It has become an unofficial anthem for the Clinton campaign: “When they go low, we go high.” The applause line originated with Michelle Obama, in the remarks she gave at the Democratic National Convention in July. Since then, Clinton has frequently invoked the phrase on the trail.
But what does it mean to “go high” in a campaign against a man like Donald Trump, whose xenophobic rhetoric and casual calls to violence represent a notable low-point in American politics?
“Going high” is how Clinton’s surrogates explained why she wasn’t nastier to Trump in the second presidential debate. While some pundits were puzzled that Clinton hadn’t delivered a death blow to her opponent, jumping on every opportunity to underscore his deficiencies and hypocrisies, her supporters had an explanation: She was focusing on actual issues and ideas. She was simply going high.
But, as Michelle Obama demonstrated on the campaign trail this week, going high doesn’t mean focusing on policy over politics—and it doesn’t mean avoiding an attack on one’s opponent. Going high doesn’t mean staying silent when bullied, but speaking out. And going high means reframing the focus on Trump’s most repugnant characteristics by zeroing in on how those qualities affect the people who might vote for him. This election isn’t just about Trump and who he is, the message goes, it’s about the rest of America and who we want to be.
“And we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any longer—not for another minute, and let alone for four years,” Obama said. “Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.”
This approach is what made Obama’s speech in New Hampshire on Thursday so riveting, so resonant, and so damning to Trump. Without once uttering his name, Obama laid out—in painful detail—exactly what’s so dangerous about him. And instead of describing the singular threat he’d pose in the Oval Office as a thin-skinned narcissist unfit to lead the country, she drilled down on the fact that he proudly and all-too-typically represents the sexism that women face every single day. He is an uncommon presidential candidate in large part because what he represents is so familiar.
Amid the fallout from news of repeated sexual assaults allegedly committed by Trump, amid the justifications of Trump’s behavior as “locker room talk,” amid photos of his supporters wearing T-shirts asking Trump to “talk dirty,” and amid calls from his supporters to repeal women’s right to vote, the first lady of the United States of America stood up and validated the disgust that so many Americans feel.
She did so with a level of clarity and outrage that’s not an option for Clinton, for reasons Rebecca Traister expertly identified in an essay for New York magazine:
In part, because it remains damn near impossible for a woman to make inspiring feminist arguments on her own behalf without coming off as self-congratulatory; in part, because Hillary is hamstrung by the fact that she’s married to a man who has been accused of his own sexual-power abuses; and, in part, because she is simply less comfortable conveying communion, empathy, and inspiration on the stump.
But Obama nailed it. She exuded warmth and authenticity. She connected with the crowd. I know you get it, she seemed to say to women, because this is the bullshit we all put up with.
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. It hurts. It's like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you're walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.
It's that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them, or forced himself on them and they've said no but he didn't listen —something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day. It reminds us of stories we heard from our mothers and grandmothers about how, back in their day, the boss could say and do whatever he pleased to the women in the office, and even though they worked so hard, jumped over every hurdle to prove themselves, it was never enough.
We thought all of that was ancient history, didn't we? And so many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect, but here we are, in 2016, and we're hearing these exact same things every day on the campaign trail. We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done: We're trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn't really bother us maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak.
Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we've grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet, because we’ve seen that people often won't take our word over his. Or maybe we don’t want to believe that there are still people out there who think so little of us as women. Too many are treating this as just another day's headline, as if our outrage is overblown or unwarranted, as if this is normal, just politics as usual.
But, New Hampshire, be clear. This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. It is intolerable. And it doesn't matter what party you belong to—Democrat, Republican, independent—no woman deserves to be treated this way. None of us deserves this kind of abuse.
If this was a rallying cry, it likely worked. During Obama’s remarks, I received messages from three separate people wondering, “When is she going to run for president?” (And, for what it’s worth, two of them were men.)
The speech has been called “remarkable,”powerful,” “desperately needed,” and possibly disastrous for Trump.
The real power of Obama’s speech was, in a campaign that has been so much about gender, she spoke directly to women in the realest of terms. (Her delivery helped, of course: While Trump’s disses tend to come in fragmented tweets and one liners, Michelle Obama twisted the dagger with eloquence and restraint.) But if her remarks on Thursday were indeed a “defining moment” in the presidential campaign, as they’ve been called, it’s not because she’s “going high” per se.
It’s simply because she treats women as human beings—a feat that Trump apparently has not mastered.