom recordings of random Democrats sometimes unsuspectingly being expected to clap—seemed to fit better when the message was more grave. And Sanders put as much effort into scaring the shit out of viewers as he does into chopping wood. “Under this administration, authoritarianism has taken root in our country,” he said. He made you understand how dark a historical moment you were in: “I, and my family, and many of yours, know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys democracy, decency, and humanity. As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates, and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.” He was urgent. I missed that urgency in some of the other speeches. I suppose it’s necessary to have speakers talk about how Joe Biden is a nice person and all that, but Bernie being deadly serious about the moment in history seemed to really cut through.

He was not the last speaker to cut through the bullshit and lay out the stakes so forthrightly. Is it what it is, Jeremy?

Jeremy: It is what it is. Those are the words that Donald Trump used to describe more than 150,000 deaths in the United States, more than any other country on the planet, from COVID-19. It’s the line Michelle Obama was clearly referring to when she talked about how unfit Trump is to serve as president, particularly now with a deadly virus still raging across the country. If Bernie’s speech was the perfect message of left wing­–moderate wing unity and warning of how close this democracy is to the precipice right now, Michelle Obama’s was the ultimate condemnation of Trump and everything he has wrought. “Let me be as honest and clear as I possibly can,” she said. “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 a far more direct rebuke of Trump than Obama gave during her widely lauded 2016 convention speech, and I think it will hit home for people who might be thinking maybe all of this hasn’t been that bad.

Indeed, she spoke directly to that group: “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. If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.” Donald Trump is literally killing us was the most powerful and necessary message Democrats could convey on Monday, and when they finally hit it, man did it hit. It’s also worth noting that the most effective portion of the first half of the night was from Kristin Urquiza, a woman whose Trump-supporting father died of COVID-19 after stay-at-home orders were lifted early in Arizona. This was somebody who could literally say “Trump killed my dad,” and she basically did. “My dad was a healthy 65-year-old,” she said. “His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump and for that he paid with his life.” How did the “Trump will kill you and your loved ones” portions of the evening work for you?

Jim: Urquiza was the first moment of the night when I thought Democrats might not cancel the rest of the week’s schedule because it was going so poorly. The personal story was so devastating but—trying to put it delicately—cathartic in a way. When I’m reporting at the Capitol, so often I hear Republicans respond to questions about the president’s tweets with “I don’t respond to tweets” or “I haven’t seen the tweets” or “Trump’s just trying to rile you up, he doesn’t mean it.” Urquiza showed how these words, which so often get dismissed as “That Trump sure is zany,” can kill actual people in the real world. As Michelle Obama would say more bluntly later, being president is hard, and having Trump as president—Donald Trump! As president!—means living in an inherently unsafe situation.

Speaking of misery, though, what didn’t work for you, Jeremy?

Jeremy: Trump deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley’s description of the start of the night as “a Hollywood-produced infomercial” was not exactly wrong.* In a real way, the production at the start—from host Eva Longoria’s stilted transitional remarks, to the gauzy reading of the evening’s catchphrase “We the People,” to the downright painful Bruce Springsteen music video about America “rising up,” to the banal remarks of Never Trump Republicans—felt very clearly like it did not live up to the moment. They got there in the end, though, and I guess that’s all that matters.

Jim: The Never Trumpers went by pretty fast, and what will be most remembered is John Kasich’s imagery of standing at a crossroads while saying America was at a crossroads. I thought he did an OK job, though, of essentially narrating a Biden-curious Republican’s or ex-Republican’s torn thoughts—even if it made for some awkwardness when he promised that Biden wouldn’t really listen to the left—and trying to give them the last little nudge. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s speech made me uncomfortable in how much of it was PR to clean up his own record on COVID, but his words about how Trump saw what happened in New York and didn’t move to stop outbreaks in the rest of the country were spot-on. I enjoyed Sara Gideon speaking from the rocks in Maine to introduce a Maggie Rogers performance and then, oh shit, the camera pans and Maggie Rogers is right there on the rocks too!

All in all, I expected this afternoon that we’d be using this final recap to mostly make fun of what we saw. Ten minutes in, I really thought that’s what we’d be doing. And yet they managed to convert it, in the end, into a relatively effective two-hour campaign commercial.

Thanks, (Michelle) Obama.

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Correction, Aug. 18, 2020: This post originally misspelled Stephen Stills’ first name. It also misidentified Hogan Gidley as Trump’s press secretary. Gidley is his deputy press secretary.