The advice originated not as a blueprint for the midterm elections but as a moral lesson for her daughters.
As Malia and Sasha Obama were ushered into the center of Washington discord, their mother urged them to ignore the angry voices at odds with the “true spirit of the country” and unworthy of a response. “No, our motto is, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ ” Michelle Obama exhorted in an address at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, delivering words that seemed to point the way to an alternative to Donald Trump’s insults.
But now, in the vertiginous political moment testing the nation’s “true spirit,” the former first lady’s words are being repurposed and rewritten by opponents of President Trump looking for guidance — moral, tactical, emotional, spiritual — as they seek to wrest back control of the country. Such efforts have led them to mount public statues but also to descend into the mud, as lofty ideals compete with the partisan anger convulsing American politics.
The debate was touched off this week by Eric Holder, a former attorney general in President Barack Obama’s White House and a possible 2020 presidential contender. Rallying Democrats on Sunday in Georgia, he said the former first lady’s comments haven’t aged well, and he offered a new motto for a new era.
“Michelle always says, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ No. No,” he said. “When they go low, we kick them.” He said a more antagonistic spirit is “what this new Democratic Party is about,” adding, “We are proud as hell to be Democrats. We are willing to fight for the ideals of the Democratic Party.”
He tried to clarify that he wasn’t calling for violence, saying later in his remarks, “I don’t mean we do anything inappropriate, we don’t do anything illegal, but we have to be tough and we have to fight.” A combative strategy, he said, would honor the legacy of civil rights leaders such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Martin Luther King Jr.
Republicans pounced. One of them, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), countered with another mantra — also popularized by the Obamas — that has been deployed frequently over the past year as a form of virtue signaling: “This is not who we are.”
The president was more blunt. “I think it’s a disgrace,” he said of Holder’s comments late Wednesday when he phoned in to “Fox News @ Night.” Trump, during a 2016 campaign rally, urged his supporters to “knock the crap out of” protesters.
It’s not just Holder who has grown weary of the decorous approach. Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, at one time quoted the maxim approvingly. “I am reminded of what my friend Michelle Obama advised us all: ‘When they go low, we go high,’ ” she said in fall 2016 when Trump brought up allegations of sexual impropriety against her husband.
But her thinking appears to have changed.
“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about,” she said in an interview this week with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
Some Democrats reached that conclusion long ago — as in, right after their party lost the bitterly contested 2016 election.
“Michelle Obama had that beautiful line, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ ” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) told a Los Angeles Times columnist in March 2017. “I thought about it a lot. But I also thought, ‘We lost the election.’ My view now is that when they go low, we fight back.”
The stiffened stance of party bigwigs is shared by numerous activists and possible candidates for high office, who are promising voters that they would take the gloves off.
For Dana Beyer, a transgender rights advocate in Maryland, the election itself was the turning point. In a December 2016 HuffPost column, she observed that the former first lady’s sentiment, while “appropriate for the Convention,” no longer applied. “The campaign is over, and the worst has happened,” Beyer wrote. “Now, when they go low (and they do so every day), we must go lower. We fight them with everything we’ve got. Americans love a fighter, so let’s give them a fight.”
Last June, Neera Tanden, the Hillary Clinton apostle and head of the Center for American Progress, used colorful language on Twitter to argue that, when the other side goes low, “going high doesn’t . . . work.”
No one embodies the pugnacious spirit more than Michael Avenatti, who has risen to national prominence as the lawyer representing Stormy Daniels in her bruising legal battle with the president. He famously ventured to Iowa in August and delivered a eulogy for turn-the-other-cheek politics.
“When they go low, I say, we hit harder,” said Avenatti, who has been flirting with the notion of a bid for president in 2020.
The bare-knuckled approach is favored among some self-avowed liberals who are maddened by the inability of Democrats to stymie the president.
Speaking in February on the “Lovett or Leave It” podcast, hosted by former Barack Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, author and commentator Roxane Gay declared the former first lady’s “When they go low, we go high” remark “the worst thing that has ever happened to democracy.”
“When they go low, we need to go f—ing subterranean,” she said in the course of a discussion about congressional machinations over the fate of “dreamers,” young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. “Until Democratic politicians start adopting that, we’re never, ever going to overcome these kinds of obstacles.”
Lovett and Gay speculated about what Democrats might find in plumbing those depths.
“Oh look, it’s Ted Cruz’s talking points,” he quipped. “Oh my God, it’s Omarosa’s application to ‘The Apprentice.’ ”
Gay added: “Donald Trump’s original hair.”
Still, others don’t see controversial tactics as opposed to Michelle Obama’s adage.
On the Fourth of July this year, Therese Patricia Okoumou, an activist and Congolese immigrant, invoked the former first lady’s words in explaining why she had climbed the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in protest of U.S. immigration policy — an action that led to a three-hour standoff with police, an evacuation of the New York landmark and three misdemeanor charges.
Trump, in a rally in Montana the next day, mocked her as a “clown.”
Okoumou, after an August appearance in federal court, didn’t draw inspiration from “The New Colossus,” the Emma Lazarus poem that entreats, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Instead, she said that she had taken Obama’s advice to her daughters, and to the country, literally. “Michelle Obama — our beloved first lady that I care so much about — said, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ and I went as high as I could,” Okoumou said.