The most valuable lesson I learned about speechwriting from my former boss, first lady Michelle Obama, is this: Say something true.
The first, most foundational question any speaker should ask is not, “What will make me sound smart, or witty, or powerful?” or “What does the audience want to hear?”
It is: “What is the deepest, most important truth I can tell at this particular moment?” From her frank comments on race and gender over the years, to her remarks on the campaign trail last fall, every speech Michelle Obama gave was her answer to that question—and audiences appreciated it. Amid the bland, calculated language that has become the dialect of modern politics (“We need to support hardworking middle-class American family values!”), genuine words stand out and have a special kind of power to move and inspire.
During this past election, however, other national leaders took a very different approach. The pacifist priest, Father Daniel Berrigan, once described it well when he spoke of the “danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence.” It’s that moment when we try to drown out an inconvenient truth with a flood of words: explanations, rationalizations, justifications—anything to assuage our addled conscience and quiet that inner moral voice telling us things we do not wish to hear.
Members of Donald Trump’s party saw that he lied with impunity, lashed out at the smallest provocation and took pleasure in demeaning and humiliating others. They acknowledged that certain statements he made were racist and misogynistic. And they clearly suspected that he was dangerously unfit for the presidency. Yet rather than voicing what they felt in their gut to be true about him, they chose to verbalize it away, helping legitimize his candidacy for the most powerful job on Earth.
Examples included: I need to support my party’s nominee. We can’t let Hillary Clinton win. I’ll vote for him, but I won’t endorse or defend him. I won’t un-endorse him, but I won’t campaign for him.
Perhaps they thought he could not win. Perhaps they thought he could not do that much damage if he did. Both of these assumptions have now been proven wrong. Yet, many of these individuals still seem to be talking themselves out of telling the truth about who Trump is and how he behaves.
Just consider their response—or lack thereof—to his travel ban. Many Republican politicians surely realized the shocking cruelty of closing our doors to Syrian families who’ve been vetted for up to two years and who are fleeing a bloodbath. They must have been troubled by the stunning incompetence with which this executive order was drafted and executed. And they almost certainly heard the warnings from experts that it presents a serious threat to our national security. Yet, only a small minority of Republicans in Congress have dared to speak out against it.
Save for a few notable exceptions, Trump’s bizarre and disturbing comments defending Russian President Vladimir Putin on Fox News received a similarly tepid response. Ditto for his false claim that 3 million to 5 million undocumented immigrants voted for Clinton. Ditto for his glaring financial conflicts of interest. Ditto for his attacks on our judiciary. The list goes on and on.
We cannot know for sure what is going through the minds of those who have been silent or have responded meekly to such appalling words and actions from the president who is now the standard-bearer for their party. Some might agree with him, but for those who don’t, we can guess it may be something like this: A number of my constituents like Trump, so I better keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to anger the president because he could make my life difficult. Hardly anyone else in the party is sticking their neck out about any of this, so that must mean it’s OK to stay quiet. This is just the price we have to pay to move our agenda forward.
Such words are cyanide for moral courage. They are the enemy of integrity, compassion and common sense. When we say “never again” this is precisely what we mean—that we must never again talk over or talk away the truths we need to speak to, and about, those who misuse power.
During her time as first lady, whether reacting to videotaped boasts about sexual assault—“It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts”—or urging us to go high when they go low, Michelle Obama showed us what it means to speak such truths. She verbalized her moral impulses—period.
To be sure, our former first lady is neither a Republican nor a politician. It may be far more costly for Republicans to do as she did with respect to a president from their own party, particularly one known to take revenge on those who oppose him. But Trump’s vision for our nation is such a radical departure from what many of them have claimed to stand for, and his character and temperament so obviously unsuited to the presidency, that political expediency and party loyalty are shameful—and dangerous—excuses for staying silent.
Those who have the courage to resist Trump may be rewarded by constituents who appreciate their honesty. Or they may be primaried by his supporters and lose their seats. Given that history is generally not kind to those who ignore the dictates of their consciences at times like this, either outcome would likely be better than their current acquiescence.
A small number of clear-eyed folks like Senator Ben Sasse seem to understand this and have spoken the truth about Trump forcefully and consistently from the very beginning. It’s time for all decent Republican leaders to do the same.
Sarah Hurwitz is a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. She served as the chief speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama from 2010-2017.