Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Essays

The Odd Couple

Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, and Contemporary Charisma

Natasha Zaretsky

Left: Donald J. Trump, Bob Daemmrich/Alamy Stock Photo; right: Oprah Winfrey, Hyperstar/Alamy Stock Photo.

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.

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