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Oprah and the fantasy of a celebrity president

Reagan, Trump, and Oprah: why America loves the dream of a celebrity president.

75th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Press Room Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

“I want all the girls watching here now to know that a new day is on the horizon!” Oprah Winfrey declared at the Golden Globes on Sunday night. She was accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award for career achievement and taking the opportunity to speak out against sexual assault in America. But to many viewers, it looked as though she was also in the process of launching a bid for the White House, and this speech was her “it’s morning again in America” moment.

Oprah’s speech was stirring, hopeful, even statesman-like — and many Democrats eagerly pounced on it.

“Lord, we need passion and excitement,” state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter told the Washington Post. “I know it’s conjecture right now, but I’d ask her to give it serious consideration. If anybody could bring us together, it’s her.”

It’s not “the craziest of ideas,” wrote Vox’s Emily Stewart. CNN reported that Oprah was actively considering the idea of running.

“It’s up to the people,” her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, told the LA Times. “She would absolutely do it.”

Complicating many observers’ response to the possibility of a President Oprah is our current president, Donald Trump, who like Oprah is a TV celebrity first and foremost.

“I think one of the arguments for Oprah is 45,” Nancy Pelosi told the Washington Post, referring to Trump by his rank as the United States’ 45th president. “I think one of the arguments against Oprah is 45.”

Trump and Oprah represent two poles of the fantasy of the celebrity president, one of America’s favorite daydreams. It was the fantasy America indulged when it elected Ronald Reagan, when it salivated over the Kennedys’ every move, when it mused over how Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, etc. should be president.

The celebrity president is an enduring fantasy, and that’s not (only) because America likes electing political neophytes to high office.

Celebrities are avatars of America’s subconscious. They are the people onto whom we project all our deepest fears and fantasies.

Marilyn Monroe represented sex and innocence simultaneously; she is the vessel into which postwar American culture poured all of its erotic longings and all of its Freudian anxieties. Cary Grant represented postwar American masculinity at its most virile; Jimmy Stewart was the American Everyman, humble and downtrodden but always striving to do the right thing. Today, Beyoncé represents goddess-like empowerment.

So when we fantasize about electing a celebrity as president, we’re not imagining that Oprah is secretly a brilliant legislator or that the Rock has hidden depths as a policy wonk. We’re imagining that the perfect, untouchable, and morally righteous figure of our dreams can stride straight off the screen into the White House and make everything better.

Reagan and Trump both embodied different TV dad fantasies, to wild success

If anyone understood how powerful the fantasy of the celebrity president could be, it was Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s star image was practically designed for the presidency: all twinkling avuncular eyes and an air of condescending father-knows-best competence.

His competence felt familiar and reliable, because he’d spent years inside of American living rooms, on TV, and in movies. Reagan’s star image was a known quantity, intimate. He didn’t just feel like a father figure; he felt like your father figure, a sense that he courted and developed assiduously.

In televised press conferences, he spoke to reporters, the New Republic wrote in 1984, “on a cozy, chummy, faintly paternalistic first-name basis.” Reagan knew how to act as the benevolent dad not just to the nation, but to every individual person who might be in his base, right on down to the press pool.

The question of whether or not Reagan himself was a competent president was irrelevant to the fantasy he personified to his supporters. Reagan didn’t need to be good at his job; he just needed to look like he was good at it.

He embodied the ideal of a benevolent patriarch for the conservative base that he mobilized, who badly wanted a father-knows-best type at the helm. They wanted someone to bring the hippies and the poor and the minorities and the counterculture types in line — but someone who would do it in a way that felt respectable. Fatherly.

Trump, in contrast, harnessed a much less benign-seeming fantasy to make his way to the White House. Anne Helen Petersen captured this shortly after Trump’s election:

In truth, Trump was a reality star just waiting for the reality age: No other medium portrays his impulse toward conspicuous consumption and conspicuous demonstrations of power as effectively. With The Apprentice, Trump solidified the reality era–tinged understanding of the American dream: It’s not actual hard work that makes you successful, but the ability to evince the feeling and effect of power and wealth.

Trump didn’t exude competence and fatherliness so much as he exuded wealth, power, a kind of crassness that can feel like honesty, and most of all, rage at those who had made America not great anymore. Only Trump’s wealth, power, and greed could fix it. He was Archie Bunker to Reagan’s Ward Cleaver, and he became wildly successful.

Oprah’s star image is based on empathy, wisdom, and success — qualities in demand from a large swath of the electorate

The President Oprah fantasy is different. Oprah’s star image is rooted not so much in rage and resentment as it is in a sense of wisdom and kindness and empathy.

Oprah the celebrity is not a condescending-but-correct Leave It to Beaver dad, like Reagan was, or a furious real-talk-delivery-system Archie Bunker dad, like Trump. Instead, she’s a nonthreatening, endlessly positive mother figure. She loves you no matter what. She is wise and positive and understanding. When she talks to her audience onscreen, you feel like she’s talking just to you.

Director Ava DuVernay has called Oprah “the all–knowing, wisest lady in the universe.” Oprah is “the best woman alive,” the Miami New Times once declared. “Oprah has a unique way of connecting with people,” says Forbes.

“She understands how to connect with audiences and give them what they want at a particular time,” Janice Peck, author of The Age of Oprah, told me. “She’s always been very smart at figuring at who her audience is and how to resonate with them.”

“She’s identified as this warm, caring, super successful, and absolutely non-controversial figure,” Peck explained. “There’s this sense that Oprah would be good at being president because she’s so good at all this other stuff. She has an ability to connect with an audience.”

But Peck argues that Oprah’s ability to connect with her audience is in and of itself political. Part of the secret to her enduring appeal, Peck says, is her ability to keep white women — her biggest demographic — from thinking of her as black. “You have all these white fans who have historically talked about her as if she is a personal friend of theirs, as if she could come into their homes,” Peck said, “which of course she did, on their TV screens.”

Oprah’s celebrity image, Peck argues, is at once empowering, carefully non-threatening, and appealing to mainstream liberals. “She’s a reminder of the ways in which there was supposed to be this erasure of race,” Peck argues, and of the post-racial moment that America was imagined to have entered after Obama took office in 2008 but which never truly emerged.

“She’s in favor of racial opportunity and fairness,” Peck said, “but she also has taken a lot of opportunities in her past to distance herself from the so-called black underclass, from those she considers to be angry black people.” (Peck cites remarks of Oprah’s like, “Race is not an issue. It has never been an issue with me. … Truth is, I’ve never felt prevented from doing anything because I was either black or a woman,” which Peck said seem to ignore the systemic inequalities of American society.) “And all of those moves cement her as someone that mainstream liberals can relate to and not be threatened by.”

The fantasy of President Oprah, then, is not a fantasy that supposes that Oprah Winfrey, billionaire businesswoman and media icon, is also secretly a political genius.

“Many of the same people horrified about Obama would be horrified about her, for racial reasons,” Peck said. “Then there would be gender reasons. It’s not like it’s everybody who wants President Oprah. The people who are really responsive here, she resonates for them because she is a neoliberal Democrat. She’s like Obama or Clinton. It’s like, ‘We need to bring that person back, and she’s got charisma. Why not?’”

It’s a fantasy that a figure of non-controversial warmth, wisdom, and empathy; of post-racial unity and post-feminist idealism; of the beloved Obama era — that this figure could take control of the country, affect change, and fix everything.

This is the antithesis of the fantasy represented by Trump. There’s a reason Trump impulsively said he’d like to have Oprah as his vice president back in 1999: Her image is a perfect photographic negative of his, warm and nurturing where his is harsh and abrasive, uplifting and giving where his is withholding and punishing.

The fantasy is the idea that when Oprah says, “I’m here to help you turn up the volume in your life,” she means it for all of us, forever. And that she can really do it — because if Oprah can’t, who can?

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