As Trump’s Celebrity Grows More Toxic, Oprah Makes Sense
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast
This week, America endured two new developments in the continuing chaos of our politics: Donald Trump’s reprehensible slander against the 54 nations on the African continent and the people of Haiti; and the floating of Oprah Winfrey as the 46th American president. The two seem unrelated. I would suggest they are not.
Trump’s inability to contain his racist tick once again exposed the crude xenophobia and fear of the future that his political movement represents, and the downward moral drift of the Republican Party. It also struck yet another Trumpian blow to America’s soft power.
Trump is reviled around the world, as is the U.S. under his leadership. The United Nations high commissioner on human rights denounced his vile remarks. Haitians rose in mass fury online. The African Union, which cooperates with us on anti-terrorism efforts that include some 6,000 U.S. soldiers deployed on the continent, demanded an apology. What country would welcome the American president to their capitol today? Surely none in Africa, where country after country issued withering condemnations of Trump on Friday and where China is already being welcomed in as the new global economic hegemon. Not Great Britain, whose Commonwealth includes several countries that would make Trump's "shithole" list and which had already so rebelled against a presidential visit that it finally frightened the American bully away. And not even Norway, Trump’s go-to source for fresh, white immigrant recruits, whose citizens took to Twitter Friday to pour on the Trump loathing.
Trump cannot exert the moral authority normally commanded by the American president. His few international friends have their own fiendish reputations. Israel is led by a perennial cynic who when he’s not stomping Palestinian hopes into the ground or being embarrassed by his ironically alt-right son, remains under a criminal corruption investigation. Tayyip Erdogan allegedly colluded with the disgraced former National Security Adviser of the United States to kidnap a Turkish émigré and rendition him to Ankara to answer for a 2016 coup. Trump has humbled our country under the shadow of China’s autocrat Xi Jinping. He pals around with the proud butcher Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. And he continues to both emulate and worship the thuggish kleptocrat Vladimir Putin.
In the epic Netflix series “The Crown,” a young future Queen Elizabeth takes her studies, such as they are, and is instructed by her tutor that the British government operates best when there is harmony between its two parts: the “efficient,” which makes and executes the laws, and the “dignified,” which legitimizes the enterprise through the moral authority of the Crown. The American presidency combines elements of the efficient and the dignified. The president presides over governance – not making legislation but proposing it, cajoling the co-equal federal legislature and then signing and executing the laws. But he – and so far it has always been a “he” – also gives the national government its face, its image and its global reputation. Donald Trump, perhaps because as Michael Wolff posits in his opus, Fire and Fury, is in the grip of mental decline, clearly cannot execute the efficient. He is like a child king being plied with chocolate cake and led around by a gaggle of self-serving regents including Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the other congressional suck-ups who use their outward sycophancy to bend Trump to their legislative will. But it is his inability to fulfill the dignified that has been the most stressful, humiliating, and indeed dangerous for our democracy.
Which brings us to Oprah Winfrey.
Now, I will admit that I was merely having fun when I tweeted on Golden Globes night the now well-worn meme, “nothing but love for my president,” in reaction to her powerful speech upon accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. I even threw in a little dig at the other seemingly absurdist 2020 presidential candidate Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whom I demoted to Bizarro World V.P. But apparently, people across this Trump-exhausted nation are taking the idea of a second consecutive celebrity POTUS seriously.
And while part of me – ok most of me – recoils at the idea of codifying the Trump presidential model with a famous follow-on, as the nation’s moral meltdown continues, I cannot discount the idea of President Oprah out of hand. Here’s why.
America tells itself a lot of lies, but none so bald faced as the one that we are a high-minded people who choose our presidents based on a strict study of their qualifications and their history of exceptional governance.
On the contrary, Americans rarely know much about our candidates other than the log lines of their bios: that they are or were a governor, a Senator, or a military general (the three most frequent categories from which our presidents have come). Until the mid-1960s, popular will played no part in the choice of which candidates got the nominations of the two major parties. The decision was made in back rooms or by exclusive state conventions and caucuses, with a few beauty contest primaries thrown in for show. Thus, the candidates who competed every fourth November were the product of party and media personality marketing. (The media has never been particularly good at explaining the actual ideas at issue in campaigns.) Americans instinctively respond to a gut feeling about those candidates, to their own partisanship and political tribalism, and to intangible characteristics about the people on the ballot, not to the details of their resumes.
Andrew Jackson, Trump’s inspiration and the genocidal maniac behind the “trail of tears,” became president on the strength of his national fame as a military man during the war of 1812.
Likewise, Dwight Eisenhower, a decent, honorable man who had never even voted, was offered the Democratic nomination by Harry Truman in 1948 and turned it down before being offered the Republican nomination by the back room boys four years later. Why did he accept in 1952, and why did he win? Because the five star general and supreme allied commander of NATO was the most famous and popular figure to emerge from World War II.
Popularity has always been the key currency in choosing a president. Lincoln, who had only a state senate career plus one two-year term in congress from 1847-1849 to recommend him, boosted his fame via a series of entertaining and nationally-publicized debates with Illinois’ Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. Lincoln lost the seat, which at the time was chosen by the state legislature, but his Republican Party won the popular vote, and the Lincoln for President buzz inside the Republican Party began.
Franklin Roosevelt was the governor of New York when he ran for president in 1932, but it’s much more likely that his famous surname and association with his fifth cousin, swashbuckling former president Teddy Roosevelt did the trick. (FDR’s wife Eleanor was T.R.’s niece, to make matters even more fun.) And it was his personal charisma that transformed FDR from what political opinion-shaper of the time Walter Lippmann described as, “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president,” to a man many Americans quite literally made president for life.
John F. Kennedy was a Senate back-bencher whose lead qualities were his war heroism, his telegenic face and family, and the Hollywood glamour and flush of youth the Kennedys offered the nation. I’d wager few Americans could recite a single thing Kennedy had done in Congress, though his opponents made sure everybody knew he was Catholic, forcing JFK to give a speech reassuring the country that that his religious affiliation wasn’t dangerous.
Likewise, who could recite Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial record when Americans overwhelmingly chose the glitz of celebrity over the drone of moral rectitude that had catapulted Jimmy Carter to office in 1976, when America needed to wash away the stain of preeminently qualified and governmentally experienced, yet thoroughly crooked Richard Nixon.
Every president since Reagan’s third term – otherwise known as George Herbert Walker Bush – has followed suit.
The country felt rejuvenated by young Bill Clinton, who laid on the swagger on MTV and by blowing into his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. America wanted to have a beer with George W. Bush, the weak governor of Texas whose surname imparted familiarity and comfort versus the stiff, “unrelatable” Al Gore and the far more qualified but thoroughly uncool John Kerry. And let’s face it: Barack Obama, with his youth, charisma, boundless (and brilliantly marketed) hopefulness and “come together” charm – brought home in the 2004 convention speech that launched his presidential buzz – plus his phalanx of celebrity endorsers including Will.I.Am, Jay Z, Beyonce, and yes, Oprah, was not just a better candidate; he was much cooler than John McCain.
And then there’s Donald Trump, whose crass commercial appeal resonated in what the media lovingly calls “middle America,” better known as the vast swath of the country that spends more time watching ESPN, home improvement shows and “The Apprentice” than political cable news. Sure he lost the popular vote to the studious, completely qualified but poorly marketed would-be First Woman President, Hillary Clinton, but it’s where he won that mattered: in the sparsely populated, anti-intellectual parts of the country favored by the Electoral College.
Democrats might not want to face this truth, but it is reality. Trump exposed America for what it is: a country that responds to celebrity and simple messages that appeal to the gut rather than the mind, and which often mistakes riches for intelligence, and fame for capability.
Trump was the absurdist end stage of this creeping self-revelation. Some 63 million Americans responded to his crude calls for a 1950s Christo-racial revival and his solution to the Archie Bunker riddle about the "unfairness of equality," namely: "what's the point of a man working hard all his life if all he's gonna wind up is equal?"
Given that reality, why would Democrats continue to pretend that what Americans want is a two-term governor or Senator with a lengthy legislative record when what they really want is a national show? And if there must be a show, why not cast it with a woman as gifted, charismatic and emotionally intelligent as Oprah Winfrey?
Unlike Trump, Oprah’s story is true Americana. She rose from dire poverty and abuse to become a real billionaire, not a theoretical one who inherited his racist daddy’s money like Trump (before he started grubbing for emoluments via the presidency). Unlike Trump, who boasts he is, “like, a very smart person,” Oprah has clear intellectual gifts, plus the ability to leaven those gifts with mass appeal and empathy. Unlike Trump, she is a phenomenal businesswoman, not someone who played one on TV. Presumably, unlike Trump, Oprah, who counts among her friends Barack and Michelle Obama, would likely surround herself with the keenest political, economic and scientific minds as president. She would study, unlike Trump. She would care about policy, unlike Trump. And she would perform the efficient functions of government with the alacrity of a woman who built herself into a one-word empire, while pulling off the dignified with the aplomb of a professional communicator.
And because Oprah is as famous as she is, she could campaign in a way no other candidate for president could: without the grimy mud-slinging and desperation to please donors and become known.
None of this is to say that Oprah should do it. By running for president she would risk opening herself up to the kind of shredding, partisan attacks that destroy lives. She has already attracted scrutiny of her background and businesses choices, just by being mentioned. (Remember The Secret? Her critics do, although I’d wager most average Americans would shrug off the criticism and probably still buy the book today.) Winning the presidency has become a miserable gauntlet that few people can withstand. And having gotten a taste of the maelstrom, from white women who were outraged that she chose Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008 and fans who thought her insufficiently outraged by Trump’s victory to those on the left who are already tagging her as an evil, rich “neoliberal,” she might not want to bother. After all, haven’t black women been asked to clean up enough messes we didn’t create?
In the end, quite frankly, the White House might be too small for a woman of Oprah’s queenly stature. It’s a constricting glass box that Winfrey, who one of my work colleagues calls “the freest black woman in America” might not want to shrink herself into. Unlike in the GOP, where brute charisma is everything (see: Palin, Sarah and Trump, Donald), to win over the determined sophisticates in the Democratic donor and media class, Oprah would need to show the kind of detailed policy acumen that Obama and Bill Clinton brought with them to the table. Though again, I don’t think any of that matters to the general electorate.
But whether or not she should run for president, or would even want to, let’s not kid ourselves. If she ran, Oprah could win. She could win because despite being black and a woman, who would likely still lose a majority of white women’s votes to whatever Republican ran against her, including Donald Trump, those very qualities would help her turn out the 200,000 additional votes in Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia that cost Hillary Clinton the Electoral College. And she could win because Oprah is more than the sum of her demographic parts. She is a rich celebrity with universal name recognition who is generally beloved among a cross-section of Americans across the political divide – at least, until the attack ads begin.