Hank Minor: #Oprah2020

Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 5:06pm

Nearly two weeks ago, Oprah Winfrey gave an unquestionably moving speech, calling on leaders — especially those in Hollywood— to end a culture of sexual harassment and assault. Out of this rose the #Oprah2020 hashtag along with a debate we shouldn’t be having: Should Winfrey run for president?

The success of Donald Trump as president (possible billionaire, unfortunate celebrity) isn’t an exclusively right wing phenomenon — the allure of rich, famous party members appeals to both ends of the politcal spectrum. Furthermore, presidents always become celebrities in the end, anyway — does it even matter if they were one before being elected?

The critical thing, though, is that celebrities are prepared to market themselves, and billionaires are prepared to ensure their own advantage. Barack Obama and George W. Bush (that is, Dick Cheney) were savvy presidents, to be sure, but their early lives and careers still weren’t altogether different from those of most Americans. They entered politics from the (relative) ground up, moving from state to national politics in a familiar pattern — we’re used to leaders like them.

I understand that electing an “Average American™” is the most tired campaign slogan in American politics, and beyond that, I wouldn’t actually want a completely average person running the country. That said, I think there is a fundamental difference of worldview between being a privileged child (Bush) or a politician ( Hillary Clinton, Obama) and being fantastically wealthy and the focus of the media. American culture so deifies the rich and famous that — naturally — their personalities change to fit the role.

On the other hand, it’s definitely tempting to meet Trump with his antithesis: resentment with inclusion, ineptitude in business with legitimate success, erratic egoism with a ruthlessly managed image. Winfrey is everything effective about Trump as a marketer, but with additional patience and a basic level of empathy for other people.

She’s not, however, a politician. We have no idea what her specific policy goals are or would be; we don’t know how she would act with regard to her wealth or the wealth of her peer group. Any campaign promises and candidate platforms would be created in the moment, without the weight of legislative accomplishments or prior lobbying to back them up. Winfrey would lack the unique political savvy developed by many other candidates through congressional or governing experience.

Journalist Derrick Clifton wrote in a Vox article last week that “(e)ven Winfrey isn’t safe from being called on to carry America’s burdens. Black women are seen as long-suffering laborers who can (be) counted on to carry heavy political baggage, despite often having the fruits of their labor stolen.” We’ve seen similar behavior following the election of Doug Jones in Alabama, where Black women voted overwhelmingly in his favor.

If speculation about a run from Winfrey continues — even though it’s been denied by third parties — it’s likely because she’s embraced the possibility, not because we’ve forced her to accept the burden of “most powerful person in the world.” Winfrey’s status as a businesswoman, media power and billionaire cloud the lens (as described by Clifton) used to evaluate the way liberals treat Black women as a voting bloc.

As part of a discussion over whether or not Winfrey should run for president, though, I’m not sure whether the cultural tendency Clifton indicated plays as large a role as some would suggest. Billionaires and celebrities seem to increasingly consider the presidency as part of their career trajectories, even more so than the entitlement to wealth. This is because of our collective entertainment with a presidential system in which brand recognition trumps all other factors.

I don’t have a problem with Winfrey specifically — she’s made comments that should be part of our discourse but which classic politicians would never (rationally) say. This, though, is the same justification I get when people defend Trump to me: He says what he wants, and that’s enough. As refreshing as it is to watch someone shove aside the frustrating traditions and decorum of normal politics, these traditions do serve a purpose. The opposition to tradition seen in the election of Trump isn’t justification enough to discard them entirely.

#Oprah2020 is an alluring idea because she, in a way, is more popular than Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris or Bernie Sanders could ever be. Furthermore, I’m sure she’d perform exceptionally well in a campaign against Trump — not that this is some superhuman feat of strategy — because of the eloquence of her past speeches, interviews and public performance. It’s important to remember, though, that campaigning and governing are two entirely different things, and we need candidates that can transition between the roles. The candidate who opposes Trump in 2020 will ultimately have to govern, and govern well, if they want to win.

Hank Minor can be reached at hminor@umich.edu