“You’re fired” versus “You get a car”? The great political question this week is whether a former daytime-talk-show host turned entertainment mogul will challenge a former real-estate mogul turned prime-time reality-TV host for the leadership of the free world. Will Oprah Winfrey jump into the 2020 race and give America the Battle of the Celebrity All-Stars it wants and deserves?
Let’s just say the signals are … mixed. Some sources say she won’t:
NEW: A source close to @Oprah tells @tvkatesnow as of today, she has no intention of running for President in 2020:
“It’s not happening. She has no intention of running,” the source said.
Source says that’s from Oprah herself.
— Peter Alexander (@PeterAlexander) January 8, 2018
Others close to Oprah say she might, such as best friend Gayle King, co-host of CBS This Morning. King is “very intrigued” by the possibility:
— CBS This Morning ❄️ (@CBSThisMorning) January 9, 2018
For the most part, Winfrey gets enthusiastic support for a presidential run from Hollywood, and likely would get a warm embrace from a Democratic Party lacking any charismatic figures on its presidential bench. She also got a lot of positive feedback from the national media for her Golden Globes speech, perhaps especially because she explicitly heralded them as being “under siege” in the present political environment.
That doesn’t mean everyone’s looking forward to the Winfrey-Trump Celebrit-Off in 2020. BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith writes that Democrats shouldn’t go down the celebrity path to power, but rather demand higher standards for office:
But if there’s one thing you don’t hear Democrats saying these days, it’s “we need our own Donald Trump.” And the ultimate case for Oprah is just that: Normal politics and politicians have failed, celebrity politics has triumphed, and Democrats need to look to the new model.
You could imagine a version of Trump who inspired that sentiment in his enemies. He could have been a great communicator and a true independent, and inaugurated a new tradition that led through Republican President Kid Rock and Democratic President The Rock. It would lead, inevitably, to the 2400s with the great Terry Crews character in Idiocracy, President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.
But Trump did not emerge from his career in television better able to communicate with the American people. The stable genius is erratic and confusing, and even most Republicans wish he’d stop tweeting. He didn’t bring an independent agenda in any meaningful way: Without ideas of his own, he’s followed conventional Republican policy on major governing issues, when he’s tried to govern at all.
So the case against Oprah is just that: She may, in fact, be what Trump pretends to be — a self-made business success story whose words resonate across the country. But Democrats don’t want to improve on Trump. They want to reverse him. And that’s where governors and senators with deep experience, proven political chops, and an unglamorous sense of normalcy come in.
Even Slate’s Osita Nwanevu is surprisingly reluctant to embrace the Oprah juggernaut, calling the faddish enthusiasm a symptom of “the same political malaise that produced Donald Trump”:
Close your eyes and picture an ideal president. Someone capable of seriously engaging with not only the above but all of the challenges the 21st century will require us to face: inequality and economic stagnation for the vast majority of Americans, a health care system that still fails millions, and all the rest. Who have you pictured? Is it Oprah Winfrey? Is it really?
A few decades from now, if some poor historians put themselves through the trouble of assessing the hundreds of thousands of words the major press has dedicated to explaining why and how Donald Trump won the presidency, they will find few of them have been devoted to a fact that contributed to both his rise and the reception of Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech: The major figures on the contemporary American political scene are impossibly boring. With a few notable exceptions, every major presidential contender of our recent past seems small against the backdrop of the grand historical narrative we’ve weaved for ourselves. It is doubtful that there will be a movement someday to carve Marco Rubio into Mount Rushmore; contemporary politicians who speak at places like the site of Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, as Hillary Clinton did in the summer of 2016, generally come off, to this observer, looking like children wearing their parent’s coats.
Boredom may be part of it, but it’s not the whole problem — or even the main problem. Trump didn’t beat the deepest GOP bench in decades out of boredom, nor did he edge out Hillary Clinton on sheer celebrity power alone. As I write in my column today for The Week, he won because voters no longer trust the institutions which used to provide the basis for vetting presidential candidates, and they’re looking outside the box for people who connect with their issues and lives:
The vetting paradigm has clearly changed with American voters. The traditional “qualifications” required long political careers with the presidency as a pinnacle. As trust in American institutions has eroded, so seemingly has the value of experience within them. Voters in 2008 and in 2016 were determined to find people outside “the establishment” with whom they found an emotional connection rather than approach elections as a hiring decision based on the strength of résumés.
That, of course, would suggest that Winfrey might be the most qualified of all potential candidates in 2020. She spent decades building emotional connections with Americans through her daytime talk show. Winfrey leveraged that success to build a bona-fide media empire, one that includes a cable channel, production company, and philanthropic organizations. Forbes ranked her as the 264th wealthiest American in 2017, with an estimated net worth of $3 billion, only 16 slots behind Trump ($3.1 billion). In terms of celebrity cachet, Winfrey comes second to none — and right now, celebrity cachet and emotional attachment are what matter most.
However, that model rises and falls on Trump’s performance, which might set up a catch-22 for a Winfrey candidacy. Or maybe not:
Winfrey faces one conundrum, however, which is that Trump will largely define the value of a full-celebrity president. If he succeeds, then he’ll win re-election. If his presidency turns out to be a disaster, voters might suddenly recall the need for a substantial track record and turn away from celebrities in favor of candidates with proven competence.
Or perhaps it’s simply too late for that kind of paradigm shift. Voters appear addicted to celebrity and the need to be entertained in politics. Trump and Winfrey may wind up as the standard for American heads of state, the idols of a new age to cheer and boo simply for being themselves. A new day is on the horizon, indeed.
Smith and Nwanevu raise good points but miss the point of Trump. America didn’t necessarily want celebrity presidents; voters outside the privileged media-cultural bubble just wanted a candidate who spoke to them as though they mattered. The loss of trust in the institutions that formerly connoted “serious” status on candidates has made a résumé campaign all but unworkable and fueled the populist uprisings on both the Left and the Right. And in that environment, even billionaires can become Everyman/Everywoman if they crack the code to connecting on an emotional level with these voters.
An Oprah Winfrey candidacy is probably as inevitable as the Donald Trump campaign was in 2015, in other words. Get used to it.