I was driving my teenage daughter and her friend to school today, and we started talking about the Oprah for President boomlet. Though these girls are politically cognizant, they pay attention more to teenage focused social media than CNN. But their attention to a different type of medium made the discussion interesting.
I assumed that when I mentioned Oprah potentially her running for President, they would both be on board. They had viewed “The Speech” and were truly moved by it. Surprisingly, they disagreed on 2020. My daughter was ready for Oprah to run for president because she wants to see Trump gone. However, her friend viewed an Oprah candidacy as just a doubling down on what is the fundamentally flawed underpinning of the Trump Presidency: the celebration of celebrity over experience.
In a very articulate analysis, the young woman professed admiration for Oprah, but believed she was not qualified for the highest office in the land. My daughter’s friend was surprised as to the support she has already garnered. She’s particularly worried about the domino effect Oprah’s candidacy could have. We would have primaries that don’t consist of Ted’s and Hilary’s, but of Kid Rock and…the Rock.
Several years ago, I worked for Donald Trump on a casino project. I had some exposure to him and his family. They were gracious and asked all the right questions. But I saw the effect of celebrity when we took him into the neighborhood where we wanted to site the project. He was magic. He was successful, and people wanted to be close to him. I told friends when Trump declared his candidacy that I believed he could achieve a success with working class people of all races if he made it to November based on what I had seen. He threw away minority votes with his caustic comments. However, his celebrity appeal and personal success were core tenants of his campaign to non-minority voters.
Now, we are looking a similar same scenario with Oprah. She’s glamorous, well-spoken, and incredibly successful. She could appeal to a huge range of voters. But I would urge those who are encouraging her to run to take a deep breath and look at what they are proposing to the country. If Oprah runs, she would have launched her candidacy at the Golden Globes, an event for the cultural and economic elite. She would be using her celebrity – rather than her policy platforms – to drive the vote. While she might be less virulent than Trump, some of her candidacy would be rooted in a similar celebrity style: splashy and simple lines that allow people to ignore the bigger issues.
Time and time again, we have been the victims of inexperience in our elected leaders. Oprah might be the best tonic to rid ourselves of a mistake. But the tonic might guarantee that our democratic institutions become entirely ensnared in our popular culture.
Larry Ceisler is a Pennsylvania-based public affairs executive. If you’d like to reach him, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.