On needing Michelle Obama

Or—Why I Turned MSNBC on this Morning Despite Donald Trump

For as long as I can remember, my American life has been about politics. I was barely six when we immigrated here, but thanks to my brilliant and opinionated mother, few grade-schoolers were more passionate than I was about everything from the Bill of Rights to the Gulf War. Sundays started with Meet the Press and closed on 60 Minutes; every childhood weeknight belonged to Peter Jennings, and at the risk of really dating myself, few things more greatly revolutionized my college mornings than the introduction of that old “Headlines” email from The New York Times.

Yet, lately, I can barely stand to look at the Times’ front page. Morning Joe’s been replaced by Frasier and Serial. And it isn’t a question of comfort, an escape from the deluge of terrorist attacks and climate disasters and ever more appalling acts of corruption in every unexamined corner. It is, I’ve come to realize, simply this: I feel my heart’s been broken.

For someone raised on bedtime stories about the Framers; someone whose first real writing loves were Cooper and Hawthorne, Melville and Faulkner; someone who still likes few things better than geeking out over the Second Amendment or Native rights or the Keystone pipeline with the people who mean most to me — for that person, this Presidential election has been too much to countenance.

American exceptionalism, for me, has always been in no small part about what we won’t accept. However far we’ve drifted from good sense and human decency throughout our history, we’ve fought our way back. Because, be it a brave few or a true moral majority, enough of us were willing to say — enough. Now you’ve gone too far. This we won’t stand for.

There are plenty of people still fighting those fights. But here’s what has become so painfully and unbelievably clear to me over the course of this election cycle: That line we won’t cross — the insult we can’t bear, the injustice we won’t tolerate, the level to which we absolutely will not allow ourselves to descend — is, for too many of our fellow Americans, so far beyond anywhere I’d ever imagined it could be.

Donald Trump does not — and could not — represent our country. But his rise is so very revelatory. And that hurts me. It hurts my belief in the inherent power of goodness. It hurts the America I have held in my heart since I said the Pledge of Allegiance for the very first time at Stillmeadow Elementary School in Stamford, Connecticut, 30 years ago.

It’s hard for me to watch perfectly well-meaning people turn our flag into bikini bottoms and beer koozies; just think what it feels like to watch it wave behind someone so terrible. The Presbyterian in me wants to forgive him; the American can’t find a reason to — especially when, of all the things he might care for (e.g., fame, fortune, hot girls and hairpieces), our country is so obviously not one of them.

So I’ve closed my eyes. I’ve disengaged. And when somebody I love told me it was about time to engage again, I only promised to watch the convention in Philadelphia. There was my mental health to think of, after all, and between WikiLeaks and “Bernie or Bust,” I was hardly in an optimistic mood turning on MSNBC yesterday.

Then Sarah Silverman said, “You’re being ridiculous.” And Paul Simon sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And by the time Michelle Obama walked on stage, I could see on her face that thing I just know, even at my most disenchanted: That this is home. That it is worth fighting for. That it is great right now, and we are each of us capable of making it greater every day.

As moving and memorable as young Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s words were for me at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, I’m not sure I’ve ever needed a speech more than the First Lady’s last night. I cry all the time — the examined world is often so utterly overwhelming that I think a lot of writers do — but that single tiny tear that crept down my cheek as her own eyes welled up felt like something else. An unfreezing. A remembering. A deep, renewed believing of not just what that Pledge has promised me, but what I promise, too, every time I’ve said it.

That’s the tradition of service and sacrifice my mom brought her kids to America for. And it may in fact be because I wasn’t born here that it means so much to me. For all the frightening possibilities that loomed yesterday, today just one thing seems impossible — that we would concede a single word of our national story to anyone who doesn’t live, with us, in hope and hard work.

It’s amazing to reflect on Michelle and Barack waking up in the White House and recognize how far our country’s come. But it is even more amazing to me to consider Sasha and Malia playing on the White House lawn and imagine how far they — and every daughter, and every son — can go. Possibility surrounds us here; it seeps under our skin and bounces around our brains and veritably sparkles in the eyes of every kid who dreams of being Michelle, Serena, the Notorious RBG, and every awesome American in between. I’ve seen it in the arc of my own life, an arc that would be near-magical in any other place on Earth but is here simply American. And I’m so grateful to be reminded of all that possibility now.

What a time we live in. What a First Family we have. What a nation this is. What a legacy we’re still, collectively, writing. And what an incredible opportunity we have this November to prove who we are — what we will, and won’t, stand for.