Faith, hope and celebrity at the polls JANET ALBRECHTSEN

The idea of an­other bil­lion­aire TV star in the Oval Of­fice isn’t so out­landish

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER -

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

AP/GETTY

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

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