Say it with me now: This Has Been A Very Bad Week in the 2016 presidential campaign. And a pair of speeches today from both sides showcase exactly why things are so terrible now, and aren’t likely to get any better between now and November 8.
Today, first lady Michelle Obama, speaking at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally in New Hampshire, laid into Trump over recently unearthed comments wherein the Republican nominee for president bragged about committing sexual assault. Her speech was stirring, sincere, and passionate. It avoided feeling like part of the eager pile-on that followed the tape’s initial publication. And while Mrs. Obama was clearly upset by the subject matter about which she was speaking, it was, to paraphrase a now-famous line from her Democratic National Convention speech, firmly on the high road. Michelle Obama found perhaps the classiest possible way to discuss the phrase “grab them by the pussy.”
Mrs. Obama didn’t use any of the words Trump used during the now-infamous 2005 Access Hollywood footage. No “pussy” or “tits” or “bitch.” She didn’t even say “Donald Trump” during her speech about Donald Trump, choosing instead to treat his name like a dirty word. It was the declined pre-debate handshake of oratory slights.
Obama didn’t directly address the individual droplets in a flood of sexual assault allegations against Trump that have followed the release of the footage, either, but she didn’t need to in order to get her point across. In fact, part of her speech could be seen as a call to any woman out there who has been victimized by somebody like, say, Donald Trump, and hasn’t yet come forward. “Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet,” Obama said. “Because we’ve seen that people often won’t take our word over his. Or maybe we don’t want to believe that there’s 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.”
Meanwhile, in Ohio, Donald Trump delivered a speech of his own, showcasing why the last month of the 2016 presidential campaign trail is shaping up to be the political equivalent of a competitive roast battle between a team of Comedy Cellar regulars and a family of concussed squirrels. And why maybe the disparity in artfulness won’t ultimately matter.
Calling out his enemies by name (with the exception of his alleged victims), Trump claimed that reports on his behavior from several women who approached several media sources was the result of a vast media conspiracy designed to take him down, and not the comeuppance that comes when a person with a lifetime of documented sexist behavior is put under the presidential microscope.
“And now we address the slander and libels [sic],” said Trump, “that was just last night thrown at me by the Clinton machine and The New York Times and other media outlets as part of a concerted, coordinated, and vicious attack.”
The New York Times noted in Wednesday’s bombshell piece that the reason two of the accusers came forward now was that they were disturbed by Trump’s performance during the debate on Monday. When asked by co-moderator Anderson Cooper about whether he actually did any of the things that Trump told Billy Bush he did—genitalia-grabbing, unwanted kissing, etc.—Trump said that he’d never actually done those things, that those things were “locker-room talk.” The Times piece noted that one woman watching at home was so angry by his denial that she “wanted to punch the screen.”
Trump’s hands gesticulated wildly as the GOP presidential nominee read from a teleprompter a denial of this latest round of sexual assault accusations. But he didn’t use the words “sexual” or “assault.” Instead, Trump sanitized the charges, calling them “inappropriate conduct with women.” It’s one thing for a speaker like Michelle Obama to refrain from specifically using Trump’s words, it’s another for Trump to back away from things he said once they’re dragged into the light.
But Trump went further, calling his accusers liars and apparently encouraging his rally attendees to scrutinize their personal lives. “You take a look at these people,” said Trump, referring to women who came to the media with stories of sexual assault. “You study these people. And you’ll understand also.” He further promised his supporters that he had evidence that the women’s claims were false, and that he’d be presenting it to the public at “an appropriate time.”
If it seems strange that a man would victimize women during a speech wherein he claims that he does not victimize women, that’s because it is. But everything is strange, and it’s almost certain that we haven’t reached the bottom.
While it’s clear that one message makes for better viral clips and pull-quoting, Trump’s camp isn’t going for Michelle Obama-esque finesse. Trump is running a kamikaze campaign now, doing what he can to damage his opponent, even if it means his own destruction. Will it matter if the Clinton campaign takes the high road if Trump’s trying to blow all the roads up?