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Michelle Obama’s speech in Phoenix was a stirring defense of everyone left out of Trump’s America

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Michelle Obama made the case against Donald Trump in Phoenix on Thursday night, saying that he divides America into “us” and “them” and standing up for the majority of Americans she says are excluded from Trump’s vision.

Trump, she said, lives in a bubble, rarely exposed to people unlike him or to people who are struggling — and that makes him less empathetic to people who are struggling and unable to see what makes America great.

“It’s easy to dehumanize ‘them.’ To treat ‘them’ with contempt,” Obama said. “Because you don’t know ‘them.’ You can’t even see ‘them.’ And maybe that’s why this candidate thinks certain immigrants are criminals instead of folks who work their fingers to the bone to give their kids a better life, to help build the greatest nation on Earth. Because he doesn’t really know them.”

She gave the same defense of Muslims: “He really has no idea who they are. He doesn’t understand that they are us. They are our friends, our family, our neighbors, our colleagues, people of faith just like so many folks around the country.”

Trump, she said, views women as “objects solely for pleasure and entertainment rather than human beings worthy of love and respect.”

And she defended “inner-city” neighborhoods like the one where she grew up, which Trump endlessly characterizes as plagued with crime.

“He just doesn’t understand us,” Obama said. “Maybe that’s why he calls communities like the ones where I was raised ‘hell.’ Because he can’t see all the decent, hardworking folks like my parents, who took those extra shifts, paid their bills on time, folks who are raising amazing families, sending kids to college. Maybe he doesn’t believe people like us really exist, because he does not see our shared humanity.”

This is an extension of the narrative Obama delivered so successfully at the Democratic National Convention: that she and her husband — and by extension the Democratic Party — represent the “real America” and American values. Eight years ago, when Republicans were describing Obama herself as a threatening, pessimistic, unpatriotic outsider, it would have been an audacious message. But she’s now presenting her own vision of America, one that includes everyone Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message leaves out.

It’s notable that she’s delivering that message in Arizona, which traditionally has been a safe haven for the GOP.

The only Democratic presidential candidate to win Arizona since 1976 was Bill Clinton, 20 years ago. Deploying Obama’s star power is part of Hillary Clinton’s strategy to become the second. Arizona, which Mitt Romney won handily in 2012, is one of the most tightly contested states in 2016: Clinton has a slight lead in the polling average, and FiveThirtyEight projects that she’s more likely than Donald Trump to win the state.

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