Faith, hope and celebrity at the polls JANET ALBRECHTSEN
The idea of another billionaire TV star in the Oval Office isn’t so outlandish
On Sunday evening the national motto of the US was unofficially rewritten to catch the zeitgeist of modern politics. “In God we trust” became “In Oprah we trust”.
Crazy? Not at all. In an era of tumbling trust in major institutions, with politicians especially on the nose, “Oprah for president” is entirely predictable.
To be sure, it’s dumb and speaks to the decimation of the Democratic Party and Hollywood hypocrisy that so many want to swap one celebrity billionaire television star in the White House for another. But it’s inevitable.
Putting aside that she was a good friend of serial sexual creep Harvey Weinstein, what’s not to like about Oprah for president? The girl who grew up in poverty in Mississippi is a self-made billionaire. She’s a riveting storyteller, imbuing millions of adoring fans with a belief they can overcome adversity too.
Her very fine speech at Sunday night’s Golden Globe Awards when she won the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, melted hearts and lifted spirits across the world.
A decade ago Oprah was cool. Today, Oprah is the epitome of woke, a social crusader to millions. She founded the Oprah book club too, so apparently she reads. She can act, winning Emmys, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Oprah is a philanthropist who gives away cars to her fans. But there’s more still. Oprah is a modern-day preacher in an era when people have lost faith in just about every institution that wields power, including churches. A 2017 Gallup poll found a slight uptick, yet a measly 35 per cent of Americans express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in 14 major institutions. In other words, two-thirds of Americans don’t have much confidence in institutions that play a critical role in the life of America.
Here is a story of a faithless age: 88 per cent of Americans don’t trust congress; 79 per cent don’t trust big business, 73 per cent don’t trust the media, 72 per cent don’t trust organised labour; 68 per cent don’t trust the presidency, 60 per cent don’t trust the US Supreme Court and 59 per cent of Americans don’t trust churches or organised religion.
Oprah for president? It’s not a kooky idea. In his 2012 book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, The New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat pinged Oprah as a new-age religious leader, a simulacrum of pious political causes who fits a secular age.
The woman who’s made a motza by talking about feelings, from fear and jealousy and shame to love and devotion, is the spiritual goddess of self-fulfilment. Oprah says her mortal role on earth is a “higher calling”, encouraging people to “live their best life”, to find “your truth”.
In a post-truth world, the only truth we seem to agree on is we don’t trust those who brandish institutional power. We’re feeling disconnected, forgotten, displaced, ignored. Political distrust demanded political disruption that a polite Marco Rubio or a genteel Jeb Bush could never deliver. Donald Trump, the disrupter-inchief, stormed the political barricades by trading on disenchantment with Republicans, with congress, with the whole damn world.
Just as distrust drove Trump supporters to him, distrust drives his detractors to some crazy places too. This week the Committee to Protect Journalists named Trump the winner of its Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom award. It named him runner-up in the “Most Thinskinned” category, losing only to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Committee to Protect Journalists should stick to reporting on countries that jail journalists. Seventy-three journalists were imprisoned in Turkey last year, followed by 41 in China and 20 in Egypt. Trump hasn’t jailed any journalists. He just insults them. So who are the thin-skinned pansies here?
Neither has Trump turned out to be the dictator that his critics predicted a year ago. That they even imagined a Trump coup against US democracy points to a deep distrust in the checks and balances of the American system. So far congress has prevented the repeal of Obamacare. Trump hasn’t managed to build that wall. Lower courts have stopped Trump’s immigration ban. And Trump didn’t get his way in the recent Alabama Senate election. In fact, as The Wall Street Journal editorialised recently, the fascist coup predicted by many hasn’t come to pass because the US political system is “working more or less as usual”.
And a free media continues to cover and criticise Trump’s every move, mock every tweet, inhaling every piece of gossip, most recently Michael Wolff’s schlockhorror book that made headlines this past week for telling us, hold on now, that Trump is a germophobe, his White House is dysfunctional, some of his senior advisers think he’s nuts, he doesn’t share a bedroom with Melania and his daughter makes fun of his hair colour. Jeepers, creepers. Who’da thought.
To understand how distrust of media aided and abetted Trump’s rise consider this exchange on MSNBC earlier this week. Questioned about factual errors in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Wolff said: “If it makes sense to you, if it strikes a chord, if it rings true, it is true.”
“Here’s the thing about the book,” responded MSNBC’s Katy Tur, “and I read it. A lot of the stuff did read as — did feel true. There were a lot of factual errors as well.”
Feeling that something is true doesn’t make it true. Tur, who says she doesn’t vote to protect her journalistic neutrality, then congratulated Wolff on the book “and congratulations on the President hating it”.
Just as cynicism with formidable institutions drove voters to a TV celebrity for president in 2016, it’s happening again with Oprah. Meryl Streep told The Washington Post after the Globes, “I want her to run for president. I don’t think she had any intention. But now she doesn’t have a choice.”
Regrettably, Streep’s character assessments don’t carry much weight after her standing ovation for child rapist and famous director Roman Polanski at the Oscars in 2003.
Neocon Bill Kristol is on board with Oprah 2020 too, tweeting: “#ImWithHer … Understands Middle America better than Elizabeth Warren. Less touchy-feely than Joe Biden, more pleasant than Andrew Cuomo, more charismatic than John Hickenlooper.”
“Run, Oprah, run! An army of women would fight for you,” tweeted Democrat Jackie Speier from California.
And some are doing just that, with author Roxane Gay tweeting: “Our president is giving her state of the union.” Two of Winfrey’s friends have said she’s “actively thinking” about it and her longtime boyfriend says “she would absolutely do it”.
And why not? Oprah is the yang to Trump’s yin. She is a modern-day Billy Graham in an era when emotions rule, when feeling good about something is equated with doing good, when virtue-signalling counts for more than concrete outcomes. Oprah’s pseudoreligious power, her chat-show model of self-recovery and feel- good vibes could propel her into the presidency.
Whether Oprah runs matters less than the religious zeal willing her towards the Democrat nomination in 2020. It speaks volumes about the degradation of politics in general and the post-Obama, post-Clinton Democratic Party in particular. What’s Oprah’s tax policy? Her foreign policy position? Her economic beliefs?
None of that matters either. Political experience, serious public service and genuine philosophical beliefs have been displaced by the search for someone who can mobilise sentiment.
Trump did that. Bernie Sanders did it but was thwarted by the Democratic machine. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn is doing it for Labour. And Oprah, the woman who lauded The Secret, a spiritual book about the power of thinking good thoughts, could do it.
Professional politicians across the globe will mock Oprah for president just as they mocked Trump when he launched his bid for the GOP nomination in June 2015. But Trump and Oprah are both symbols of waning trust in and complacency towards statusquo power structures. Indeed, the frenzied excitement about Oprah 2020 matters for countries beyond the US, especially the rest of the Anglosphere, which also suffers from a trust deficit.
The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer surveyed more than 33,000 people across 28 countries and revealed a record fall in trust across the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs. Government is the least trusted in half of the 28 countries surveyed and political leaders are the least credible of all leaders. In Australia, 63 per cent of people don’t trust our government, a fall of 8 points on the previous survey.
And among young people it goes deeper than distrust in government. The annual Lowy Institute poll continues to find that Australians aged 18 to 29 don’t much care for democracy, with more than half disagreeing with the idea that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government. Stemming this downward trajectory of trust in government and how we are governed is the challenge of the modern era.
It’s not rocket science as to why celebrities, populists and political snake-oil salesmen are resonating with voters. There is a monumental values vacuum. Too many political leaders choose fashionable causes over traditional values. Too many of them want to feel loved rather than respected. Too few in politics are straight-talkers about big issues like immigration. Instead they hide behind carefully scripted, cautious tripe. And too few want to understand why trust levels are in free fall.
Lack of trust in our political system is a conundrum not just for politicians. We, the people of the Anglosphere, are getting the leaders we deserve: Theresa May v Jeremy Corbyn? Malcolm Turnbull v Bill Shorten? Justin Trudeau v the conservative leader Andrew whatshisname? Jacinda Ardern v Bill English? Against that wretched line-up, Trump v Oprah makes sense of it all.
Oprah is a modernday preacher in an era when people have lost faith in just about every institution that wields power, including churches
Clockwise from top, Oprah Winfrey won a standing ovation for her speech at the Golden Globe Awards; receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2013; and interviewing Donald Trump and his son in 2004