Two speeches. Two Americas. A pair of apocalyptic arguments and one call to burn down the house. That’s the summation from just two remarkable hours Thursday that crystallized the final month of Campaign 2016.
In back-to-back appearances, in what might be the two most compelling hours of the entire election, Michelle Obama in New Hampshire and Donald Trump in Florida delivered the fiercest, most provocative and hardest-hitting speeches of an election cycle that has been without precedent in hot rhetoric.
The presidential campaign has been building toward all this. Day after day after day, the rhetoric has intensified, the charges and countercharges have escalated, the issues have been reduced to asterisks, and the gulf between the Trump and Clinton coalitions has widened. Sunday’s debate in St. Louis foreshadowed what was to come. Now there will be no turning back.
Obama’s was a scorching takedown of the Trump who was revealed in the “Access Hollywood” hot-mic video, a sexual predator who bragged about using his celebrity status to go after women. The impassioned first lady said that, no matter one’s political affiliation, Trump’s language is an affront to women and girls — and to men and boys as well. She pleaded with voters not to allow him to occupy the highest office in the land.
Trump’s was an angry and all-out defense against overnight charges of sexual assault by multiple women coupled with a blistering attack on an establishment that he charged is led by Hillary and Bill Clinton, protected by a complicit news media and so totally corrupt that it threatens the very future of country.
If the two speeches changed few minds — and there probably aren’t that many left to change — they were an indication of how charged the final days of this campaign are likely to be, and suggest that the conflict will not end with the declaration of a winner after Nov. 8.
Michelle Obama has been on the campaign trail on behalf of Hillary Clinton before. She has delivered powerfully on Clinton’s behalf. Her speech in Philadelphia on the opening night of the Democratic convention helped turn a bad first day into a successful week. Subsequent speeches at campaign rallies have shown her to be as effective a surrogate as the former first lady has.
Never has the country seen the first lady like this. Thursday brought out in Obama something different, something more personal, more passionate, more urgent. She was, she said, shaken by the Trump she saw in the “Access Hollywood” video.
“I can’t stop thinking about this,” she said. “It has shaken me to my core in a way I couldn’t have predicted.”
And so she threw away much of her standard pro-Clinton speech and laid bare her feelings with a sense of moral outrage and indignation over the idea that Trump could be the nominee of a major political party and a threat to win the presidency.
She said she had listened closely to Trump’s words. “And I have to tell you that I listen to all of this and I feel it so personally, and I’m sure that many of you do, too, particularly the women. 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’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts.”
She said that to dismiss what Trump had said as locker-room banter “is an insult to decent men everywhere.” She said that to treat the episode as just another chapter in a heated campaign does not do justice to the degradation to which many women are subjected regularly.
“This is not normal,” she said. “This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful, it is intolerable, and it doesn’t matter what party you belong to. No woman deserves to be treated this way — none of us deserves this kind of abuse.”
Her speech lit up Twitter and the Internet. She spoke as Trump was waiting to appear, and on the cable networks — two at least — the images showed a fiery first lady dominating the screen with a tiny box in the corner of the crowded arena awaiting the GOP nominee. Both CNN and MSNBC broke away from regular coverage to show the Obama speech. Fox News did not carry it.
When Obama had finished, Trump came out to thunderous applause, a sign that the support among his most loyal backers has not slackened in the face of the hot-mic video, the latest allegations against him, and the turmoil in his campaign and in the Republican Party. If anything, that support has hardened further, and if there were any concerns about that, Trump gave his supporters every reason to stand firm.
He cast the choice in November as between a political-media-corporate establishment against the rest of the country, a divide-to-conquer strategy that has been urged on him by his advisers.
“This is not simply another four-year election,” he said. “This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.”
He said the most recent allegations of sexual misconduct were “preposterous, ludicrous, and defy truth, common sense and logic.” He promised to produce evidence to refute them and appeared to take a swipe at a People magazine reporter who said he had kissed her and forced himself against her, seeming to suggest that her appearance should cast doubt on her allegations.
“You take a look. Look at her,” he said. “Look at her words. You tell me what you think. I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”
He said the establishment will try to retain its grip on power through all manner of means. “Anyone who challenges their control is deemed a sexist, a racist, a xenophobe and morally deformed. They will attack you, they will slander you, they will seek to destroy your career and your family, they will seek to destroy everything about you, including your reputation. They will lie, lie, lie, and then again they will do worse than that, they will do whatever is necessary. The Clintons are criminals, remember that. They’re criminals.”
Not only criminals, he said, but also the leaders of an establishment whose goal is power and enrichment at the expense of everyday Americans.
“The Clinton machine is at the center of this power structure,” he said. “We’ve seen this firsthand in the WikiLeaks documents, in which Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends and her donors.”
Trump called the election a “moment of reckoning as a society and as a civilization itself,” and he issued an exhortation to his followers to overturn the current order.
“The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you,” he said. “The only force strong enough to save our country is us. The only people brave enough to vote out this corrupt establishment is you, the American people.”
In two hours Thursday, the lines were drawn as never before. Michelle Obama delivered a case against Trump’s personal and moral fitness with a forcefulness that Hillary Clinton cannot match, given the past charges against her husband. Meanwhile, Trump has embraced fully the blow-it-up argument that will rattle Republican leaders but which animates those Americans who are most alienated from the country’s establishment. Those are the parameters of the political debate as it stands today — and the choice that will be settled on Election Day.