Michelle Obama

If we don’t count the comic brilliance of Donald Trump’s barber, the very best joke on a US presidential nominee was played this year by aspiring FLOTUS Melania Trump. When La Trump swiped big chunks of praise from Michelle Obama, we laughed at the emptiness this moment described. How funny it was to hear political speech so openly beggared and borrowed! How hilarious to see the spouse of one candidate steal blarney from another!

The moment of theft confirmed there is nothing new to be said in old politics. All the candidates and their spouses go on with the same tired tosh. This, we agreed, was the sound of democracy dying.

Well, we agreed right up until Michelle Obama delivered her speech this week at the Democratic National Convention. Then we forgot. Apparently a moment of family values ignited everyone but muggins.

Rolling Stone found it “powerful”, The Guardianbold” and even News Corp saw fit to comment on Obama’s  “chic blue frock”, which is as close to an endorsement of female speech as Rupert’s employees are permitted to get. The New Yorker said the speech was “inspiring”, Marie Claire said it was a “total inspiration” and HUffPo was sufficiently inspired to declare the speaker the only choice for vice president.

Well. I’ve listened to the darn thing five times, and all I can hear is speech as borrowed and as meaningless as Melania’s. It’s possible, of course, that my faculty for joy was damaged in my sleep. Or perhaps the world’s media has been so starved of meaning that the sound of an uncommonly attractive toastmaster bleating about children, love and nice manners is what passes for a feast these days.

The Guardian says it was hit by FLOTUS like a “thunderbolt”. Personally, I felt as though I were being gently pissed on by an unproductive angel. I mean, have you read it? I am by no means immune to the Obama charmers.  They are spectacularly convincing people. But this was no Gettysburg Address. Not even Abe himself could have transformed this greeting card guff into sense. FLOTUS might have said nothing very well, but she still said nothing.

Read the thing. “Decency and grace.” “The greatest country in the world.”  “The impossibly big dreams that we all have for our children.” I’m still a few years off menopause, but the sound of this women-in-business networking brunch is likely to bring the hormonal shift at any month. And what in the name of purported justice was that thing she started saying about her daughters? Something about how she knew the future would be great, because, finally, two black kids were playing in the gracious gardens of Pennsylvania Avenue.

I do not, for a minute, begrudge the unique pleasures encountered by Malia and Sasha. But just how their innocent play in an elite rose garden heralds a Better Future for anyone other than the offspring of presidents is effing beyond me. We cannot, of course, hold Barack Obama to account for a long and racist US history in which the black population has been impoverished, incarcerated and slain in record number. But we can’t really say that he’s done much to address this terrible truth for anyone but two teens who provide what Michelle calls “role-modelling”.

“Role-modelling” is what FLOTUS served up and what the world’s press so eagerly devoured. There was no mention made of policy or reform and a lot about good people and the good inspiration they provide. Only a fool would say that identity politics provide no value, that the fact of a black president did not provide small comfort to some. But that it was solely the character of a man and his family that FLOTUS canvassed and not his political work was, for mine, quite shocking.

But apparently “representation” is now political reality. In his widely circulated piece from this month’s New York Times, Ross Douthat presaged this unremarkable sentiment unremarkably. Days after the Dallas shooting, readers were reminded that racial tensions couldn’t be that bad thanks to the fact of a two-term black president. Such is the case, he wrote, for optimism.

Yeah, nah. Some may experience brief moments of identifying wonder when they see someone whose “hair looks just like mine”, but it doesn’t outlast the rent cycle for those outside the newsroom. While my colleagues may be quite permanently enamoured of the power of the image, actual people in the actual world are a bit more focused on the appearance of bills. Which have not become easier to address under Obama. And are unlikely to lose their might under Hillary Clinton, who is, you guessed it, the right choice because she is A Woman. Thanks, FLOTUS.

Yes. Clinton is a woman! A woman who had to be dragged by the left of her party to consent to a minimum wage rise. A woman who has destroyed countless lives in Libya and Honduras. Entre nous, the only thing this Woman really has going for her is that she is not Donald Trump. I do understand that FLOTUS could not be expected to say this, or to drag her feet across the Philadelphia stage, but couldn’t she have found something to say about the nominee other than her suitability to “role-modelling”?

Because of Clinton, said FLOTUS, “my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States”. Well, whoopty-lady-doo. It was at this point I yearned to ram my head into Michelle’s “highest and hardest glass ceiling” until my aural canals were so filled with splinters, I could no longer hear this drivel about gender as qualification.

Other of my colleagues, though, like this talk about women who can “finally break through”. Others believe that, somehow, equality trickles down from the top. Others believe that Hillary contains a rising tide that will soon be “lifting all of us along with her”.

My revulsion for Hillary the politician notwithstanding, this celebrated endorsement, as predictable as Melania’s or as any pivotal moment in a Women’s Movie of the Week, seems to address few outside the media. While many of my colleagues are convinced of the power of loving language, it is clear that many Western voters are jack of it. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, couldn’t talk his way into a wine-and-cheese night. Bernie Sanders yells at supporters as though he were a poorly paid assistant principal and they were an assembly of underperforming youth. And Trump is just plain hostile. Regardless of the political differences between these men, the clear utterance of these political difference is what has delivered them significant support. They don’t seek to “inspire”; they are declaring themselves outsiders.

Michelle Obama declared herself a friend. She declared Clinton a friend. She declared her entire family friendly and in so doing, set the tone for much of the DNC. While this “you and I are the same” stuff might have once played well and continues to persuade many of my colleagues who are more concerned for the appearance of reasonable speech than they are of reasonable policy, it just don’t play so well to the punters anymore.

In my radically naive daydreams, I sometimes think that an undiluted dose of Trump is what the hegemon needs. Such stark ugliness, I think, is the only thing that will wrest America from its political paralysis. Then I remember that we live in an actual world, and I worry that this fancy will soon play out.

If Clinton is to become president, she might think about dropping the inspirational drag. It might amuse a deluded media class, who inhale the FLOTUS feel-goodism as they once inhaled amphetamines. But this kumbaya poison no longer works on voters who care less for the destruction of the highest and hardest glass ceiling than they do for the fact that their own American dreams lie in shards on a cold ground.

Peter Fray

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