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Why Oprah, Not Trump, Could Change American Politics For Good

Oprah would obviously make a commanding presidential candidate. But what would it mean for the future of the country?

Oprah Winfrey - Cecil B. DeMille Award75th Annual Golden Globe Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 07 Jan 2018

Oprah Winfrey

David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

Has it come to this? With the White House and American ideals held hostage by a narcissistic loon exploiting his celebrity under the ludicrous guise of defending working-class values, does Oprah Winfrey hold the key to save us all?

It would be nice to think so. As her rousing Golden Globes acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille award made clear, Winfrey hits high notes of inspiration like a grand pianist performing for every woman in the world, not to mention anyone else susceptible to the euphoric grandeur of her delivery. Winfrey’s dynamic speech, about the persecution of women across generations and her own capacity to transcend oppression in the entertainment industry, jet-fueled the notion that she holds the best hope for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. However, as much as I’d love to join the giddy parade — let’s just print those O-2020 stickers and vote already! — a modicum of restraint is needed to manage expectations.

At 63, Oprah has amassed a vast media empire, a net worth of $2.8 billion, generated decades of accolades as a film and television star, and influenced millions of lives for the better. In many ways, she’s the anti-Trump: A wealthy and powerful entrepreneur who uses her power for good. However, there’s a fundamental difference between that kind of influence and the minutiae of running a country on a daily basis. The nation is losing patience with rehearsed politicians, but that doesn’t mean the profession of politics has been invalidated as well. While the Trump Administration’s policies reflect a mishmash of nationalistic fever dreams and murky GOP ideals, the president’s chaotic first year doesn’t exclusively reflect his ineptitude; it also speaks to a complete disconnect from the political process itself.

Rose Byrne and Oprah Winfrey, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

Rose Byrne and Oprah Winfrey in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Quantrell D. Colbert/HBO

That’s not to imply Oprah herself lacks the capacity to learn the rules of American governance beyond the optics that much of the country sees on television. She could appeal to the House and Senate on promising new bills, juggle phone calls with foreign leaders on overseas policies, and encourage the military with unparalleled charm. And of course, we’re overdue to elect a woman to the White House, and the power of her presence there would reach astounding heights.

But is that really the best use of her appeal, when commanding Democratic leaders who have spent their careers navigating this system are waiting in the wings? Why Oprah and not Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harris?

This logic stems from an if-then hypothesis worthy of further scrutiny: If Trump can be elected, so too can Oprah. But Trump, as every sensible person would agree, should not have been elected — not only because he’s a moronic, reckless psychopath who spews racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, but also because he has no idea what he’s doing and it will take much work to clean up his mess. Oprah, a connected and brilliant leader, could certainly assemble a team to help formulate the best ways forward. However, if the nation commits to another newcomer, it yields to the same backward logic that propelled Trump into office. Namely, that politics is so confusing and frustrating that it makes more sense to put an outsider in charge than someone who understands how the system works.

Maybe that’s true. After all, Barack Obama was a relative newcomer to the political arena, at least compared to presidents before him; moreover, the very nature of his mixed race identity, his background in community organizing, and his academic mindset, rendered him an outsider in a largely homogenized system of privileged dealmakers. He looked more like America as we wanted to see it. And Oprah — well, this famous Chicagoan embodied the country’s best version of itself when Obama was a pot-smoking teen. She invented the game.

Oprah Winfrey in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Among the celebrities cited as potential Trump foils, Oprah looms above them all. (Alongside American everyman Tom Hanks, whom Globes host Seth Meyers cited as a candidate for Vice President, Globes guest Dwayne Johnson has also toyed with the idea of a run.) Only, she has actually touched on issues that affect the lives of Americans at every level of the country’s de facto class system, from health to finance to career-building strategies. Plus, she’s a terrific symbol, and she knows it. The closing pronouncement of her speech, telling “all the girls watching” that “a new day is on the horizon” may as well have been spoken from the stage of the Democratic National Convention. But let’s not forget that the excitement of a powerful symbol is vulnerable to misleading perceptions.

Among the shoutouts in Oprah’s speech, she singled out Steven Spielberg, who cast her in her breakthrough role in “A Color Purple.” Nobody knows inspirational narratives better than the world’s most successful commercial filmmaker, and yet his alleged role in advising Hillary Clinton fell short of galvanizing the country more than Trump’s deranged pronouncements. Oprah may be a stronger candidate than Hillary by default, with her immediate capacity to turn out the kind of black women vote that made such a difference in Alabama on a national scale, and she has already won over working-class television viewers across the political spectrum for multiple generations.

However, her campaign against Trump (or, if the 25th Amendment comes into play, an even scarier right-wing extremist like Mike Pence) would bring the ugliest aspects of the country’s identity to the foreground. If she fights fair and takes the high ground, she might freeze out the influence of the Trump contingency. But if it takes optics to beat optics — if only Oprah stands the best chance of leading this country back to a place of sanity — then American politics have changed forever.

The prospects of her presidency hold promise for anyone who has felt like a prisoner by the news over the past year. Imagine an inverse version of the darkly comic tale of dysfunction in Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.” Wolff’s book fixates — and at times even fetishizes — the absurdity of men in rooms talking about things they may or may not understand, playing high stakes under absurd circumstances with little consequences of their actions. Wolff quotes Roger Ailes as calling Trump “a rebel without a cause,” and calls Trump Tower “now headquarters of a populist revolution, suddenly seemed like an alien spaceship — the Death Star — on Fifth Avenue.”

Oprah, then, could command her own variation of the Rebel Alliance, a Princess Leia floating to the rescue on the aspirations of a new hope. But this kind of histrionic narrative obscures the more complex nature of running a country, and that’s what got us into this mess in the first place. As much as she’d continue to inspire the masses, Oprah would have to build a team attuned to the nature of political processes, not televisual appeal.

Recent Democratic victories in Alabama and Virginia — in traditional campaigns, by worthy candidates — can still yield positive results. An Oprah candidacy suggests that most voters would rather redefine the office of the presidency in broader leadership terms. If Oprah becomes the leading candidate for president, it means that the Trump wasn’t an anomaly, celebrity presidents are the new norm, and she could become the greatest savior in American history. But if the job has been redefined forever, we also must consider how this nation dispenses power to anyone who looks good on television ever again.

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