When Donald Trump was elected in the fall of 2016, some analysts saw the end of normal politics and the rise of a new wave of celebrity candidates.
“Voters have demonstrated their thirst for the Big Gulp, an outsize figure who can provide a sugary rush not normally found in politics,” Ben Terris wrote in a Washington Post story featuring The Rock, Curt Schilling, George Clooney, and Angelina Jolie.
And at last night’s Golden Globes, we got our first real 2020 news cycle, and it was about Oprah Winfrey, a widely adored and unifying American figure whose celebrity is even larger than Trump’s.
“A new day is on the horizon,” she announced to roaring applause. Was it the beginning of a presidential campaign? Her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, told the LA Times, “She would absolutely do it."
“Why not?" asked Politico’s Playbook. "We bet she has pretty high approval ratings among, well, everyone. She’s universally known. She’d raise the money quite easily. She's a billionaire, so she could say she has business chops. Imagine Donald Trump talking trash about Oprah! Quite frankly, there isn’t any clear Democratic favorite that would clear the field at the moment. Don’t count someone like her out.”
You can see why this would make the professional politicians nervous:
But while there was, a year ago, a strong logic to the triumph of celebrity politics, we might want to count that among the early casualties of Trump’s destructive reign.
“What I think voters will sour on by 2020 is the concept that they will trust the skill set of a famous person simply because they are wealthy, famous, or both,” celebrity business guy and oft-mentioned potential candidate Mark Cuban told me in an email this morning. (Cuban, who like Trump is mostly famous for playing an idealized version of himself on television, added that if a celebrity could come with substantive solutions, “being Oprah will only help.”)
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.
Trump has also made a strong case to Oprah on why she shouldn’t run. To run for president is to ensure, demand even, that at least 40% of Americans hate you. The one recent political poll on Oprah hints at this: She had a surprisingly high unfavorable rating: 33%. Who dislikes Oprah? When you put her in a political context, Republicans do, it turns out. And Oprah has had her ups and downs, and would be signing on for the sort of hostile examination of her own career that nobody would welcome.
“Oprah (and everyone wanting Oprah to run) would have to be willing to accept that 40% to 52% of the country could end up hating Oprah,” a colleague pointed out to me. And that could be at the optimistic end of the spectrum — her inevitable clash with the Bernie wing of the Democrats, who will almost certainly paint her as a billionaire candidate imposed by Hollywood megadonors, could leave real damage to Brand Oprah on the left.
Still. Perhaps, as former Obama aide Alyssa Mastromonaco tweeted, “we can’t stop #oprahforpresident." Over the last few hours I have put my contrary arguments to some colleagues who are less steeped in American politics.
Their response is to look at me blankly and say, “But Oprah.”
Alyssa Mastromonaco's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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