Sunday 8 December 2019

Trump v Oprah a ratings winner in the world of flat-screen politics

We are quite a different species now to the one that was living through the Obama years, writes Declan Lynch

Donald Trump claims he could beat Oprah Winfrey in a presidential race
Donald Trump claims he could beat Oprah Winfrey in a presidential race
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

When I was a small boy, during an election campaign, my father took me to see the arrival of one of the main party leaders in Athlone.

I can't remember which one it was - probably Jack Lynch - because on the night I never actually got to see the great man, whoever he was. And yet I have a perfectly clear memory of being in the car and of how cold it was, as we waited in the Fair Green for Jack, or whoever, who must have been running late for a performance of some kind in the Crescent Ballroom.

I guess my father just drove us home rather than wait any longer, but since I can still recall the waiting and the freezing after all this time, apparently the damage was already done.

Politics has always provided a form of low entertainment, the nature of which depends on the culture which it inhabits - in Ireland for a long time the prospect of, say, the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs standing on the back of a lorry wearing a blue serge suit and roaring into a primitive PA system, would bring crowds from miles around, eager to see such a glamorous figure in their town.

Even if you only sat in the car with your father, getting cold, that in itself would make you feel you'd had some sort of a night out.

So when I hear supposedly serious people muttering that we surely don't need another TV personality such as Oprah running against Trump, one of whose proudest boasts is that he has "revolutionised Reality TV", I cannot join them in their chagrin.

These people with names such as Thomas Chatterton Williams of The New York Times seem to remember a time when "experience, knowledge, education, and wisdom" mattered in public life - but many are finding it hard to remember anything about life at any level before Trump became president.

Was there actually a time when papers like The New York Times thought that he could be brought down by fact-checking? Yes, I have a distant memory of that one, but otherwise I think we're all finding that we can recall very little about the way things were done by previous presidents - whoever they were.

I just know that if I was looking for things like knowledge, education, and wisdom, I wouldn't necessarily be looking for them in candidates for the White House - no more than I'd be expecting them on a cold night in Athlone from Jack Lynch, or his equivalent, trying to close the deal in Longford-Westmeath.

I only wish that TV had advanced to the point whereby Jack could have passed on his best wishes to us from his fine house in Rathgar, and saved us all a lot of trouble.

And since anyone hoping to become any kind of a leader has to become some kind of a TV personality, it stands to reason that those who are already TV personalities will have a major advantage. Indeed, too little attention has probably been paid to the career of Nigel Farage in this regard - Farage who "won" the Brexit referendum and immediately resigned as leader of his party, to "get his life back". Which meant, in effect, that he would be continuing his career essentially as a TV character, with none of the usual annoyances which politicians must endure, such as trying to get elected or generally running things.

Farage would be staying where he could do the most damage - where the action is. Until his great mate Trump took it to a new dimension, he would exist as the purest example of the political creature who lives and works on television - failing seven times to be elected as an MP, but still showing up seven times a day on Sky News.

So we need to stop pretending that Oprah versus Trump would represent some new landmark in the decline of our civilisation.

Life on Earth has already changed. We are quite a different species now, from the one that was living through the Obama years. Yes, there was actually a time when weeks, perhaps even months might go by, without any normal person being too concerned or even all that interested in what the president of the USA might be thinking or doing.

Can anyone recall that time? Or even more disturbingly, will anyone be able to envisage such a time again, when Trump goes up against an opponent who might well be Oprah, in 2020? Will our days be so consumed with his doings, that in some weird way even those Americans who hate him and fear him will somehow be unable to let go of him?

I suspect he would love to run against Oprah. Because she represents not one, but two of the forces which he is most determined to defeat, because she is black and she is a woman. And this would be sure to energise his base - if energising his base means having them burning their crosses with white sheets over their heads.

He would be mildly concerned by the fact that, unlike him, Oprah is the sort of rich person who wasn't born rich. And who is actually rich, whereas Trump's net worth can vary by many billions depending on what time of day it is. Indeed we may eventually discover that by a certain measurement, when you take away all that he owes to the Russians and so forth, it turns out that technically he is the poorest man in the United States.

He would be troubled too by the mainstream nature of Oprah's success, which means that she must have an instinct almost as sharp as his own for knowing what the American people want - and then she must have the total lack of shame to give it to them. Against this he has two weapons, to which I have already alluded: the word "black" and the word "woman".

His light-hearted demeanour at the mention of him running against Oprah was perhaps not unconnected to the fact that his entire campaign could simply consist of the endless repetition of the words "black woman". And for longer speeches, the three words "liberal black woman", or even "angry black woman", may re-energise the base in the unlikely event that it is not already tremendously energised.

This is it, my friends. Trump v Oprah. Our rulers do not live in three dimensions, but on the flat screen. The other week Trump even sent a version of himself out in video form to the White House press corps, though physically he was perhaps only in the next room. And he would consider it a tribute to himself - a sign that he is the ultimate TV professional - that, unlike Oprah, he also watches TV all the time, when he isn't on it. You could say that all this is happening on his watch.

Last week, members of the media came into the room in which Trump was chairing the first Cabinet meeting of 2018, and he greeted them with this line which some regarded as a joke, but which was strictly factually accurate in a way that jokes generally are not:

"Welcome back to the studio..."

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