In early October 1999, Donald Trump went on Larry King’s CNN show to announce he had formed an exploratory committee with an eye toward securing the presidential nomination of the Reform Party. This was a brief flirtation, but it lasted long enough for Trump to appear on television a lot and position himself as a meaningful celebrity for the new American century.
In the interview, King asked if he had a vice presidential candidate in mind. “Oprah, I love Oprah,” Trump said. “Oprah would always be my first choice.”
TRUMP: Oprah. Your competitor, right?
KING: No. Oprah is a competitor to no one.
TRUMP: You know what? I tell you, she’s really a great woman, though. She is a terrific woman. She is somebody that is very special.
I have not even thought about it. I guess we’ll see, we’ll see. Maybe that’s part of the whole process.
KING: Would she be someone ― I mean, kidding aside, that you might think about?
TRUMP: If she’d do it, she’d be fantastic. I mean, she’s popular, she’s brilliant, she’s a wonderful woman. I mean, if she would ever do it. I don’t know that she would ever do it. She’s got, you know...
KING: You would ask her.
TRUMP: She would be sort of like me. I mean, I have a lot of things going, she’s got a lot of things going, in terms of...
KING: What a ticket that would be.
TRUMP: That would be a pretty good ticket. But she’s a very exceptional woman.
Sunday night, the exceptional woman gave an exceptional address. Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech was gracious, empathic, rousing. She used her platform to give a voice to the marginalized and to defend the country’s most basic freedoms. It was in all ways the antithesis of everything Trump has ever said.
This made for a nice television moment. But because we live in a nightmare hellscape void of logic and reason, a consensus quickly formed among bien pensant liberals around the fantasy of Oprah running for president in 2020, as if a presidency could be constructed solely out of nice television moments. This was a revealing bit of wish-casting, suggesting among other things it’s not just Trump voters who are fatally unserious about our politics.
Against all odds, Donald Trump won. This fluke came about because a confluence of mistakes and terrible circumstances seems to have convinced people that the answer is to respond to nihilism with nihilism in kind. If we are to be ruled by political dilettantes, some people seem to think, why not a dilettante beloved by all?
Please let’s not do this again. Liberals want badly to believe they aren’t complicit in the Trump phenomenon, but what else was Trump but an expression of the same skepticism toward the actual work of politics that’s currently fueling the liberal Oprah fantasy? The dream is that Oprah is such a specimen of perfect virtue that she will create consensus wherever she walks. But the reality is that she’s so universally beloved right now largely because she is apolitical (notwithstanding her foray into cautious skepticism about war). Her career has been built not on organizing or governance or on taking particularly coherent positions on the events of the day, but on presenting a warm, telegenic figure whom people can build into some vague idea of a savior. It’s the worst elements of the Obama phenomenon, with the best elements — the actual political talents — stripped out.
Oprah and Trump aren’t so different in their relation to their fans. They both offer catharsis on the cheap, with Oprah as the liberal-values alternative to Trumpism — a better, more humane alternative, certainly, but the choice of a people determined to suppress the real conflicts at the heart of the country.
Fortunately, we live in a world where we do not have only two options. Neither are we relegated to a pool of wealthy entertainers. The answer to Trump isn’t to elevate an aristocracy of celebrity right-mindedness, with Oprah or Tom Hanks ordering drone strikes with only the purest of intentions. The answer is to elevate politicians who do the politics better than the other guys. Liberals who think their program will prevail because of the nobility of their character have had the run of the Democratic Party long enough. Time’s up on them, too.