With her spine-tingling Golden Globes speech on Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey lit up the room and social media. Without mentioning President Donald Trump or anything overtly political, she delivered an inspirational stemwinder:
“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud [of] and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room is celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story.”
She paddled against the tide of self-pity, sectarianism, resentment and meanness that characterizes politics in the age of Trump. Her message was that we are all in this together. She said the story of workplace abuse is universal:
“It’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farmworkers. They are working in factories, and they work in restaurants, and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics, and they’re our soldiers in the military.”
She ended with the sort of self-affirming optimism that has made her a star. “I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights,” she said. “So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon. And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”
The “Oprah for President” buzz — some in earnest and some humorous — will rev up. But better than banking on another billionaire celebrity (albeit one who reads, praises diversity and possesses none of the twisted, dark demons that haunt Trump), Democrats and Republicans seeking to defeat Trump (or someone of his ilk) would be smart to identify the qualities that Winfrey demonstrates:
▪ She is hopeful and optimistic, appealing to our better angels and not our base fears. She does not hold up boogeymen or dabble in conspiracy theories. She does not characterize the United States as a dystopia nor exaggerate (let alone create out of whole cloth) a set of challenges that call into question the motives of our leaders.
▪ She is well-versed in history (citing Rosa Parks’ pre-Montgomery bus boycott work on behalf of an African-American woman who had been raped by six white men in Alabama in 1944). However, she does not pine for an imaginary past. The good old days were not good for a large segment of the country. She cajoles and encourages her audience to continue the trek toward a more perfect union.
▪ She understands that we come from diverse places but looks for the common thread of humanity — the universal qualities and shared dreams of all Americans (and all humans, for that matter).
▪ She makes clear — even in the context of an acceptance speech honoring her lifetime in media and entertainment — that it is not all about her. She does not set herself up as the savior (”I alone”), nor peddle the false notion that there are easy fixes.
▪ She conveys the most important quality for a political leader (aside from intellectual curiosity) — namely, empathy. The ability to see the world from the vantage point of others is the critical first step for leaders in a diverse democracy. Only then can you problem-solve, summon resolve and inspire others to take a journey with you.
▪ She valiantly defends objective truth and democratic institutions. “We also know it’s the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice,” she said. “To tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times.”
Her speech, elegantly delivered, seemed if only for the moment to wash away the bile that Trump spews and the debris that he leaves littered along the landscape. Hey, someone who thinks the press should write what it wants. Someone who knows that the 1950s weren’t the peak moment in American history. Someone with a grown-up’s vocabulary and sentence structure. Before you snap back to reality, realizing we may have three more years of Trump, we should think of Winfrey’s speech as a master class in creating an alternative political culture.
If Trump or Trumpism is still around in 2020, anti-Trump candidates certainly will need to make the case against him and his outlook. More critically, his opponents will, by example, need to remind us that we can have a president who is articulate, educated, kind, grounded in reality and respectful of our democratic institutions. They will have to model the behavior and values they want others to exhibit — and provide rhetoric that is as inspiring as Trump’s is depressing.
A majority of Americans dislike Trump (a plurality do so passionately), but they also thirst for something better. We’ll settle for normalcy, but a little inspiration would be grand.