Oprah for President?
Can a celebrity's civic religion heal our divided nation?
I turned off #GoldenGlobes2018 about 45 minutes into the show. I was impressed by what I was hearing from the awards stand. But I was also offended by Seth Meyers’ repeated jabs at Kevin Spacey, the only gay man other than the elderly George Takei to have been accused of systemic sexual harassment during Hollywood’s #MeToo tsunami. Go ahead: Call me a feminazi, tell me I am humorless, politically correct — I don’t care. Only a room of straight people, or people nervously pretending to be straight, would have thought such jokes were not homophobic.
Or a group of people, from an industry that promotes fictional violence against women, who are now rebranding themselves as cutting edge feminists. Not that I don’t appreciate the effort — but when was the last time you saw Hollywood solve a social problem?
This, it did not surprise me to wake up and find that the other work of the evening had been to draft Oprah, who had won the lifetime achievement award that night, as the 2020 presidential candidate who can heal our wounded and divided nation. You can read the speech she gave here.
Oprah is, of course, no less qualified than a great many people who have run for the highest office (especially the individual currently occupying it), and she is a great deal more qualified than some. She is in many ways an inspirational figure, a modern version of Russell Conwell, the early twentieth century speechifier, Baptist minister and founder of Temple University, who promised his audiences that there were “acres of diamonds” before them, just waiting to be gathered.
But one of my goals for a #PurpleAmerica would be to stop selling the presidency to the highest bidder. Even the idea of an Oprah candidacy is a desperate move on the part of Democrats. It is not only a capitulation to the enthusiasm for political novices that brought us Donald Trump, but also — more importantly — it is another sign that liberals are just as susceptible to savior complexes as right-wing populists — and left-wing — populists.
It’s not that I don’t like Oprah — in general, I admire her enormously. Her vast, middlebrow empire has relentlessly promoted African-American art, literature and performance, creating work and visibility for a severely underemployed, and often overlooked, culture workers. She’s smart, generous, kind, a terrific businesswoman, and in many ways, very principled. She seems to have both a boyfriend (last year one pop journalist noted that “there are at least two roles we know she doesn’t plan to try: president of the United States, and wife”) and a girlfriend (Gayle King: “if we were gay we would tell you.”) And although I find Oprah’s public dieting deeply disturbing, she is living many women’s body image issues out loud and I am guessing that, aside from promoting commercial dieting products, she means it to be disturbing.
In fact, I would argue that Oprah has probably done as much as any other public figure to urge women — and women of color in particular — to attend to their physical and spiritual well-being.
But politics is not a hobby — it’s not something you turn to when you are bored with all the ways you know how to make money and influence people, and it isn’t a lifestyle change. Politics is a profession, and if the dysfunction of the past year should have taught us anything it’s that people who don’t know anything about politics can get elected, but they have a significant chance of screwing up once they get there. I am skeptical that, even if Donald Trump were better educated, more intellectually curious, and better able to pay attention, he would be a crashing success.
Journalist Joe McGinniss saw this coming way back in 1968. In his first book, The Selling of the President (1969), McGinniss declared the Richard Nixon-Hubert Humphrey campaign to be a turning point in which television had finally come of age in electoral politics. While it is true that candidates had been using TV advertising, political consultants, polling, and data modeling for some time, 1968 was the first national contest in which both campaigns openly hired advertising agencies. Political values had dissolved, McGinniss argued, and the parties had given up their traditional role of organizing the electorate around issues. Instead, “The shaping of a candidate’s image has taken the place of discussing conflicting points of view.”
What was being produced, McGinnis argued, were political candidates that were as empty as the television characters they were now expected to be. “The television celebrity is a vessel,” he wrote. “An inoffensive container in which someone else’s knowledge, insight, compassion or wit can be presented….On television it matters less that [the candidate] does not have ideas. His personality is what the viewers want to share.”
Democrats, many of whom seem to be able to be able to hold in their heads both an extensive critique of the Hillary Clinton candidacy and astonishment that Clinton did not win, are so desperate for hope that they seem to be fantasizing that Oprah would be as popular a candidate as Trump — but smarter, nicer, and kinder. The assumption seems to be as McGinnis predicted: the substance doesn’t matter, as long as the package is compelling.
Yet would Trump voters be fooled? Satirist Andy Borowitz is skeptical, and has already imagined how Trump would campaign against her, minus the charming nickname he would undoubtedly come up with. “Trump Warns That President Oprah Would Force Americans to Read,” the Borowitz Report headline predicted yesterday:
“This is a woman who, every chance she got, told people to join her book club,” Trump told reporters. “If she were President, you better believe that she would make every single American join that book club… People were worried about Obama coming to their homes and taking away their guns,” Trump said. “Oprah will come to your homes and leave books there, which is far, far worse.”
Like many billionaires — Michael Bloomberg, Carly Fiorina, Mark Cuban, Ross Perot (who really did run) — Oprah’s candidacy has been predicted as a possibility since she used her influence in September 2006, to promote a young Senator from Illinois on Larry King Live. Barack Obama’s candidacy began to take off and was boosted again when she endorsed him in May 2007. While it’s well known that Oprah lost audience when dismayed Hillary Clinton backers saw her as undermining their candidate (a preview of the feminist candidate wars that would emerge again in 2016), the entertainment and weight loss magnate put together a powerful fundraising and campaign apparatus, now known as the “Oprah effect,” that some social scientists have credited with putting Obama over the top.
“I think what Oprah can do is potentially bring out the congregants of the church of Oprah,” Marty Kaplan, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, told CNN after the Obama endorsement in 2007. “She is a charismatic leader of a lay congregation.” Indeed, Oprah’s value added is that she is widely regarded as a spiritual figure, one whose influence digs deeply into the American soul (and pocketbook.) The eager desire to take advice from Oprah, and adopt her attitude towards life and struggle, has caused her to be dubbed a “daytime cult leader” (Los Angeles Times, 2008), perhaps the least flattering appraisal of this phenomenon. With similar skepticism, in 2012, conservative Lee Habeeb described Winfrey as “a New Age billionaire who’d evolved beyond Jesus.”
Yale religious studies scholar Kathryn Lofton has captured the power of Winfrey’s cultural power, articulating the Oprah Inc. as a kind of civic religion. “The products of Oprah Winfrey’s empire offer a description of religion in modern society,” Lofton argues in Oprah: Gospel of an Icon (2011). “Within the religious pluralism of contemporary America, Oprah extols what she likes, what she needs, and what she believes. These decisions are not just product plug, but also proposals for a mass spiritual revolution, supplying forms of religious practice that fuse consumer behavior, celebrity ambition, and religious idiom. Through multiple media, Oprah sells us a story about ourselves.”
So, what is the story that an Oprah presidential candidacy might tell us about ourselves? Unfortunately, perhaps, it is that liberals want a strongman (or strongwoman) presidency as much as conservatives did. Indeed, commenters on both the right and the left now seem to take Oprah’s sacred or royal (another form of divinity) status for granted, something that should cause us to pause on how dramatically the last twenty-five years of Bushes, Clintons, Trumps — and yes, Obama — have changed our political culture.
Here are a few you might want to read:
- Frank Bruni, “Is Oprah the un-Trump or the un-Clinton?” The New York Times (January 10, 2018.)
- Ross Douthat, “Oprah: Prophet, Priestess, Queen?” The New York Times (January 10, 2018.)
- Grayson Quay, “Oprah Would Make a Better Queen Than President,” The American Conservative (January 10, 2018.)
- Rod Dreher, “Oprah’s Throne-And-Altar Liberalism,” The American Conservative (January 10, 2018.)
- Jeet Heer, “Why the Democrats Won’t Nominate Oprah for President,” The New Republic (January 8, 2018.)