If you watched the recent Democratic presidential debates, you saw Joe Biden and Kamala Harris go at it over, of all things, busing; you heard prepubescent Eric Swalwell chirping incessantly about passing the torch; and you saw Kirsten Gillibrand doing her best Tracy Flick impression. You saw a whole lot of finger-to-the-wind calculation, and you could smell the fear: Fear of alienating the base, fear of committing a gaffe, fear of being exposed as a plastic, practiced hack.
Contrast that to the feeling you got watching the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s ticker tape parade this week, in particular the joyous, uplifting, profane speech of superstar Megan Rapinoe. The Dems ought to have been watching, and taking notes. Because you don’t need to agree with all of her politics to see that, more than anyone on our public stage, and certainly more than anyone on the political scene, Rapinoe has intuited what America needs in this vexing, frightening moment: A fearless figure who rises to the moment, who challenges rather than panders, who speaks truth to power even while acquiring it. And who does it all with an infectious smile.
Rapinoe has intuited what America needs in this vexing, frightening moment: A fearless figure who rises to the moment, who challenges rather than panders, who speaks truth to power even while acquiring it. And who does it all with an infectious smile.
Before Rapinoe even said a word Wednesday, take in her bouncing, ballsy attitude. In the way she combines joyousness with a steadfast refusal to take shit—witness her preemptive “I have no interest in extending our platform to him” dis of President Trump that seemed to drive him crazy—she is modeling a way forward in our politics. In everything she and her teammates say and stand for—suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for discriminatory pay equity and working conditions, for example—she reclaims patriotism and offers a pithy, catchy vision that those running for the highest office in the land, their heads crammed full of consultants’ polling data and policy memos, have thus far been unable to articulate. They argue over arcane tactics or ideological shibboleths, while Rapinoe, in effect, suggests that it’s time to Make America Fair Again. (Or, at least, fairer.)
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Coming out of sports, Rapinoe seems to understand that what America needs right now is a coach. And, this week, she delivered a rousing, Knute Rockne-like speech that is actually the best response to Trumpism I’ve heard because, in addition to her sunny attitude, which stands in such contrast to Trump’s dark resentments, Rapinoe reclaims American values like merit, diversity, unity and, yes, fairness.
“This is my charge to everyone: We have to be better, we have to love more and hate less,” she said from the heart, not referring to notes or a teleprompter. “Listen more and talk less. It is our responsibility to make this world a better place.”
“Do what you can,” she said. “Do what you have to do. Step outside yourself. Be more. Be better. Be bigger than you’ve ever been before.”
The winner of the Golden Ball and Golden Boot award as the World Cup’s leading scorer and MVP, respectively, went on to champion the diversity and toughness of her teammates, seeing in it an object lesson for us all. “This group is so resilient, is so tough, has such a sense of humor,” she said, “there’s nothing that can faze this group. We got pink hair and purple hair. We got tattoos and dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls and everything in between. We got straight girls and gay girls.”
She closed with a rousing call to figurative civic arms: “Do what you can,” she said. “Do what you have to do. Step outside yourself. Be more. Be better. Be bigger than you’ve ever been before. If this team is any representation of what you can be when you do that, please take this as an example. This group is incredible. We took so much on our shoulders to be here today to celebrate with you. And we did it with a smile. So do the same for us. Please.”
In the Washington Post, columnist Sally Jenkins has suggested that Rapinoe and her teammates are after something “more subversive” than equal pay. “Real power is self-ownership,” she writes, “uncomplaining, unwhining pleasure in self-fashioning and rejecting victimhood.”
And in The New York Times, Charlie Warzel argues that, by not getting sucked into the Trump game of tit-for-tat fact-checking and rebuttal, Rapinoe has figured out how to make the bully-in-chief seem small and—critically—on the wrong side of traditional American values. (During her six-minute speech on Wednesday, she said, “”There’s no other place I’d rather be… even in the Presidential race. I’m busy. I’m sorry.”)
Rapinoe has figured out how to make the bully-in-chief seem small and—critically—on the wrong side of traditional American values.
They’re both right: Rapinoe suggests a roadmap to self-empowerment and a political strategy. The lesson to be taken from 2016 wasn’t about ideology. Trump had no core convictions, then or now. But he had no fear, and he was met by a cynical, frustrated electorate in the mood for a primal scream. Trump knew that voting is, in the end, an emotional act, so he appealed to some pretty dark emotions.
Democrats ought to pay attention to the message from Rapinoe in response. Now, I’m not saying Joe Biden ought to come out for the next debate in pink hair, dropping F bombs. But he could take a page from another, similar pop culture moment, and drop to the floor and do one-handed push-ups like the-then aging actor Jack Palance at the 1992 Academy Awards:
Okay, not likely to happen, I know. But why not? Trump has trampled the old playbook. If Democrats think Socialism and arguments over Medicare For All—that is, taking employer-based health care away from 180 million Americans—or mere pining for the good old days of Obama are going to inspire, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten. And so far, the race to oppose Trumpism is a pretty conventional affair at a time when the Constitution itself is under assault. What do you think the chances are that a bunch of inside the Beltway consultants are going to be visionary enough to flip that script?
This is not to suggest that a gay, pink-haired, tattooed, outspoken athlete ought to be our next president. But what Megan Rapinoe has done—the co-opting of traditional American values inside an untraditional package—has the makings of a zeitgeist-changing moment. All I know is this: Watching Rapinoe play and speak is more uplifting than anything I’ve seen since Emma Gonzalez and, on the political stage, since some dude with a funny name wowed us with his idealistic eloquence 11 years ago.Photo by Jamie Smed Photography via Flickr