Set aside, for a moment, the electoral campaign that is now underway and revisit a contest that happened only at the level of collective fantasy: a presidential race between Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey. That fantasy first coalesced in early 2018, when Winfrey set social media ablaze with speculation that she might challenge Trump for the presidency. The speculation was sparked by her stirring speech at the Golden Globes ceremony, where, on receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, she took to the stage and endorsed the #MeToo movement, expressed solidarity with women survivors of sexual abuse and harassment, and put male predators on notice that their time was up. The Golden Globes were held on January 7, 2018, nearly one year into Trump’s presidency and fifteen months after the Washington Post had released video from 2005 of Trump boasting of his entitlement to women’s bodies: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”11xDavid Farenthold, “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation about Women,” Washington Post, October 8, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-recorded-having-extremely-lewd-conversation-about-women-in-2005/2016/10/07/3b9ce776-8cb4-11e6-bf8a-3d26847eeed4_story.html. Winfrey never mentioned Trump by name in her speech, but she did not have to. When she spoke of “brutally powerful men,” everyone knew what (and whom) she was talking about.22xA transcript of Winfrey’s speech can be found at the CNN website: https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/08/entertainment/oprah-globes-speech-transcript/index.html.
The moment did not last. The next month, Winfrey announced on Jimmy Kimmel Live that she would not run for the highest office, leaving her fans bereft. (Cries of “No!” could be heard from the studio audience.) But for one fleeting instant in early 2018, it seemed that the world might witness the most gripping electoral campaign ever: a contest between Winfrey, the nation’s premier African American spiritual guide (a role she brought to the movie screen when she played Mrs. Which in Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time) and Donald Trump, its most shamelessly self-promoting boss.
This fantasy face-off is so tantalizing because Winfrey, like Trump, is extraordinarily charismatic. By “charismatic” I do not mean possessed of personal magnetism or celebrity status, but charisma in the Weberian sense. For Max Weber, what makes someone charismatic is an association with the miraculous and the exceptional. But what makes charisma historically important is that the charismatic leader disrupts established forms of authority and legitimates new ones. Charisma is about more than the ineffable qualities that enable leaders to exert a gravitational pull on their followers. Rather, the charismatic figure serves as an avatar for revised conceptions of authority and order at moments of transition.33xSee Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), vols. I and II, 212–71; S.N. Eisenstadt, ed., Max Weber on Charisma and Institution Building (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1968); Talcott Parsons, ed., Max Weber: The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2012), 358–406. First published 1947. The charismatic leader not only illuminates the spirit of the times but can also serve as a guide to the future.44xIan Kershaw, Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris (New York, NY: Norton, 1998), xiii.
How, then, do we explain the respective charismas of Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump? I propose that their charismatic powers make sense only in light of the dramatic shift in authority relations that has been underway since the 1970s. During the last five decades, traditional racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies have toppled as women, people of color, and sexual minorities have gained greater visibility in public life. At the same time, economic and social inequality has sharpened while the distribution of wealth has become precariously asymmetrical, workers’ rights have been obliterated, and public goods like health care, education, and housing have been degraded. We thus find ourselves moving simultaneously forward and backward in time: forward into a public sphere that is more gender egalitarian, more multiracial, and more sexually capacious; and backward into a winner-take-all economy and culture that is often described as a new Gilded Age. This backward-forward motion is the product of a comprehensive shift in authority relations. Some, such as those within the traditional family, have loosened, while others, such as those that revolve around property, have tightened. This is what we might call the neoliberal paradox, and it is a defining feature of our time.
On the surface, it appears that Winfrey and Trump reflect the two sides of this paradox, with Winfrey capturing the dissolution of traditional gender and racial hierarchies and Trump symbolizing the boss’s ever-tightening grip. But Winfrey and Trump are not oppositional figures. Rather, each signals the simultaneously occurring breakdown of patriarchal authority and consolidation of market forces throughout the society. Consequently, Winfrey and Trump work with rather than against each other by accelerating a historical transition underway in the late capitalist family and workplace.
Winfrey and Trump harnessed the energies unleashed by the gender revolution of the late twentieth century to consolidate their charismatic authority. Over the course of their careers, they have used the medium of television to translate these energies into lessons for their followers about how to navigate life in workplaces that are at once more meritocratic and more predatory. Ultimately, as contemporary charismatic leaders par excellence, Winfrey and Trump fulfill a crucial need among their devotees: They guide them as they live through the dissolution of patriarchy and the intensification of market fundamentalism and economic inequality.
Rerouting the Imaginary
The intertwined charismas of Winfrey and Trump derived from the same source: the gender revolution that began in the 1950s and took off in the 1960s as the US economy underwent a structural transformation. Before World War II, an earlier industrial order had been organized around the normative ideal of the family wage. According to this ideal, the male breadwinner could earn enough money to support his wife and children. Countless families had long been excluded from this picture, but it remained normatively powerful. Even as it came under pressure in the 1950s, it was sanctified within Cold War domestic ideology. While jobs in manufacturing and heavy industry continued to fuel economic growth, the public, consumer, and service sectors all expanded rapidly in the postwar era.
By 1956, the majority of working Americans were employed not in factories but in offices, no longer in manufacturing but in white-collar and pink-collar jobs. Many of these office workers were women, who after World War II continued to enter the labor force in growing numbers (despite a domestic mythology that persisted in upholding the putative ideal of the stay-at-home wife). This structural transformation precipitated a rebellion against the strictures of domesticity, spearheaded by white men in the early 1950s (in forms like the Beat movement and the biker and playboy lifestyles), and then by women a decade later. By the mid-1960s, a full-blown feminist revolution had emerged out of the contradiction between women’s growing workplace participation and the persistence of pervasive gender discrimination. Law and policy had not yet caught up with the reality of the dual-earner economy, and feminists fought to bring them into closer alignment.
The breakdown of the family wage ideal and the rise of a dual-earner economy, the growing presence of women in the workplace, the cultural rebellion of white men, and the rebirth of feminism all shook gender relations to their core. Feminism in particular was transformative. As the movement evolved, activists realized that women’s marginalization extended beyond the formal domains of law, economy, and politics and encroached on the most intimate arenas of life. As feminists recognized that everything from housework to child rearing to mothering to sexual relations was suffused with political meaning, they identified the family as a locus of patriarchal domination and women’s oppression. Activists began speaking out against rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. Simultaneously, as the tether between white masculine identity and breadwinning loosened, white men found themselves without a clearly demarcated path to maturity. What it meant to grow up and enter white male adulthood was increasingly up for grabs, as was evinced by novel social types that had first appeared on the cultural scene in the 1950s: the beatnik, the playboy, and the rebel.55xBarbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1983).
Their enactment of different aspects of this revolution in gender roles explains the charismatic genius of Winfrey and Trump. The former’s charisma derives from her insight that the feminist revolution created an opening for frank talk about the violence that coursed through patriarchy, broadly conceived. In this regard, she is a midwife of #MeToo. If Winfrey plays the role of the fierce black feminist truth-teller in this scenario, it is tempting to see Trump as her polar opposite: the white patriarchal villain of the story. But make no mistake: Trump is no patriarch in the classic sense. He can best be understood as a playboy who gleefully performs the breakdown of white male maturity on the world stage. While Winfrey is a fairy godmother, Trump is a man-child who has accrued great power not in spite of, but because of, his arrested development.
Start with Oprah Winfrey. Given her omnipresence in the media ecosystem over the last three decades, it is easy to lose sight of how improbable—indeed, impossible—her life story would have been in an earlier era. She rose from the ranks of the southern rural African American working class to the heights of a multibillion-dollar multimedia empire. What made her ascent possible were the gender and race revolutions of the late twentieth century. She began her career in broadcast journalism in the early 1970s, as women and people of color were entering the American workplace. As the dual-earner economy replaced the earlier ideal of the family wage, women of all races transformed work environments that historically had been the province of men.66xOn the democratization of the workplace during this period, see Nancy MacLean, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). African American women, always excluded from the family wage, were the trailblazers. While white women dominated the women’s liberation movement, African American women were in the vanguard of bread-and-butter fights over fair wages and workplace discrimination. It was civil rights activist and attorney Pauli Murray who demanded that sex be included along with race in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and who, along with Aileen Hernandez, was instrumental in the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. African American women like Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm transformed the Democratic Party from within, demanding that gender and racial justice be at the center of the party’s vision.
When Winfrey landed her first television journalism gig, in Nashville in 1973, she was riding these tailwinds. By her own admission, she was hired as a token black woman at a time when media news outlets were under pressure to diversify their staffs.77xKathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011), 128. Yet Winfrey distanced herself from political radicalism of any kind. A high school student in the late 1960s, she recalled that while everyone around her was going through a Black Power phase, she “was not a dashiki kind of girl.” Her alienation from radical politics deepened when she arrived at Tennessee State University in 1971: “They all hated me—no, they resented me. I refused to conform to the militant thinking of the time. I hated, hated, hated college…. Everybody was angry for four years. It was an all-black college, and it was in to be angry.”88xQuoted by John Howard in “Beginnings with O,” in Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture, ed. Trystan T. Cotton and Kimberly Springer (Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), 10. This repudiation of black radicalism would prove crucial to Winfrey’s self-construction as a racially transcendent figure, something she realized she would need to be if she were to establish rapport with her largely white viewership.
Yet even as Winfrey distanced herself from the era’s radical politics, she built her media persona on one of its core insights: Women’s marginalization extended into the personal realm of life. This understanding was encapsulated in the popular feminist slogan “The personal is political.” As feminists recognized that the most intimate, seemingly private relations could be suffused with political meaning, they sought to strip heterosexual relations of their sentimentality and mystification. Part of this process entailed calling out sexual violence within the family not only as widespread but also as a linchpin of patriarchal power. As she transitioned from television news to the gendered world of the television talk show, Winfrey would seize on this feminist revelation and spin it into ratings gold.
Indeed, by 1985, when The Oprah Winfrey Show (OWS) premiered, the US women’s movement had transformed from a radical social eruption into a dense, well-funded liberal project, focused on eliminating gender discrimination.99xSusan Watkins, “Which Feminisms?,” New Left Review 109 (January–February 2018): 5–76. Yet the capacious imaginary unleashed by 1970s radical feminism did not disappear. Instead, it was ingeniously rerouted by figures like Winfrey, who picked up and elaborated on the feminist insight that the private domain could be a space of violence. Between 1985 and 2009, OWS featured eighty-five episodes devoted to the themes of incest, rape, child abuse and molestation, sexual abuse, pedophilia, stalking, and domestic violence. In one of the earliest episodes, which aired on December 5, 1985, Winfrey revealed that she herself had been raped and sexually molested between the ages of nine and fourteen. This revelation established her as living proof that one could recover from even the worst traumas. The television talk show turned out to be the perfect genre for confession and disclosure. As a medium, television had long been associated with the domestic sphere of the home, and talk show sets were designed to look like living rooms.
Winfrey’s charismatic genius stemmed from her canny realization that the race and gender revolutions of the 1960s created an opening for truth telling about the painful, violent dimensions of the heterosexual world. As she explained at the 2018 Golden Globes, “In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome.” Winfrey’s identity as a black woman made her the perfect conduit for these stories, because even as she cast herself as someone who bridged racial differences, she channeled, through her own physical presence in the public sphere, the long and painful history of sexual violence against African American women. Their unique vulnerability to sexual harassment had begun before the term had even been coined; it went all the way back to the Middle Passage and slavery. Blurring distinctions between literature and television, fiction and reality, and high and low art, Winfrey skillfully combined her guests’ first-person testimonies with black women’s literary productions, including works like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1981), all of which relate stories of incest and sexual violence.
The theme of sexual violence has also informed Winfrey’s acting career. Her 1985 debut in Stephen Spielberg’s film adaptation of The Color Purple forged new links among therapeutic autobiography, storytelling, and the history of sexual violence against black women.1010xOn the term “therapeutic biography,” see Eva Illouz, Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An Essay on Popular Culture (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2003). A week before the film premiered, OWS featured its first segment on rape, incest, and sexual molestation, and it was during this episode that Winfrey tearfully disclosed her status as a sexual abuse survivor. This personal revelation was timed to segue into the film’s release. Set in the Jim Crow South of the early twentieth century, The Color Purple tells the story of Celie (played by Whoopi Goldberg), who endures abuse and rape at the hands of both her father (who impregnates her twice) and her husband. The film is an excruciating catalogue of black male depredations against black women. Winfrey plays Sophia, who marries Celie’s stepson. In what is probably the most famous scene in Winfrey’s film career, Sophia describes her childhood: “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. Girl child ain’t safe in a family of mens.”1111xThe Color Purple, motion picture, directed by Stephen Spielberg (Los Angeles, CA: Warner Brothers; 1985). The lines could easily have served as an epigraph for her talk show in its first decade. Winfrey received an Oscar nomination for the role, and to this day her performance in The Color Purple is considered the pinnacle of her acting career.
What propelled Winfrey to cross multiple genres and media was her realization that the radical black and feminist revolutions had changed the game, creating a new and arresting opening for truth-telling about heterosexuality. The historical irony was that Winfrey’s career was taking off just as the Reagan administration was pushing back against these revolutions and presiding over an economy becoming ever more oriented toward maximizing the income of the wealthy while disregarding the needs of America’s poorest, most vulnerable members. These were daunting times for social movements, but in a media ecosystem that blurred distinctions between public and private life, the gender revolution drew upon the stirring power of stories to uncover gendered histories of pain and violence. No one embodied the charisma of the storyteller more than Oprah Winfrey, and no medium would prove more effective at disseminating these stories than television.
The Rise of the Man-Child
We do not tend to associate Donald Trump with the spirit of the 1960s. Like Winfrey, he did not participate in the social and cultural revolutions of that decade. While many of his generation were burning their draft cards, occupying university buildings, getting arrested, and getting high, Trump was on a different track. He attended military school, cut his teeth in his family’s real-estate business, received four draft deferments, and earned an economics degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Indeed, if there is a single decade that we associate with Trump, it is not the 1960s but the 1980s as depicted in such totemic works as Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities and Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street, both released in 1987. This was the world that formed Donald Trump: an adrenalized, coked-up, postrecession New York City, where stock and real-estate values soared, greed was good (in the infamous words of Wall Street’s corporate raider Gordon Gekko), and supermodels and high-stakes investors partied at Studio 54.
Yet Trump’s charisma, like Winfrey’s, emerged from the gender revolution. While Winfrey was riding on the coattails of radical feminism, Trump embodied key aspects of the white male rebellion against domesticity that had started a full fifteen years before women’s liberation exploded onto the scene. As Barbara Ehrenreich argued in her 1983 classic The Hearts of Men, white men began pushing back against the strictures of marriage and traditional family life before Betty Friedan began writing about the “problem that has no name.” What Ehrenreich called the male “flight from commitment” changed over time: starting with a 1950s Beat culture whose members dropped out of work and domestic life, through the 1953 launching of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, a magazine that glorified the single man as an unapologetic consumer of material and sexual pleasures, all the way to the new psychology of the 1960s that valued personal growth in lieu of conformity. It was men, not women, who first rebelled against the normative ideal of the traditional male-headed family.1212xEhrenreich, The Hearts of Men.
This flight from commitment represented a dramatic break from postwar understandings of white male maturity. In the years after World War II, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and sociologists held considerable social and cultural influence, and together they promoted a “maturity ethic” that equated healthy male maturation with acceptance of financial and emotional responsibility for marriage and family life. This acceptance was associated with certain character traits, including tolerance of difference, judiciousness, and circumspection.1313xOn the maturity ethic, see Eli Zaretsky, “Charisma or Rationalization? Domesticity and Psychoanalysis in the United States in the 1950s,” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 2 (Winter 2000): 328–54. By the mid-1950s, the appearance of new kinds of masculine types—the rebel, the beatnik, the playboy—was calling this ethic into question, not by offering an alternative conception of maturity but by implicitly asking whether maturity should be an aspiration at all. This questioning of maturity as a goal would set white men on a different trajectory from women, gay people, and people of color at the time, who saw the recognition of their status as adults as one component of the struggle for gender, sexual, and racial justice. (For women, this meant fighting back against their infantilization under patriarchy; for gay people this meant depathologizing homosexuality; and for African Americans it meant rejecting the paternalism that accompanied racial hierarchy.)
If Oprah assumes a quasi-maternal role, Trump occupies the opposing role of the man-child—the playboy who refuses to grow up. This stance, a repudiation of white male maturity, is at the heart of his charismatic appeal. His supporters’ devotion is thus not aspirational; rather, it springs from a deep sense of identification that runs laterally, not vertically. His high-profile dating of supermodels, his tabloid-covered infidelities and divorces, his notorious advice to a tabloid television host to “grab” women “by the pussy,” his proud boast that he, a father of five, has never changed a diaper: All of these confirm not only his ostensible freedom from the humdrum constraints of marriage, parenthood, and family life, but also his defiant imperviousness to the feminist revolution. He is a throwback to the Rat Pack era of the early 1960s—not only in his flagrant objectification of women, but in his penchant for casinos and beauty pageants, his ancien régime aesthetic, heavy on fake gold and marble, and his Borscht Belt insult-comedian affect, uproariously funny at times during his 2016 campaign (if less amusing now). Like the late Don Rickles, the quintessential insult comic, Trump is very skilled at turning the tables on hecklers; indeed, he appears emboldened by their hostility. My mother, who grew up in the postwar Catskills, told me as we watched Trump’s shtick during one of the Republican primary debates, “This is straight out of the Concord” (the resort hotel that was the twentieth-century locus of Borscht Belt showbiz).1414xJohn Podhoretz, “Rat Pack versus Hippie: Trump and Clinton Are from Opposite Ends of the Same Decade,” New York Post, May 21, 2016, https://nypost.com/2016/05/21/rat-pack-vs-the-hippie-trump-and-clinton-come-from-opposite-ends-of-same-decade/.
In light of Trump’s shameless male chauvinism, it is tempting to interpret his political ascent as a sign of traditional patriarchy rearing its ugly head. But there is nothing traditionally patriarchal about Trump. Rather, he enacts the breakdown of white male maturity that began in the mid-1950s and has yet to be resolved. It is no coincidence that many of the greatest television shows of the last two decades have been extended meditations on this breakdown. Consider, for example, a mob boss who suffers from fainting spells (The Sopranos), an advertising executive falling out the window of his corner office and plummeting to his death (the opening credits of Mad Men), a man wearing only underwear and a gas mask crashing his Winnebago in the New Mexico desert (the opening scene of Breaking Bad), and a father defecating in his pants in front of his two daughters because he refuses to use a public restroom and cannot make it home in time (Louie, season 5, episode 2). Part of what has made the current golden age of television so golden is that many of its show runners grasp that despite the vast structural and institutional advantages still accrued by white men, late capitalism is characterized not by the shoring up of paternal authority but by its fracturing and dissolution.1515xA.O. Scott, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” New York Times Magazine, September 11, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/magazine/the-death-of-adulthood-in-american-culture.html.
These television antiheroes offer one mode of reflection on this historical transition. Trump provides the ludic alternative: the man-child. (To get a sense of what I am talking about, I suggest doing a Google image search for “Trump baby” or “Trump toddler.”) Trump is not the patriarchal strongman; he is no Mussolini. Rather, he is the chronically enraged metastasized toddler who—via Twitter—conscripts the entire world into bearing witness to his tantrums. The pathological narcissist’s dream of existing at the center of the universe becomes our collective nightmare—or, for his admirers, a reaffirming fantasy. Through a series of very unfortunate events, he has landed at the top of the political food chain, and now we are all subjected to cringe-worthy images that we cannot stop watching and cannot un-see: Trump pushing aside the prime minister of Montenegro for a photo op, Stormy Daniels spanking Trump with a rolled-up magazine, Trump behaving as though his daughter is his wife, Trump throwing Starbursts at Angela Merkel. Trump’s critics find such scenes appalling, and they are, but they are also the secret to his charismatic draw. More than any other figure in contemporary public life, he gleefully performs the death of white male maturity. Even his teetotalism renders him childlike. Unlike all the other grownups in the room, who require alcohol to loosen their inhibitions, Trump does not need spirits to take a hiatus from self-regulation. For him, inebriation comes naturally.
This explains Trump’s appeal, especially among white men. He reminds them of their own rocky paths from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. He enacts for them a fantasy of casting off the exhausting demands of the superego and relinquishing any attempt at impulse control. This is also why Trump’s fans relish his contempt for political correctness, which evokes for them the child’s rage at the scold and the schoolmarm. He reflects back to his followers their primal impulses while simultaneously exaggerating them, thus giving an impression of what Sigmund Freud called “greater force and more freedom of libido.” As a fantasy figure, he appears to his male followers as themselves writ large. And part of what makes this larger-than-life version so seductive is that he never has to pay for his bad behavior.1616xThis analysis derives from Theodor Adorno, “Freudian Theory and Patterns of Fascist Propaganda,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gephardt (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 1982): 118–37. I am grateful to Eli Zaretsky for pointing me to the Adorno essay.
For women, the attraction is related but also distinct. Trump’s female fans pride themselves on being able to laugh off his sexist transgressions. Unlike the grim-faced feminists and liberal snowflakes routinely appalled by Trump’s sexism, these women consider themselves “tough enough” to be in on the joke. And they are far more offended by coastal elitism than by Trump’s objectification of women. As a friendly woman in a pink “Adorable Deplorable” T-shirt explained to me with a warm, knowing smile at a Trump rally in southern Illinois in October 2018, “Trump is a bad, bad boy.”
It is Trump’s state of arrested emotional development that explains his relationship to #MeToo. That relationship is often narrated as a causal story: A rage against male predatory behavior was unleashed by our collective failure to keep a confirmed pussy-grabber from getting his hands on the keys to the kingdom. And yes, Trump is a predator, but one who lampoons patriarchy rather than fortifies it (no doubt a distinction without a difference for the women he has abused). The #MeToo testimonies chronicle the humiliations and degradations that women have had to endure, but they should not be read as evidence of intractable male power. Rather, they make clear that even though women have been entering the work force in steadily growing numbers for the last seventy years, there evidently are scores of men who still have no clue about how to interact with women as equals. If Oprah Winfrey speaks to the violence endured by women at the hands of male harassers, Trump speaks to the stunted growth of many men. Male predation no longer stems from patriarchy’s firm grip, as it once did, but from patriarchy’s historical decomposition. We are living through late-stage patriarchy, and like late-stage cancer, it isn’t pretty.
Life Lessons from Television
It may seem that I am suggesting that Winfrey and Trump represent two opposing sides in the gender wars: a black feminist truth-teller squaring off against an unrepentant misogynist. But here again I want to stress their overlapping stories. As they both built multimedia empires, Winfrey and Trump relied on television to magnify and disseminate their charismatic energies1717xHere again, Weber’s theory of charisma is useful. Within that theory, charismatic authority is by definition transient. The charismatic leader can usher in new ways of life at moments of historical transition, but by its very nature, that transitory state cannot last forever. One of two things must happen to charisma: It either fades out or becomes absorbed into organizations and bureaucratic structures—a process Weber calls “routinization.”—that is, they drew on those energies in order to provide their followers with life lessons on how one might prosper within an increasingly brutal economic and social system. During the 1990s, Winfrey used the talk show format to channel those energies into a personal wellness empire. By 2004, Trump was using the genre of reality television to channel them into a celebration of high-stakes business as a world of spontaneity, adventure, and fun.
At these two crucial junctures in their careers, both Winfrey and Trump scaled up and out from the private, familial realm to the social realm in order to help their followers move through workplaces and institutions that had become at once more heterosocial and more unforgiving to poor and working-class people. Both Winfrey and Trump drew on the domains of private life and gender relations to craft guidelines that their devotees could use for orientation as they attempted to negotiate an increasingly unequal society. While these guidelines were different, they both ultimately endorsed a brutally competitive winner-take-all system. For Winfrey, who had at first capitalized on the feminist politicization of personal life, this meant evacuating politics from the scene altogether in ways that championed an ethic of individual responsibility. For Trump, this meant hitching the unapologetically libidinal pleasures of the playboy to the world of high-stakes finance and commerce.
Oprah Winfrey: The Reboot
Let us again start with Winfrey. By the mid-1990s, she was channeling the currents of her charisma into her “ministry,” a fleet of psychologists, spiritual advisers, and self-help gurus who became regular guests on her show between 1994 and 2011. While today Winfrey’s status as both a practitioner and a purveyor of self-help is taken for granted, it was not always so. As has been the case for many feminist activists, Winfrey’s interest in sexual violence led her at first to seek legal reform. In 1991, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of a national database of convicted child abusers. The National Child Protection Act, which came to be known as “the Oprah Bill,” was signed into law in December 1993.
But such policy interventions became the exception rather than the rule after 1994, when Winfrey announced that her show needed to “move on” from stories of victimization and focus instead on how people could take control of their personal destinies. With that, the rebooted OWS proceeded to roll out a mercenary army of therapists, pop psychologists, gurus, physicians, alternative healers, life strategists, personal consultants, money managers, and motivational speakers. This ministry provided viewers with a promiscuous set of religious and spiritual practices that combined nineteenth-century mind-cure, New Thought, the prosperity gospel, alternative medicine, New Ageism, and non-Western spirituality. Yet the ministry was united around one claim: People create their own realities, even down to the cellular level. As women’s-health expert Christine Northrup explained it on the show, “Mind and body are a seamless web, and every thought we have changes our biochemistry…. The vast majority of our thoughts and emotions are either creating healthy tissue or destroying healthy tissue.”1818xQuoted in Maria McGrath, “Spiritual Talk: The Oprah Winfrey Show and the Popularization of the New Age,” in The Oprah Phenomenon, ed. Jennifer Harris and Elwood Watson (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 134. Not coincidentally, this worldview cohered quite well with policy initiatives aimed at dismantling great parts of New Deal and Great Society social supports, including President Bill Clinton’s goal of “ending welfare as we know it.”1919xJanice Peck, The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—which Clinton signed into law in August 1996, shortly after the OWS reboot—drew on the same language of personal responsibility and individual empowerment to justify a leaner, meaner system that imposed new work requirements, caps on aid, and stricter eligibility requirements.
If OWS in its first decade was modeled on the consciousness-raising group, the show was modeled during its second decade on the support group, a staple of the era’s recovery movement. This shift mirrored mainstream feminism’s pivot from collective action to individual empowerment. And if the show’s epigraph during its first decade could have been Sophia’s declaration that “girl child ain’t safe in a family of mens,” its epigraph between 1995 and 2011 could have been taken from black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde, who said in 1988, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”2020xAudre Lorde, “A Burst of Light” and Other Essays (Mineola, NY: Ixia Press, 2017), 130. First published 1970. But Lorde’s famous statement, now transformed into a mantra of the wellness movement, raised an important question: What had become of the political warfare? By the mid-1990s, Winfrey—with the help of her ministry—had taken the collective antiauthoritarian energies of the 1960s and funneled them into an individualistic philosophy of self-empowerment and a curating of the self—what she has referred to as the ongoing project of living “one’s best life.”
In His Native Habitat
Like Winfrey, Trump used the medium of television to impart lessons on surviving in an increasingly unforgiving environment. While Winfrey’s show reworked feminism into a wellness cult, Trump’s hit television show The Apprentice (which premiered in 2004) redirected his playboy persona into that of a player in a world of high-stakes business conceptualized as a sphere of authenticity and gamesmanship. Reality television was his vehicle of choice. While the television talk show mirrored the recovery movements of the 1990s, reality television mirrored the Darwinian financial world of the aughts. The show’s creator, Mark Burnett, recalled how he first conceived of The Apprentice, which pitted young, aspiring entrepreneurs against one another in a cutthroat competition for a coveted apprenticeship in the Trump Corporation: “The original idea…came to me when I was in the Amazon jungle making Survivor Amazon watching a bunch of ants devour a carcass and thinking ‘Boy, the jungle is a tough place.’ And I thought, ‘It’s equally tough in modern environments in some ways. I really should do a show [about] surviving in a jungle, but it’s a concrete jungle.’”2121x“The Job Description: Creating the Apprentice,” Disc 5, The Apprentice (bonus materials), season 1 (Universal City, CA: Universal, 2004), DVD.
Ruling over that jungle is Donald Trump, whom Burnett wanted as the show’s star for the same reason that nearly 63 million people voted for him in 2016: in Burnett’s words, because “he’ll say whatever he wants.”2222xEmily Nussbaum, “The TV That Created Donald Trump,” The New Yorker, July 31, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/31/the-tv-that-created-donald-trump. The medieval origins of apprenticeship capture Trump’s role on the show, which resembles that of a feudal overlord rather than an organization man.2323xI am indebted to John Judis for this insight. Viewers watch as Trump exuberantly stages a series of contests that pit men against women, “elite schooling” against “street smarts.” (At one point Trump even proposes a face-off between black and white contestants.) The would-be apprentices are more diverse in terms of gender and race than one would find in the real world of high finance, commerce, and marketing, making the show appear more meritocratic than it actually is.2424xThis diversity made the show very popular among working-class, multiracial audiences, especially African American viewers. See Nussbaum, “The TV That Created Donald Trump,” and Joshua Green, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2017). All of this takes place against the backdrop of the shimmering Manhattan skyline where, as Trump explains, “the wheels of the global economy never stop turning.” This is Trump’s native habitat, and the cameras track him as he travels by limousine and helicopter around the city and jets (on his private plane) to Atlantic City and Mar-a-Lago. We even catch a glimpse of his then-girlfriend Melania at Trump’s penthouse. All the while, the show portrays Trump as a straight shooter, inducting young people into an energizing world of wheeling and dealing. This world stands in contrast to the stodgy, bureaucratic, slow-moving, paternalistic corporations and businesses of the past. Both on the show and in his 1987 bestseller The Art of the Deal, Trump singles out his rebuilding of the Wollman Ice Skating Rink in Central Park as among his proudest achievements, precisely because he got the job done after an ineffectual, hamstrung city government failed to do so.2525xDonald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz, Trump: The Art of the Deal (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1987), 301–24. Through the forceful presence of Trump, The Apprentice aligns business with libidinal creative energy (in implicit contrast to sclerotic businesses and inept government agencies).
The market fundamentalism Trump embodies is taken for granted today, but it did not always prevail. During the 1970s, when polls indicated growing public distrust of elites, that distrust was directed at both elected officials and corporate leaders, both government and big business. That would soon change. Since the late 1940s, neoliberal intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann and Friedrich Hayek had promoted the doctrine that markets alone rewarded merit and spread freedom, even while easing the class tensions that they saw as the bane of modern democracies. By the 1960s, neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman were prescribing a reduction in the role of government, which they believed stifled creativity and free enterprise by overtaxing and overregulating the economy. And by the 1980s, Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Britain were busy implementing the neoliberal doctrines of privatization, deregulation, and fiscal austerity to enable market forces to reign supreme. The Apprentice provided a cultural coda to the neoliberal project by linking the market to instinctual freedom and libidinal release, redirecting distrust to government alone.
The Apprentice transforms the ruthlessness and hyperindividualism of late capitalism into a game, one organized around “the team” rather than the heteronormative family. Like OWS, The Apprentice channels a history of violence, this time enacted by bosses against workers. But while Winfrey identifies with the victims, Trump relishes the role of the perpetrator, and his sadistic impulses are not lost on the show’s players. In the show’s first season, contestant Sam Solovey pleads with Trump: “If you have to punch me in the stomach and tell me to sit down and shut up, I’ll shut up…I don’t want to work for anyone else in this country.” Every episode of the show ends with Trump pointing his finger at a contestant and saying “You’re fired,” a speech-act that resonates with the realignment of class power that has occurred since the 1970s, when organized labor began its steady decline as a counterweight to the winner-take-all ethos of late capitalism. By the early 1980s, the possibility of a multiracial union movement—alive and kicking in the early 1970s—had been symbolically crushed by the devastating defeat of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, whose members were summarily fired by President Reagan for walking off their jobs.
In light of the show’s ruthlessness, how do we explain the popularity of The Apprentice with a racially mixed working-class audience? One answer lies with the contestants’ notable gender and racial diversity. Viewers also no doubt identified with the aggressor, deriving pleasure from seeing others fired even as they had been fired themselves. Part of their pleasure may also have come from watching contestants drawn from a higher rung on the class ladder—the financial and tech sectors—prostrate themselves before the boss. There is something entertaining, if also unnerving, about watching real-estate investors, stockbrokers, investment managers, MBAs, and Internet executives debase themselves in order to stay in the game. After all, these are the people who appear to be “making it” in an information-driven, financialized economy. But ultimately, it is the straight-shooting, endlessly brand-conscious boss (for whom appearances are almost everything) who is the secret to the show’s success. Like Winfrey, who enriched herself by spinning radical feminism into personal-wellness gold, Trump hitched his earlier adolescent sexual braggadocio to the art of the deal. If Winfrey is the unacknowledged midwife of #MeToo, Trump enacts its core revelation: Sexual harassment and workplace brutality are birds of the same feather, part and parcel of a system in which bosses exploit and prey on their others, treating them as shadows, objects, and marionettes.
Two Tracks to Nowhere
If we take seriously Weber’s insights about charismatic authority, the two charismas of Winfrey and Trump track both the breakdown of patriarchal authority and the consolidation of market domination in contemporary life. This tale of two charismas reveals that twenty-first-century capitalism legitimates itself in the midst of so much predation by manipulating and exploiting the antiauthoritarian energies unleashed by the gender revolution, harnessing those energies rather than suppressing them. Even as Winfrey and Trump appeared estranged from the social movements that took off in the 1960s, both drew on those movements without realizing that that was what they were doing. And both relied on the intimate, pervasive medium of television to reroute the energies of those movements in ways that have ended up strengthening the winner-take-all ethos of market fundamentalism in our social and cultural imaginary.
It may be tempting to see Winfrey as the embodiment of everything good about our age and Trump as the embodiment of everything bad. But in the end, both endorse the same belief: that there are only winners and losers. Winfrey’s cruelty is shrouded in therapeutic language, while Trump is bald-faced about the brute forces that pervade society. The world according to Trump is one of tough operators and cutthroat financial killers, “the kind of people who leave blood all over the boardroom table.”2626xDonald Trump, Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again! (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2011), 13. While most American workers today do not move in Trump’s circles, they do inhabit workplaces where, no matter how hard they work, their fates are determined by forces beyond their control, and they experience life as largely a series of accidents, contingencies, lucky breaks, and sudden reversals of fortune.
Winfrey rejects this grim take on the winner-take-all society. While she rose to fame by tearing back the curtain on the ugly side of heterosexual relations, she has gone on to cultivate a self-help philosophy that insists that people create their own realities. Winfrey hates the concept of luck and considers herself in touch with the divine. “Luck is a matter of preparation,” she has said. “I am highly attuned to my divine self.” The callousness of this perspective came into sharp relief when she once suggested to Elie Wiesel that his survival at Auschwitz constituted a direct miracle from God. “If a miracle of God to spare me, why?” he countered. “There were people much better than me…. No, it was an accident.”2727xQuoted in Kitty Kelley, Oprah: A Biography (New York, NY: Crown, 2010), 223.
In Winfrey’s world there are no accidents; everything happens for a reason. In Trump’s world, might makes right and coercion rules. Trump’s worldview resonates with the lived experiences of workers, while also trafficking in the seductive fantasy that a baby can become the boss. Winfrey also offers a fantasy figure: a guardian angel with whose help working people imagine they might escape. But neither a dealmaker nor a fairy godmother offers us a way out of our new Gilded Age.