Over the weekend, Oprah Winfrey made her 2020 bid nearly official with a stunningly, magnificently, incandescently, incomparably brave speech about sexual harassment in Hollywood — a speech so courageous that somewhere, Dietrich Bonhoeffer smiles from above and Winston Churchill lights a stogie in tribute. The speech featured Winfrey comparing herself to Sidney Poitier, likening Alabama circa 1944 to America circa 2018, and suggesting that finally, finally!, our Tinseltown thought leaders had arrived to lead us away from the degraded muck of sexual abuse and toward a brighter, more equal future.
Then they went to parties wearing thousand-dollar gowns to hang out with those same sexual abusers. But no matter: Oprah’s presidential ambitions had been launched. NBC tweeted out that she was “OUR president.” Reese Witherspoon compared Oprah to Jesus: “I will now officially divide time like this: Everything that happened before #Oprah speech: Everything that will happen after.”
Worth noting: Nothing has officially happened after. And not much happened before.
Meanwhile, President Trump engaged in his own reality-television special over the weekend. It began over the launch of Michael Wolff’s new gossip book, based largely on interviews with self-serving human snake Steve Bannon; the book suggests that President Trump is a numbskull with a crazy streak. This led Trump to take to Twitter, where he explained, “Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star . . . . . . . to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius. . . . and a very stable genius at that!”
These are, to put it mildly, not the words of a very stable genius. They are closer to the words of Fredo Corleone, explaining to his brother Michael that he is indeed “smaht,” and that he deserves respect.
But the reality show didn’t end there. Trump then deployed Stephen Miller, the aide most responsible for structuring Trump’s immigration policy (and a supposed ally of Bannon’s), to CNN with the goal of restoring Trump’s credibility. There, after starting on a high note by attacking Bannon, Miller lit himself on fire while declaiming Trump’s heartbreaking genius. Jake Tapper ended up throwing Miller off the set, and CNN security reportedly had to escort the exercised aide from the premises.
The American people have two very different ideas of what the president does: what they actually believe, and what they say they believe.
So, what do these two events have in common?
They demonstrate rather clearly that the American people have two very different ideas of what the president does: what they actually believe, and what they say they believe. When asked, most Americans will say they believe the presidency is about the policies presidents pursue: economic growth, military strength, and the rest. From this perspective, Oprah isn’t qualified to be president; neither was Trump, but we ought to ignore his Twitter foolishness and instead focus on his accomplishments. If we hold by this picture of the presidency, we ought to pretend that what the president does holds all the weight, and what he says holds nearly none.
Then there’s what Americans really think the president does. They think he talks. They think he speaks. They think he acts as a figurehead on the prow of state, thrusting a certain picture of American character into the world. In this world, what the president says matters far more than what he does. After all, legislative priorities change and executive policy morphs, but character is forever.
Unfortunately, when it comes to electoral politics, it’s the second picture of the presidency that prevails. That’s why Trump’s Twitter antics damage him, and it’s why Oprah’s delivery of an overblown speech in front of her cronies in Los Angeles could launch her. The image of America is bound, in Americans’ mind, with the image of the presidency.
Practically, that means that electing the president has become the equivalent of voting for the royal family, rather than voting for a person to implement policy. The fact that the person we elect does implement policy shouldn’t change our view of how elections work. Trump demonstrates that dichotomy in bold colors.
And that means that what Trump says matters. He needs to behave credibly, no matter what policy he’s pushing. Policy simply isn’t enough. If it were, Oprah wouldn’t be anywhere near the conversation, and Trump wouldn’t be anywhere near the White House.