It is remarkable how eager we are to glide over the 2018 midterms (which are crucially important) in order to speculate about the 2020 presidential campaign. Of course, the presidency is more important than any seat in congress. But what happens to congress in 2018 will not only be used by the pundits as an augury of 2020 (and thus create a presumption in favor of one candidate or the other) but will determine exactly how bad the years between 2018 and 2020 (or, heaven forfend, 2024) will be.
But even knowing this I find 2020 irresistible to contemplate. That is all the more true since Oprah Winfrey’s triumphant performance at the Golden Globes award ceremony on January 7.
The ceremony itself was billed as a tribute to, and celebration of, #MeToo and its success in altering the discourse and the power structure of Hollywood. Women were now ascendant! Women were making the rules! Women could and did dress in black to demonstrate strength and solidarity – and their presence as an autonomous group with no need for men to tell them what to do. Yay – a victory for feminism!
Um, just a minute there! Yes, that was certainly the explicit and intended message. But meta- and subliminal messages also were available, and at least as potent.. Although some of the men at the ceremony wore black (and were celebrated in Oprah’s speech as “pretty phenomenal”), they said nothing and mostly looked embarrassed, as if they had strayed into the wrong awards ceremony and couldn’t find the exit.
This is problematic. On the surface, we might feel gratified that for once, it was women who were in control and making decisions together. But men’s apparent disconnect suggests that the battle has not quite been won.
Like any other prestigious institution Hollywood operates by the power of the checkbook. He – and almost always it is he – who pays the money runs the show. He who pays the money in Hollywood determines what movies get made and who gets to make them. Until men’s control of the money is broken, in Hollywood and every other important institution, #MeToo is powerless to change the way that or any other institution functions. Even if (and it’s a big if) sexual harassment becomes a thing of the past, what it stands for and what makes it noxious, the power of men over women, will remain as it is. Sexual harassment is but a symbol of the larger underlying imbalance and inequality.
There were clues even in the women’s symbolic wearing of black. Yes, women got together to make a symbolically united statement, and any statement expressing women’s ability and willingness to cooperate is significant. But did you notice the amount of décolletage and “flirtatious” touches like lots of lace? To whom was what being communicated thereby? Lace and décolletage are not worn by women to communicate, “We’re together” to other women. They are worn to express to men, “I’m available and I’m hot.” So the message and the metamessage were at odds.
Anyway, nobody cares especially what powerful people wear, since clothing is meant to impress those more powerful. So women’s wear matters more than men’s. So the very fact that women chose clothing as a way to express themselves can be read as a statement about powerlessness.
Still, the explicit statement meant something, and Oprah’s speech was heard and had a profound effect – so profound that today Oprah’s name is being floated as an attractive Democratic opponent to Donald Trump in 2020. The symbolism of a black woman as the candidate of one of the two major parties is unmistakable. But let us leave symbolism aside for a moment and consider the reality of a Democratic ticket in 2020 with Oprah Winfrey at the top. Is that really a good idea? Remember: symbols are great – we are a symbol-using species – but realities are what matter. Could Oprah Winfrey really win the presidency in 2020?
An Oprah-Donald race is a titillating, if frightening, idea. It’s almost poetic – the candidates are remarkably similar in some ways while totally unlike in others. Such a contest would force voters to declare themselves: just what kind of people are we?
Consider first the similarities of the presumptive pair:
Oprah and Trump both have:
Great rhetorical gifts
In the post-Golden Globes punditic analyses, these similarities are unfailingly dwelt upon, most often with the conclusion that we don’t want this kind of person: we’ve had enough of the celebrity presidency.
But at the same time, the two are profoundly different. Even as Oprah succeeds by representing the best traits of classical femininity – inclusion, listening, supporting, sharing (yes, even the relentlessly ridiculed “Everybody gets a car!”), me-and-you togetherness, linguistic complexity and literacy, calmness and soothing, avoidance of drama and scandal, and educating (her Book Club was extremely influential), Trump gets most of his allure by (falsely) representing the values and behaviors of traditional machismo (as opposed to true masculinity): exclusion, continual scandal and drama, boastfulness, me-vs.-you selfishness, agitation and angst, irascibility, and refusal to listen to others. So the race, were it to occur, would be a contest between F and M: What side are you on?
The answer to that question is stark: it will determine the winner of any Trump/Winfrey matchup. Having learned the lessons of 2016, I do not find the thought of an Oprah Winfrey candidacy comforting, though I think Oprah could make an excellent president. She could choose first rate advisers – and listen to them.
But could she get the votes? I’m not convinced. Even people who purport to be sympathetic to a female presidency signify something else in the small print. Take Frank Bruni’s op-ed today. He finds Oprah exciting and electable not as the anti-Trump, but as the anti-Clinton. In 2016, says Bruni, “The party put its chips on the wrong candidate.” Not, he hastens to add, because that candidate was a woman, but because she was, aha!, flawed. She was not exciting. But “Oprah soars.”
No, I think not. Recall that through most of the campaign, Clinton ran far ahead of Trump. If she were so profoundly inarticulate and unexciting, that would not have been true. It was only at the very end that the voters turned, and I think it is because by that point, it dawned on altogether too many of them that they’d be voting to put a woman in a position of symbolic power, and they just couldn’t do it. So they found excuses, helped by Putin, Comey, fake news, and Trump himself.
I suspect the same scenario would be played out if it were Oprah. Then, afterward, people would decide that – exciting as she is – she lost because she was flawed – maybe too exciting.
Yes, she and Clinton are both flawed presidential candidates, but they are flawed in the same way. Both of them lack the essential extremity.
There’s a partial test coming up this year. In blue and purportedly feminist California, there are both gubernatorial and senatorial races. No woman has ever been governor of California; the senate seat is the one currently held by Dianne Feinstein. Do you believe we Democrats have the desire and the will to elect women to both positions? In both contests, announced male candidates greatly outnumber the women competitors. And I wish I hadn’t been hearing so much about Feinstein’s age – ageism and misogyny are closer than you may think. We’ll see. And in any case, the governorship and senatorship are not the presidency: neither has that latter office’s symbolic clout.
Can a black woman win the presidency against a white male? It was white misogyny and racism that got Trump elected in 2016 pace Frank Bruni. Have enough Americans discarded those character flaws to elect that most fearsome of creatures, a black woman, as president – the symbolic manifestation of power? That would take a big makeover, and I am not at all sure America is ready to convert. Remember the lies Trump and his people dredged out about Clinton, and the eagerness of a lot of voters to believe them, though they should have known better. They believed them, in large part, because the lies gave too many of us an excuse not to support that “flawed candidate.” Imagine what Trump and his friends would do with the double boogieperson: the black woman!
I am not persuaded, either, that black men would vote for a woman of any color – and their votes are necessary for Oprah to win. I’ve heard too many rap and hip-hop lyrics to feel comfortable about that.
So I am standing my ground, however unhappily: the important thing is a Democratic presidential victory in 2020. Only a white male candidate makes that likely, and that’s the kind of candidate I will support.
In other news: I will be on KQED’s Forum on Tuesday, January 13, at 10 a.m. If you want to listen but won’t be at a radio, or aren’t in the range of KQED, you can stream the show or listen to it later by going to the website: