Greensboro, North Carolina— President Barack Obama had just relaxed into the warmth of an adoring crowd, part of his sentimental “Say goodbye to me, say hello to Hillary” tour, when the first hecklers emerged Tuesday night. He’d been joking about making sure Bo and Sunny hadn’t “destroyed any carpets,” because “we wanna get our security deposit back,” and the audience was leaning in for an informal, intimate speech from the man who one woman behind me called “my boo.” Then two people burst from the crowd and headed toward the president, taking off their shirts to reveal “Bill Clinton RAPIST” scrawled on tank tops underneath.
The pair, one man and one woman, screamed the same slogan. (I’m pretty sure the woman’s shirt also read “infowars.com” in small letters below, a nod to the wingnut Web site that had offered $5,000 to hecklers who’d disrupt Clinton and her surrogates on the campaign trail.) Police and Secret Service swarmed and escorted the two to the exits, as a now fired-up crowd chanted “Hillary!” Obama remained calm, joking that “it takes all kinds,” and suggesting, “They’re auditioning for a reality show.”
At that point the president moved on to his argument: Under his administration, which Clinton loyally served, “incomes are rising, poverty is falling, across America you can marry whoever you love.” He riffed: “No wonder I got so grey, we’ve been busy,” then adding that Michelle “still thinks I’m cute.” Again he was interrupted by a Clinton hater. “Try to get your own rally,” he needled as the man was escorted out. “If you can’t get your own rally, don’t go messing up someone else’s rally.”
I came to Greensboro to watch the president fire up the state’s mostly African-American base for Clinton, which he did. (If you want to see the two-minute version of his case, watch this video.) But I also got to see our first black president personally confront the racist backlash politics his presidency inspired—the Trump insurgency—in its latest iteration: the sexist harassment of Hillary Clinton, in this case rubbing her nose in her husband’s alleged sexual misbehavior. The crudeness of the Trump louts only made the president’s case against him sharper, angrier—and at times more hilarious. “The guy says stuff nobody would find tolerable if they were applying for a job at 7-Eleven,” he told the crowd. He mocked Trump supporter Alex Jones for saying he and Clinton were devils who even “smell like sulfur.” He sniffed his own hand and laughed. “Ain’t that somethin’?” The crowd roared.
But Obama was grim and serious about the Trump threat, too. “When in the middle of a debate you threaten to put your political opponent in jail, that—no trial, no indictment, no lawyers…,” Obama said. “When you welcome Russian meddling in our electoral process, then you’re disregarding not just things like facts, or evidence, or a free press, but you’re chipping away at basic values like tolerance and due process and mutual respect.”