After an uplifting speech at the Golden Globes Sunday night, many were calling for Oprah Winfrey to run for president. Her longtime boyfriend, Stedman Graham, says she might do it. There were reports that Oprah was “actively thinking about it.” There were even reports that the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., was mad anyone was thinking about it.
Welcome to 2018.
Like it or not, in today’s culture it’s not far fetched that Oprah Winfrey, a billionaire media mogul with zero political experience, could challenge our current real estate tycoon-TV star president, who also had no government experience. Nor is it hard to imagine that the same cult of personality-style campaign that helped deliver Donald Trump the White House could be just as competently wielded by a billionaire woman media mogul who has spent her life in television and movies and has already polled well against the president.
At this point, it’s also not unrealistic to envision pro wrestler turned top Hollywood actor, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, businessman and television personality Mark Cuban, or even rapper and entrepreneur Kanye West mounting serious presidential campaigns and perhaps even winning.
If you believe I’m exaggerating, think about it: Once upon a time, some scoffed at the notion that an actor like Ronald Reagan could become President of the United States. Yet, Reagan had also been California governor. We’re way past that now. Post-Trump, it is not outside the realm of what’s practical or possible that our popular celebrities could also become leader of the most powerful nation in the world.
The question is, what do we think it about it? Is this what we really want in our leaders?
During the 2016 election, I was neither a Donald Trump supporter nor a #NeverTrumper. But one of my favorite aspects of the Trump phenomenon is that he seemingly had blown the doors wide open on what could be considered palatable presidential material. Not that I ached for a long line of President Winfreys and Cubans, but anti-establishment figures I had supported and worked for–libertarian Republicans Ron and Rand Paul top among them–these types of candidates might have an easier time in the future due to Trump’s success. The same is true of anti-establishment candidates on the left like Bernie Sanders, who many continue to argue could have actually beat Trump in 2016.
Not that I want President Sanders. But I want something different and better than what Washington has been giving us. In electing Trump, America was also showing its disdain for not only another member of the failed Washington elite in Hillary Clinton, but her GOP counterparts in Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney (2012), John McCain (2008) – all Republicans voters refused, instead wanting “hope” and “change,” or a president who might “Make America Great Again.”
People still want change. It’s why so many get excited about the prospect of President Winfrey or a half-dozen other celebrities, whose cults of personality don’t differ much broadly in the public mind from a Trump or Barack Obama.
Presidents. TV stars. Billionaires. They’re all celebrities.
President Winfrey could be a conventional Democrat that gives great speeches. Indeed, that might be all the “change” voters need. Our personal identities are now so intertwined with our political ones, maybe feeling good is all Americans really want. Similarly, in many ways, Trump governs like any conventionally conservative Republican, but it’s his style and manner that enthralls both supporters and critics.
A friend who works at a prominent Washington think tank shared the following on Facebook Monday regarding the Oprah hysteria, “I don’t want to see the parties devolve further than they already have so that we’re just choosing between popular but unqualified demagogues that make one team feel better… being a good person who makes others feel good isn’t the hallmark of a POTUS.”
Agree. Though I like these various challenges to Washington consensus and appreciate them at least symbolically in whatever form they might take, the policy behind the populism ultimately matters more. A revolutionary president is needed and even desired by many, but what kind of revolution?
A libertarian Republican administration, whether Rand Paul or someone else, would be just as revolutionary as a socialist Sanders or nationalist Trump administration, each representing movements that are as thoroughly anti-establishment as they are different. Perhaps even an Oprah presidency (or a Rock or Cuban) would really be something different too. Trump is a mixed bag, who’s both unconventional and conventional, depending on the day and tweet.
Regardless, a President Oprah Winfrey could happen. And even if you think that’s crazy, don’t think that a return to politics as usual is necessarily preferable.