Michelle Obama speaks to the 2016 Democratic National Convention.Photo: screenshot
When they go low, former First Lady Michelle Obama famously said, we go high. But how well does that work in the Trump era? And how low can you go without getting dragged down?
It’s safe to say, America has never seen anything like the presidency of Donald Trump. America has never had a president anywhere near as willing to get down in the mud as Donald Trump.
When Obama made her comments, during the 2016 election, she distilled the approach she and her husband brought to the White House: Take the high road. Stay above the fray.
It worked for them. For eight years, conservatives flung all manner of dirt and muck at the Obama’s, and none of it stuck.
Then the unthinkable happened. Donald Trump – who seems to reside permanently in the muck and couldn’t find the high road on Google Maps – rode the lowest of low roads right into the White House.
To no one’s surprise, Donald Trump brought to the Oval Office the same belligerent, pugilistic approach that won him the hearts of alt-righters on the campaign trail.
As President, Trump has done most of his mudslinging and name-calling from his Twitter account.
One of Trump’s most recent target — television legend Oprah Winfrey, whose speech at this year’s Emmys ignited buzz about her possible candidacy as a Trump challenger in 2020, was asked by CNN’s Van Jones what she would say to Trump if she were to speak with him “billionaire to billionaire” and “mega-star to mega-star.”
Winfrey demurred that she would say anything at all. “I would only speak if I felt that I could be heard,” Winfrey said, implying that Trump wouldn’t be open to hearing anything she had to say.
Winfrey went on to offer some advice to whoever does run against Trump in 2020 (assuming he lasts that long). ““I will say to whoever is going to run for office, do not give your energy to the other side,” Winfrey said. “Do not give your energy to that which you really don’t believe in. Do not spend an ounce of your time on that.”
That might work for Winfrey. Some would say it worked for the Obama’s, who faced with almost preternatural grace the racist vitriol flung at them daily. Others would say Obama held himself above the fray, and got blindsided by the depth of the hatred against him, and its power to propel Trump to power.
So, how well does taking the high road work when the low road leads to the White House? Marco Rubio learned that an excursion to get down in the dirt with an opponent who dwells there is often a losing venture. Fighting on your opponent’s home turf rarely goes well.
At the same time, there’s legitimate concern that fighting enmity with enmity only normalizes hatred and animosity.
Maybe the greater danger isn’t normalizing Trump. Maybe the greater danger is ignoring that Trump isn’t all that far out of the mainstream. However bigoted and vile his beliefs, they were popular enough to land him in the White House.
Winfrey framed her answer in a plug for her new movie, “A Wrinkle In Time,” describing it as a film about “fighting darkness.” Americans have fought darkness in many forms — slavery, segregation, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, hate crimes.
None of those battles were won by pretending the darkness wasn’t there. Sometimes it requires us to venture deep into the darkness. Sometimes, when the opposition only fights dirty, the trick is to get down in the dirt when necessary, and not stay there.
In a time when dirt is flung from the top, and ignoring it may only ensure that some of it sticks, the best response is to follow some popular advice from the hip hop world and “brush the dirt off your shoulder” without getting down in the mud.