Gordon Campbell on Oprah as a presidential hopeful


Oprah for President…That was one of those summer silly season stories, right ? Maybe not. On the morning after the Golden Globes Awards ceremony where she delivered That Speech (“I want all the girls watching here now to know that a new day is on the horizon!”) a lot of people seem to have woken up in the cold light of day with a vision of President Winfrey still dancing in their heads. Oprah’s presidential run may have legs.

So….a whole week later, what do we actually think about the idea of the leader of the Western world (until Trump arrived, that’s how we used to describe US presidents) coming down to a choice between Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump? To all intents, an election match-up between those two would mark the death knell of any notion of politics as a contest between competing policy programmes and ideologies. Initially at least, the 2020 presidential race would be all about brand names and personal likeability.

If Winfrey is serious about running, the first week of reactions would have been heartening for her. Oh, a few critics did emerge in the likes of the New York Times and this article on Slate was particularly savage, but on the whole, the nation didn’t exactly recoil in horror. Some commentators even argued that Winfrey could be able to mobilise sectors of the electorate that the current crop of Democratic hopefuls would struggle to reach.

Clearly, we haven’t arrived by accident at this point where an Oprah vs Trump match-up is getting discussed semi-seriously. That traditional notion of politics as a contest of ideas managed by political parties (and enacted collegially by the victor) has never looked less credible, or less attractive than it does right now. Around the Western world, voters have been casting their ballots based on their perception of the personal qualities of the individual who carries the party banner, rather than for the policy detail. That’s been the real (and only) similarity between the elections of Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron and Jacinda Ardern – they may differ on policy grounds and in ability, but each of them succeeded in convincing the public that they (and they alone) could bring about change for the better. Trump alone could drain the swamp. Ardern can house the homeless. Corbyn can save the National Health Service etc. Politics as a team sport has rarely been held in such high disdain, as now.

There’s a democratic – some might say demagogic – quality to this process. Like it or not, the process of celebrities-as-politicians has brought a lot of otherwise disengaged voters back into the tent. As one US commentator on the Oprah phenomenon pointed out, “Its easier to relate to people than to abstract ideas or institutions.” Interacting with a politician/celebrity can also feel like more of a personal, two way experience. In that sense, Trump’s rallies in 2016 – and his use of Twitter – were more like the personalised Depression-era political meetings of the 1930s than the television-monitored debates of the past few decades. We’d become used to the elites talking to each other about policy in terms and in tones designed to impress, but also to exclude, much of the electorate. Of late, policy formation (and its execution) had been deemed to be something best left to the experts.

Fine. Not any longer. Yet if the US is seriously contemplating Oprah Winfrey as a presidential contender what “role” would she be being expected to perform? Celebrity politicians may not be expected to be adept at every nuance of policy detail, but they’re definitely expected to be transformative:

When we fantasize about electing a celebrity as president, we’re not imagining that Oprah is secretly a brilliant legislator or that the Rock has hidden depths as a policy wonk. We’re imagining that the perfect, untouchable, and morally righteous figure of our dreams can stride straight off the screen into the White House and make everything better.

As Constance Grady also pointed out on Vox, if Ronald Reagan was the celebrity Dad politician par excellence – all twinkling avuncularity and father-knows-best condescension – then Oprah Winfrey’s celebrity image is its Norman Rockwell mirror image. She’s been cast as something more like the mother-of-the-nation :
….She’s a non-threatening, endlessly positive mother figure. She loves you no matter what. She is wise and positive and understanding. When she talks to her audience onscreen, you feel like she’s talking just to you….“She understands how to connect with audiences and give them what they want at a particular time,” [says]Janice Peck, author of The Age of Oprah. “She’s identified as this warm, caring, super successful, and absolutely non-controversial figure,” Peck explained. “There’s this sense that Oprah would be good at being President because she’s so good at all this other stuff. She has an ability to connect with an audience.”
Central to this appeal would be Winfrey’s ability to apparently remove the issue of race from the voting public’s perceptions of her :

Part of the secret to her enduring appeal, Peck says, is her ability to keep white women — her biggest demographic — from thinking of her as black.“Oprah’s celebrity image, Peck argues, is at once empowering, carefully non-threatening, and appealing to mainstream liberals. “She’s a reminder of the ways in which there was supposed to be this erasure of race,” Peck argues, and of the post-racial moment that America was imagined to have entered after Obama took office in 2008 but which never truly emerged. Many of the same people horrified about Obama would be horrified about her, for racial reasons,” Peck said. “Then there would be gender reasons. It’s not like it’s everybody who wants President Oprah. The people who are really responsive here, she resonates for them because she is a neo-liberal Democrat. She’s like Obama or Clinton. It’s like, ‘We need to bring that person back, and she’s got charisma. Why not?’”

And in New Zealand…

As onlookers to the Oprah bubble, New Zealand has no reason to feel entirely superior. Here, the Labour Party cast around for several years (and for two failed elections) before it finally found a leader able to make a centre-left agenda look electorally attractive. Long before Jacindamania, David Lange had epitomised the empty vessel celebrity politician, a cheerily sparkling figurehead elected to free us from the dour tyranny of the Muldoon era…Unfortunately, Lange also proved to be so clueless about the economic policy agenda he was fronting that it took him three years to realise its implications, and rebel against them.

As the Slate article (linked to above) also points out, Oprah Winfrey has also been a prime figure in delivering a mass audience for any amount of New Age mystic quackery, Satanic panics, paranormal encounters, self improvement evangelists…. and other peddlers of the message that if you want something strongly enough, or if you wish away your illness with sufficient faith, then healing and happiness awaits. Her show was never hard news, but about offering a flight from it, on a magic carpet ride.

Long before Trump, Winfrey was promoting an anti-intellectual distrust of authority, up to and including Jenny McCarthy’s influential campaign against vaccination. As McCarthy famously said on the Oprah show (and to Winfrey’s “You go, girl !” encouragement) “The University of Google is where I got my degree from!” Safe to say, electing Oprah would not be a rejection of fake news “ – but it would do its best to deliver you from the news that makes you feel bad, or sad. Mom will fix it.

The Future….
Overall, its pretty easy to see why Trump has been saying he’d welcome a contest in 2020 with Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey’s race, gender and her track record of pushing a New Age spirituality only slightly more subtle than the Care Bears, would all be very, very welcome fodder for Trump. Would he dare to be mean to the mother of the nation? Only jokingly, of course, and we do know how this President likes to joke. Its easy to imagine just how divisive – and usefully diverting, for Trump – such a contest would be.

Arguably, the kind of candidate more likely to succeed against Trump would not be a fellow fantasist, but someone able to hold Trump’s feet to the fire i.e. a more traditional politician. Assuming by then that the country hasn’t waged a diversionary war against Iran or North Korea such a politician would have a lot of their spadework already done for them, by 2020. Already, the extent (and speed) of Trump’s betrayal of the people who voted for him has been remarkable. Usefully, Vox has summarized the transition of Trump the 2016 populist to Trump the dutiful servant of the economic hard right, only 12 months later.

Ultimately, a President Winfrey could only preside serenely over the nation if the Democrats managed to win a Senate majority (at least) in this year’s midterms. On current polling that may look possible, on paper. Yet because of (a) the extent of gerrymandering (b) the basic lack of proportionality in the US electoral system and (c) because of the peculiar nature of the 2018 midterms (which put many Democratic seats up for grabs, and only an array of Republican seats that are deeply red) the Democrats could maintain their sizeable lead in the popular vote, and yet still fail to win a Senate majority.

The current contenders ? Joe Biden (he’d be 78 at his inauguration) Bernie Sanders ( he’d be 79) and Elizabeth Warren (she’d be 71) are the current Democratic front-runners. In the next tier down ( eg New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Karen Gilliland, California’s Kamala Harris) the Ohio senator Sherrod Brown is in an interesting position. Brown is up for re-election this year, and was recently described by the Washington Post in these terms:

If Democrats want to go populist and progressive, Brown fits the bill. If they’re worried about losing the Rust Belt and the white working class again, he also fits the bill, and does so better than any name on this list….Call this your first real sleeper pick. First, though, he’ll need to get past his 2018 re-election bid in a swing state.

Ironically, the Republicans are currently heading down the same old celebrity politics route to try and knock Brown off. Reportedly, the GOP has been trying to recruit J. D. Vance (the best selling author of Hillbilly Elegy) as Brown’s opponent in November. If Brown does get defeated, I guess there’s always the potential some people claim to see in this guy.

If we all care hard enough, maybe Oprah won’t run.

Dolores O Riordan. R.I.P
A lot of people hated the Cranberries, who became a convenient punching bag for people keen to prove that they were tougher than the rest and into…you know, the real, harder stuff. Harder than the Cranberries? Yep, that hard. Sure, the Cranberries’ mix of indie tropes with the prettiest of folkish melodies and arena production values hasn’t worn very well, but O’Riordan’s voice still sounds as gorgeous as it ever did. Her sudden death at the age of 46 is tragic. Here, as reminders for fans, are “Dreams” and “Ode to My Family….”