Alongside Oprah, billionaires Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, Howard Schultz and Tom Steyer are all being touted as potential candidates to replace Donald Trump. Has what Americans want from the presidency fundamentally changed?by Daniel Sugarman / January 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
It used to be that military men were shoe-ins for public office. Could business leaders be the 2018 equivalent? Photo: Prospect composite “Is Oprah running for President?” It’s the latest question hovering over the political hemisphere, following the speech which launched a thousand opinion pieces. On Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey, the media-mogul, actress, talk show host and self-made billionaire, delivered a rousing three minute address to a room full of Hollywood’s biggest stars, as well as nineteen million people watching on television. She drew on her childhood experiences, describing herself as a young girl watching a black man, Sidney Poitier, accept the best actor award at the Oscars in 1964. She talked movingly about the sacrifices made by countless women—including her own mother—to provide for their children. She praised the press, with its “insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth.” She spoke heartbreakingly about the Civil Rights movement, and victims of the most vile racism and sexual abuse. And then she spoke to “all the girls watching here, now,” telling them that “a new day is on the horizon.” The speech was greeted by a standing ovation—and immediate speculation as to whether, in some subtle way, despite previous denials by Ms Winfrey, a Presidential campaign had been launched. Since that speech, pieces have been published supporting the notion (“Oprah Would Make an Exceptional President”), as well as pieces pouring cold water on the idea (“Oprah Winfrey for President: Have We All Gone Bonkers?”). These include background pieces (“Oprah Winfrey: The woman who rose from a deprived childhood marred by sexual abuse to hot tip for US president”), and pieces giving a taste of the sort of trouble she might face as a candidate (“Oprah’s Long History with Junk Science”). However, for all the discussion, there has been relatively little observation of the rather unpleasant orange elephant in the room: the idea that the possibility of an Oprah presidency is only being taken this seriously because of what happened last November, when Donald Trump broke through the gold-plated, diamond-encrusted ceiling which had previously prevented billionaires who had never held political office from becoming president. This should not be seen as a criticism of Oprah, a person who in many ways could be seen as the anti-Trump—a smart black woman who overcame the twin obstacles of racism and sexism to become her own brand. Trump and Oprah are two entirely different facets of the American Dream: one dynastic, opaque and brazen, the other self-made, inspiring and compassionate. But at the same time, the number of billionaires rumoured to be considering a presidential run seems to be growing exponentially. Apart from Oprah, the names of Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, Howard Schultz and Tom Steyer are all, with a greater or lesser degree of certainty, being talked about in connection with 2020. Prior to Donald Trump, only one billionaire had ever made a serious run at the presidency. In 1992, Ross Perot ran as a third party candidate. His campaign was somewhat unconventional (he refused to take donations of over $5, insisting on paying for the cost of his campaign out of his own pocket), but despite dropping out of the race for a couple of months, he managed to win 18.9 per cent of the vote, but zero electoral college votes. He ran again in 1996, receiving 8.4 per cent, and cementing the impression—which was to last for another 20 years—that the American people just weren’t that interested in elevating extremely wealthy people with no political experience to the highest political office. The American people have, however, often chosen presidents with a proven track record of command, starting, of course, with George Washington. Over a fifth of America’s presidents served as generals before entering politics, with many others holding slightly lesser positions of military authority. But over time, it appears, the cachet of a military reputation has faded. The last general to become president was Eisenhower, the last war hero to occupy the Oval Office was Bush senior. Since then—in 1996, 2004 and 2008—three party nominees have been Senators whose reputation as war heroes formed a part of their campaign. All three were defeated. The rise of Trump and subsequent circling by other wealthy would-be leaders suggests a possible shift in the American mind-set, particularly in an era where the country’s economic future does not appear as rosy as it once did. A captain of industry, or a commander in chief of a technology empire, or a media goddess who made billions through her talk shows and encouraged millions of people to read via her book club, suddenly seems more tempting than previously; a new type of president for a new age in American history. It is an idea that Trump, at the most basic level, tapped into during the election: I have made money for myself; I can make money for America and you will all benefit. It is hard, of course, to make any judgements about the nature of any future billionaire presidencies based on Donald Trump, a man whose days appear to consist of watching TV, playing golf and tweeting aggressively. But with his approval ratings in the thirties, it appears that America has judged its first billionaire president—and found him wanting. It remains to be seen whether the response to that will be to shy away from the concept of a tycoon-in-chief, or to look for a brighter, younger, far more competent example of the genre, in the latest attempt to perfect a new formula in the long-term experiment that is the American political system.