I wish I could recall which interview it was that anarchist professor and activist Noam Chomsky freely admitted – after being asked about the British monarchy – that he had been to Buckingham Palace with his family and that actually “it was kind of fun.” He went on to suggest that the formal establishment of a royal family, if it were nested in a constitutional parliamentary system, perhaps decreased rather than strengthened the impulse towards power worship. The United Kingdom, he noted, had not taken their royals seriously in years. They remained a kind of beloved tradition, but in the broad sense which sometimes also occurs in religions. One could participate in this institution either by admiring it or by lampooning it. A believer or a heretic, or a mixture of both. And best of all, symbolically important though the royal family may be, in practice they are mostly politically irrelevant. Left hanging in the open air was a cue to look across the Atlantic, where unofficially we have no royalty and fought rather a long and hard time to make that point to our colonial fathers. And yet we seem near-obsessed with finding a way to make kings and queens wherever we can find them, and without any apparent direction or taste.
At the Golden Globes this past weekend Oprah Winfrey gave a fairly good and earnest speech about the Me Too movement which seemed to resonate rather well with, at the very least, a roomful of like-minded celebrities. This prime-time moment was all it took. The following morning it seemed as though roughly half of our country's left-leaning commentary had finally given a sigh of relief. After spending the past year ceaselessly jeering that their opponents had lost their minds in installing an inexperienced television personality into the country's highest office, they were delighted to find they could finally play this fun game too. And they were doubly gratified to find that, while not necessarily a winning strategy, they had found one which at least maintained their sense of keeping the moral high ground.
Oprah, the woman who has existed in public life for many decades prior to this most recent speech, is a seemingly earnest person who came from poverty, has suffered significant personal tragedy, managed to make something of herself and in turn has made some effort to give something back. She also has been a rather absurd purveyor or feel-good philosophies, and a flatterer of charlatans and quacks (the 'Dr' part of Dr. Phil was never meant to be taken literally). She falls occasionally into bouts of near-Pentecostal levels of sugary enthusiasm. Until seeing her show I never knew television could somehow be airbrushed. And while many people surely enjoy her presentation, many others find it cloying and self-righteous. Nor has she shown any particular knowledge of any kind of policy, function of government, or electoral acumen. Well, neither has Trump, you might say. Well, yes, I find that you're right. Neither has Trump. Yet I fail to see a serious point even being formulated here, much less made.
Wait just a moment – the indignant rejoinder chimes across social media and the online opinion journals – I'm not falling into the false equivalency of equating Oprah to Trump, am I? Doing that would be an appalling breach of logic and decency. It might even be racist, sexist, or a dreaded union of the two. Well, now, this is the game that America is playing, or possibly the game that is playing America. So long as their inexperienced, extravagant, and egomaniacal hero is morally inferior to ours, then we've hit upon a happy resting place in our downward journey. Not exactly a race to the bottom for Democrats, though maybe a mirror image of 'leading from behind.'
This comes back to the original observation that our country, having no formal royalty, seems to have an unconscious need for one. I won't say harmlessly, but understandably enough, this honor is generally bestowed upon actors and musicians. But occasionally we veer towards turning our pop-cultural giants randomly into actual Heads of State. This trend has not yet tended to repeat itself uninterruptedly, at least at the level of President. 'But in this age of Trump,' it's said, 'anybody can be president!' Except by 'anybody' we so far only mean rich and rather disappointing celebrities on whom we hang our projections and hopes. Oprah may be among the most decent and positive of those figures, but she still operates in the world of fantasy and entertainment.
For all that, Oprah appears to be a fundamentally good person who is interested in human stories and who is no stranger to hard work. Her talents, in coincidence with her wealth, could be put to all kinds of good uses. Charity work. Self help for the lost. Building schools (and staffing them carefully). Amplifying the stories of others on a popular network named after her. Giving away cars. That sort of thing; in other words, the sort of thing she is already doing. Undoubtedly Oprah has lived an extraordinary life. The bland assumption that the logical climax of such a life lies in the presidency shows just how much we both under- and overvalue the office. It is also, I suppose, an extension of our country's collective and depressing lack of imagination that we are even having the discussion at all. How else can one explain our chronic tendency to conscript into political life the media personalities we have nearest at hand? If we're really not going to go to any efforts to search among ourselves for the best qualified and experienced public servants – if, rather, we're going to be a nation of fantasists – then our fantasies at least ought not to be so boring or predictable.