On Sunday night’s “60 Minutes,” a panel of Michigan voters spent 20 minutes discussing their political differences on screen. It was a moving segment and a powerful one, but it wasn’t all that novel if you’ve been paying attention to the political divide over the past year. The power came not really from what the panelists were saying but who the moderator was: Oprah Winfrey.
Listening, asking, speaking without judgment, trying to find common ground — it was a superb performance by Oprah, and I use the word “performance” advisedly. She was dazzling in exactly the way that Oprah could always be dazzling, finding a tone appropriate for the moment without being heavy-handed.
If any figure in the United States bears watching over the next couple of years as our political culture continues the radical transformation that led to the election of Donald Trump, it’s Oprah. I believe she’s uniquely positioned, should she wish to commit herself, to seek the Democratic nomination for president and challenge Trump in 2020.
If you think that Trump can be beaten by a two-term governor of a Midwestern state with really good ideas about health care, or by a senator who really attracts young people, think again. The idea that a relatively conventional elected official will differentiate herself from Trump by dint of her seriousness or that an unconventional elected official can out-populist Trump is crazy.
If you need to set a thief to catch a thief, you need a star — a grand, outsized, fearless star whom Trump can neither intimidate nor outshine — to catch a star. We’re through the looking glass here. America is discarding old approaches in politics. Democrats will have to do the same to match the mood to the moment.
And that’s where Oprah Winfrey comes in. She is the mirror image of Trump, but more so. Of course, she’s female and he’s male; she’s America’s generous aunt and he’s America’s crazy uncle. And yes, she’s black and he’s white, she’s liberal and he’s whatever he is.
It goes beyond that. He’s rich and she’s rich, but she made her $3 billion herself and with no controversy. She is, in herself, the embodiment of the American Dream. He got famous from TV, and so did she, but she became vastly more famous and vastly more successful at it.
She went from Oscar-nominated actress to queen of tabloid TV. Then, sensing a cultural shift, in 1993 she dropped the bleak stuff and turned her show into a parade of the positive, with happy celebrity interactions and relentless guidance toward self-actualization (“be your best self”). Her cultural standing broadened and deepened when she assumed the mantle of book-publishing savior with her monthly novel selection. Then she became a magazine mogul. Then she became the manager of an entire cable network named for her.
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