The keynote speaker of the evening, Sanders defaulted to the former, offering an exhaustive laundry list of reasons why a Trump presidency would be disastrous for both American democracy and society, ranging from climate change to the Supreme Court. Logic, not passion, was the order of the day as Sanders invoked Clinton’s campaign slogan by saying, “We need leadership which brings our people together and makes us stronger.” He concluded, with certain finality, “By these measures any objective observer will conclude that…Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, offered an argument that was indignant yet somehow pedagogical, painting a doomsday picture of “Donald Trump’s America” which she described as “an America of fear and hate—an America where we all break apart.” But Warren’s delivery was surprisingly low-energy. In part she may have been distracted by incessant chiding from Sanders supporters in the audience who were shouting (among other things), “We trusted you!” Or perhaps Warren was chastened by the show-stopping speech from the First Lady, who immediately preceded her.
Michelle Obama’s speech, which is likely to go down the best of her (public) career, was at its core a repudiation of the negativity that has come to characterize so much of this year’s race. From the start, she cautioned Democrats that theirs is the party of hope, and of optimism. She spoke of (ahem) unnamed bullies, and reminded her audience that, “When they go low, we go high.”
More pointedly, Obama reminded fractious Sanders supporters of Hillary Clinton’s response when she lost in 2008: “When [Hillary] didn’t win the nomination, she didn’t get angry or disillusioned,” said Obama. “Hillary didn’t pack up and go home,” because she knew that the race was “so much bigger than her own desires and disappointment.” It was perhaps the night’s most eloquent subtweet: this was a parent speaking to an unruly child, only the parent was the First Lady of the United States.
Though they were most directly a dig at Trump and his supporters—who have been animated almost entirely by the notion of American decline—Michelle Obama’s most ferocious lines of the night were equally relevant to Sanders supporters who have long bemoaned the sad state of affairs in the United States:
I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters—and all of our sons and daughters—now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. So don’t ever let anyone tell you that this country isn’t great—that somehow we need to make it “great” again—because this right now, is the greatest country on earth.
Here was Obama’s realest of #realtalk: a black woman telling the rest of the country that things were not as bad as they seemed and indeed “change”—so often hoped for, wished for, prayed upon—was already here: A woman will be the Democratic nominee, and American history is forever changed. The audience, perhaps finally realizing this, roared with approval.