Oprah 2020? A Progressive’s Take
The response to Oprah Winfrey’s potential presidential run reveals uncomfortable truths about the 2016 campaign, and underscores the importance of embracing candidates based on their policies, not celebrity, says attorney and writer Briahna Joy Gray
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. An inspiring speech at Sunday’s Golden Globes has the country abuzz over a potential presidential run by Oprah Winfrey in 2020. Voices across the spectrum, from the writer Shaun King to the neocon Bill Kristol, have voiced their support. Winfrey’s circle has even stirred the pot telling reporters that she is actively considering it. Even President Trump has weighed in saying that Oprah would be a lot of fun. Well my next guest has a different take. Briahna Joy Gray is a contributing editor at Current Affairs, co-host of the podcast Something’s Wrong on the Internet, or SWOTI, and an attorney. In a new piece for the Guardian is called, “Oprah Winfrey for President: The Ideal Reveals an Uncomfortable Truth.” Bri welcome. What is that uncomfortable truth?
BRIAHNA J. GRAY: Well that uncomfortable truth is that the Democratic Party has shown a great deal of hypocrisy in terms of who they think makes an adequate candidate for president. What this revealed to me is not so much whether or not Oprah is a legitimate, possible, or a desirable candidate, because we don’t know very much about her actual politics at this stage. But what we do know is that the same justifications that are being used to say that should run are those that were used against Bernie Sanders, and the opposite of those qualities which were said that qualified Hillary Clinton to be the candidate in 2016.
Specifically what we saw in 2016 was a lot of, “But she’s so qualified! She’s so qualified!” as the main reason why Hillary Clinton should be the candidate above all else and why anyone who would support Bernie Sanders was doing so out of some ulterior motive, often times sexism. We saw this in the famous dustup in which Hillary Clinton actually first impugned Bernie Sander’s qualifications. He came back in his speech and said, “What about all of these other qualities that make Hillary Clinton unqualified, for example, her judgment and decision-making, including in her vote for the war?” He was attacked by the press and Hillary supporters for that comment, and it was characterized as him being sexist and diminishing her qualifications by virtue of being a woman instead of based on the very policies and the decisions that he had specified.
AARON MATÉ: Right, and you point out in the piece that we don’t know anything about Oprah Winfrey’s actual policy stances. She’s never taken much of a position on critical political issues. What do you think accounts for this immediate burst of enthusiasm across the spectrum, as I pointed out, for another celebrity candidate to take on our celebrity president?
BRIAHNA J. GRAY: Well I think a lot of people are very frustrated, understandably, and hurt, and kind of at their wits end about Donald Trump. There’s a sense that, well, wouldn’t this poetic justice to fight fire with fire in this instance and get a bigger, badder, richer celebrity? There’s this sense that if people are justifying Trump’s candidacy by saying things like, “Well he’s a billionaire so he must be a good businessman, which means he must be able to run the country properly.” Well then to find the richest woman in America, or the richest self-made woman in America at least, and kind of challenge his own mythology as a self-made man, which of course we know isn’t true. He started with a million dollars as seed money from his own father. But Oprah seems to be someone who can go toe to toe, and match and exceed his own mythology.
I think the problem with that though is that Democrats and Republicans are treated very differently. If we think that Republicans are going to accept, or even moderates, are going to accept from Oprah Winfrey what they accepted from Donald Trump, I think that that is a mistake. Already immediately the day after we saw in Breitbart headlines talking about “Billionaire Oprah Winfrey gives a speech about racism,” or something like that, with the subtext being that the fact that she’s a billionaire makes her out of touch. Even though that’s silly considering that Donald Trump literally has a gilded parlor, and I believe a golden toilet at one point.
What we’re going to see I would imagine, if this actually happens, is a lot of clips of Oprah Winfrey’s magazine on which she’s the cover model every single issue. We’re going to see her talking about growing her own zucchinis in her garden, and more substantive and problematic comments about her frustration with giving money to public schools, for instance, because she feels like the kids there aren’t grateful the same way that the schools that she funds in Africa are. I mean her public record is long, and there’s a lot there to pick from to criticize, often unfairly, potentially unfairly, but there’s also a lot there that is unknown about her actual politics and policies. As a leftist who doesn’t even want a Hillary redux, who wants someone who is more progressive, I’ve seen nothing to indicate that Oprah Winfrey is that person.
AARON MATÉ: Right. You’ve been very vocal on the role of identity politics in the left and the issues that emerged around that from the primary as a supporter of Bernie Sanders. You wrote a piece, if I recall, a few months ago for Current Affairs called “How Identity Politics Can Be Used as a Weapon Against the Left.” I wonder if you could explain that, and how you think that might fit into this current hoopla here over Oprah?
BRIAHNA J. GRAY: Well I think that we’re in a cultural place right now where the Democratic Party, having moved away from a labor … kind of adopting the mantle of third-wave Democrats, has been able to hold onto its appearance of liberalism largely by giving lip service to racial, and gender, and sexual orientation identity markers. One is able to seem like a liberal, progressive person without offering any changes or threatening the status quo in any way if you say, “I support gay marriage, I support transgender bathrooms, I believe in intersectionality” — and know how to say that word as a buzzword in the midst of a speech — when in reality, you’re not doing anything to shift the material conditions of the people who you’re nodding to. Transgender people suffer some of the highest rates of homelessness and abuse. That’s an economic, homelessness is an economic issue. Obviously the material concerns of black and brown people in America have been at issue since we touched soil, or were brought here under duress.
This has manifested into, and what it kind of came to a peak in 2016, was this way in which the candidate who offered fewer substantive material solutions, and in fact in the past has supported policies — meaning her husband Bill Clinton’s policies — in the past that did a huge harm to black and brown communities, was considered to be the better candidate by virtue of the fact that she was able to signal, in what people considered to be meaningful ways, to black and brown communities. Also, her gender I believe protected her from what were legitimate criticisms about perhaps not her personal stance of abortion — although she equivocated it on that historically more than Bernie Sanders did — but her choice of pro-life Tim Kaine as her VP. We got into this place where supporting Sanders made you a racist and a sexist, including myself, by virtue of the fact that he was a white man who also admittedly didn’t always use language that showed how his economic message affected and benefitted a diverse community.
AARON MATÉ: Right. This reminds me, on Monday I went to the funeral here in New York of Erica Garner, the 27-year-old activist and daughter of Eric Garner. I was thinking about how much, how difficult it must have been for her to come out in support of Bernie Sanders, which she did during the primary, while her grandmother, Gwen Carr, came out in support of Clinton. Many others in the Mothers in the Movement, the mothers of unarmed black men killed, came out in support of Clinton. I was thinking that had to be a tough decision because politically it would be advantageous to go with an established machine like the Clintons in some way because they have so much resources and a platform for your cause, but Erica Garner made a very principled choice to go with Sanders. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that as we wrap? The pressures and the difficulties of being in that position, and not going with the establishment?
BRIAHNA J. GRAY: Well first, Erica Garner was a 27-year-old woman, so demographically, statistically, it’s not unusual for her to have chosen Bernie Sanders. People, the media tends to erase the extent to which the majority of people under 30, of every demographic group — that includes minorities and that includes women — supported Bernie Sanders. So it’s not that it’s a surprise, but you’re right to point out that it is politically brave in so far as the criticisms, even for people of color, for doing that were incredibly stark. Identity politics made it such that people were making arguments along the lines of, “If you support Bernie Sanders, you’re basically invalidating or ‘disenfranchising’ those black voters,” particularly Southern voters, who were so overwhelming in favor of Hillary Clinton.
What that argument ignores is that especially for vulnerable people, especially for black and brown people, especially for marginalized people, there is a real risk to not siding with the establishment. Because we all know that the alternative, the Republican Party, offers the potential for so much more harm to us, that there’s a larger extent to which I think that sometimes our communities are more risk-averse. That’s truly what’s driving the affinity for, and the support for, Hillary Clinton. So for someone like Erica, who belongs to several marginalized communities, and who has been so personally marginalized and affected, to shirk the olive branch of the Democratic machine and choose to support a party, a movement, that is not as established, that has fewer resources, that can offer her potentially less support, really speaks a lot to her ideological commitment, and it’s not something that should be brushed over.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Finally Bri, speaking of a lack of alternatives, I’m reminded of the fact that the Clintons attended Donald Trump’s last wedding. Trump had previously voiced support for the Clintons. Also, we’re talking about Oprah versus Trump possibly in 2020 — well, Trump has also even previously floated Oprah Winfrey as his potential vice presidential candidate. This is Donald Trump back in 1999 speaking to CNN’s Larry King.
Larry King: You have a vice presidential candidate in mind?
Donald Trump: Well I really haven’t gotten quite there yet.
Larry King: Well it’s just-
Donald Trump: Oprah. I love Oprah. Oprah would always be my first choice.
Larry King: Oprah.
Donald Trump: Oprah, your competitor, right?
Larry King: Gosh, Oprah is a competitor to no one.
Donald Trump: You know what, I’ll tell you she’s really a great woman though. She is a terrific woman. She’s somebody that’s very special.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Donald Trump speaking to Larry King back in 1999 about how he would want to make Oprah Winfrey his vice presidential candidate. Now possibly looking at the prospect of squaring off against her in 2020. Bri, final thoughts as we wrap?
BRIAHNA J. GRAY: I think that quote speaks to the ideological wishy-washiness of both Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey. Donald Trump transformed himself from a sorta kinda Democrat with racist inclinations, going back to his Central Park Five vendetta, to a full-blown Republican who sometimes has to be prodded and reminded of what Republicans actually think and what their agenda is. As I’ve mentioned before, Oprah Winfrey seems like America’s friend, but she’s somewhat of a blank slate. The fact that she is loved by so many, perhaps speaks to the fact that she has not been as forthcoming about what she actually believes, because taking a stance can be polarizing. Look, if Oprah emerges as the vanguard of the progressive left and is out here for $15 minimum wage, and free public education, and Medicare for All, then I might throw my hat in the ring as well, but I have some skepticism.
AARON MATÉ: Briahna Joy Gray, contributing editor at Current Affairs, co-host of the podcast Something’s Wrong on the Internet, and an attorney. Her latest piece for the Guardian is called “Oprah Winfrey for President: The Idea Reveals an Uncomfortable Truth.” Bri, thank you.
BRIAHNA J. GRAY: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.