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Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

The temptation of Oprah Winfrey (by Edward Luce)

12 January 2018


“It is easy to see why so many Americans are tempted. As her speech at the Golden Globes ceremony showed, Oprah Winfrey is everything that Donald Trump is not.

Unlike Mr Trump, Ms Winfrey is a certified billionaire. She made her name by marketing empathy as opposed to saying “you’re fired”. She donates to charitable causes rather than pretending to do so. And she is self-made while Mr Trump was born in a feathered nest. But they share a disqualifying trait: they are celebrities with no experience in politics. If Ms Winfrey is the answer to Mr Trump, what was the question? 

I mean no disrespect to famous people. America invented the celebrity and nobody does it as well. But America also came up with modern democracy. The problem is that celebrity culture is taking over politics, which is a dead loss for governing. If politics were a popularity contest, Ms Winfrey would deserve to win. Against Mr Trump, she would merit a North Korean-style 100 per cent turnout. But there is nothing in Ms Winfrey’s background that would equip her to tackle the future of work, or the rise of China. All a Winfrey administration would bring is personal brand destruction. 

What is at stake is America’s ability to govern itself sensibly. The US constitution was designed to exclude mob rule. The people should have their say — but with safeguards. It was set up precisely to stop someone like Mr Trump from taking over. The fact that many Americans do not know this underlines the point. The popular view is that the US was founded as a democracy. In fact, it was born as a constitutional republic. There is a big difference. America’s founding fathers feared the demagogue. Their system worked until 2016. Now it is in jeopardy. 

Ms Winfrey’s ascent would seal America’s fate as a country that no longer takes politics seriously. If the answer to Mr Trump is to fight celebrity with celebrity, the idea of public service would die. For all her virtues, Ms Winfrey is no readier for power than Mr Trump. By contrast, Ronald Reagan, who was twice elected as governor of California and had once before run for the nomination, was qualified for high office. He began life as an actor but he did not reach the White House because of that. A life in politics taught Mr Reagan the art of compromise. Politics is about spending capital to achieve messy results. Being a celebrity is about protecting your brand. 

Perhaps America is too far gone to stop the celebrity takeover. Other democracies offer warning signs. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi is staging a comeback. The octogenarian is in with another chance of power in Italy’s next election a few weeks from now. Having elected him on previous occasions, Italy’s standards are permanently lowered. The Roman pantomime has become normal. In Germany, by contrast, politics is still safely boring. Because of its history, Germany is better inoculated than most to the siren song of celebrity. In the past, western democracies built walls between church and state. The wall we need today is one that would separate entertainment from governing.

But let us suppose that is impossible. What would happen in a 2020 face off between Mr Trump and Ms Winfrey? The first casualty would be the Democratic party. By nominating Ms Winfrey, it would have conceded the argument that democracy is a reality television show. Today there is still one party that values expertise. Tomorrow there may be none. 

The second casualty would be Ms Winfrey. The Trump machine would scour her biography for any mud that would stick. In a contest between brands, Mr Trump would relish the prospect of taking on a rich, black liberal woman. He might well win. Even if Ms Winfrey won, the contest would entrench culture war as the dominant mode of US politics. Culture wars are a zero-sum game. Even when you win, you are losing. 

The only time Ms Winfrey dabbled in politics was when she endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. I was at that New Hampshire event. “You are the one,” said Ms Winfrey of Mr Obama. It was an electrifying moment. Mr Obama was also accused of lacking experience. Compared to Ms Winfrey, he was a veteran. Ten years on, Mr Obama would be a good sounding board for Ms Winfrey. If his advice is wrong, she should listen to Nancy Pelosi, the most seasoned Democratic legislator. “One of the arguments for Oprah is 45,” she said — in reference to Mr Trump as America’s 45th president. “One of the arguments against Oprah is 45.” Which was Ms Pelosi’s way of saying: “Stick to your day job.” That was smart advice.”



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