Earlier this month, Oprah Winfrey delivered a speech at the Golden Globe Awards which fell nothing short of inspiring. In this speech she spoke of “a new day being on the horizon” which lead to widespread speculation that the 2020 presidential election may be a fight to the death between Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump.
Frustrated and disillusioned Americans are looking to Oprah as a glimmer of hope. To some, the reality TV star provides a direct contrast with the vitriol and the mayhem of the Trump administration which has divided America so bitterly. Oprah’s talk of “a new day”, and “hope for a brighter morning” does feel inspiring, but the Oprah Winfrey phenomenon is one that points directly to what has now become the ‘new normal’, not just in America, but across the globe. She is part of a new group of celebrity politicians.
Oprah tells her story of being a poor child, living in rural Mississippi to becoming one of the world’s richest women. A billionaire with her own TV show and with a Presidential Medal of Freedom to her name to prove it. Her story is one which emulates the American dream.
Oprah Winfrey’s American dream exemplifies the potential of the individual to acquire enough money to be able to achieve their wildest dreams, if they just work hard enough. She eloquently conveys the conviction that the only person that is truly holding you back is yourself. The problem with this narrative is that it is intensely neo-liberal in its nature and thus, glosses over the political, social and economic barriers that prevent so many Americans from achieving economic prosperity.
Winfrey’s focus on the self as a linchpin for success is wholly ideological and does its job, in depoliticizing the system that America currently possesses, which prevents upward mobility. She preaches that you must adapt yourself to the changing world, rather than changing the world that we live in.
All of this talk of the power of the individual, gives the misleading impression that in America, the formula for success is simple, no matter your gender, ethnicity or your financial situation, all that success requires is a positive mindset. It’s easy to become consumed in this narrative when you listen to Oprah, she is an extremely skillful and inspiring orator, which makes it very easy to imagine her as President. This is what makes her a textbook populist.
America’s political system, allows for anybody to become the President, given that you were born in America, and you are over the age of 35. To lead the most powerful country on Earth requires no prior political experience. This somewhat baffling reality has paved the way for celebrities to use their money as well as their influence to make themselves into politicians. Oprah has endeavoured to use this to her advantage to trigger an emotional rather than rational response to America’s current political climate.
For 35 years, Oprah Winfrey has been a reality TV star. If she were to run for President, her story would be one not too dissimilar from that of Donald Trump. Yet one’s ability to enthral a crowd does not correlate with one’s ability to handle complex political situations and a daily basis, as the President is expected to do. If Winfrey’s motivation for taking the reign of the most powerful office in the world, without any previous political experience, is her opposition to Trump, then she risks becoming a protagonist in the very same story that led him towards the Oval Office in the first place.
Perhaps the biggest hypocrites of all are the prominent celebrities who have offered their endorsement for the Presidential campaign of Oprah Winfrey. In a recent interview with the BBC, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg spoke fondly of Oprah’s desire to make the world a better place. Meryl Streep added that Oprah has “the voice of a leader”. These are celebrities who publicly came out against Donald Trump for the very reason that he is a reality TV star. To them, the spectacle of a reality TV star becoming the President seemed ridiculous. To now publicly endorse a populist figure to be the President only seems to add to the enormity of the catastrophe that is the American political system, rather than take away from it.
It speaks volumes about America’s current political climate, that one woman can make a speech at an awards ceremony, and she can sway public opinion so far in the way of her Presidential candidacy. Oprah Winfrey also speaks volumes of the concentration of economic power among America’s wealthiest individuals. With her enormous wealth, Winfrey holds the power to reshape America’s entire political climate. This could either lead to political prosperity or unprecedented political decline.