One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes. . . And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and powerful. — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, #129
Sometimes, the conjunction of two very different people or events or ideas can provoke a perception that would not have been possible otherwise. The ascendancy of Oprah in the wake of her Golden Globes speech, and the announcement in The New York Times that Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff, is running for the senate, provides such a moment.
One of the foundational myths of American culture is that anyone can become president. It is a story, usually bolstered by reference to Lincoln, that is meant to widen our horizons and reassure us that opportunities seized can result in the fulfillment of private ambition rendered for the public good. No matter how humble one’s origin, the story goes, America’s egalitarianism theoretically makes it possible for the guy down at the 7-Eleven, or your neighbor—hell, even for you!—to strive and to rise to presidential heights.
Never mind that the 2016 presidential campaigns alone racked up a price tag of $2.4 billion out of a total of $6.5 billion after the congressional elections were tallied. That means that our last presidential election cost just under the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) for 2017 ($2.5 billion), as estimated by the IMF.
Never mind that our last political contest, by contrast to other democracies, ran to 596 days, while Britain’s 2015 election was 139 days, Canada’s longest election cycle was just 78 days, and Japan’s elections, which are limited by law, are never more than 12 days.
Somehow we live with the cognitive dissonance that the office is open to anyone over 35, while still knowing that a presidential candidate must be prepared to raise and spend about a billion dollars for the privilege.
But in a curious and vulgar way, Donald Trump proved that the myth is true: anyone—no matter how unqualified, incompetent, and dangerous—really can become president, provided the money is there.
We have now entered the era of the celebrity president, one who has no discernible ability to lead and negotiate among the factions of American society nor any desire to support allies across the world. The confounding spectacle of a billionaire whose racist sympathies and misogynistic attitudes were enough to win him the White House but not the popular vote seems to have set the stage for other improbable candidates. If success is name recognition, vast wealth, and the unlimited ability to indulge oneself, then we can expect other celebrities to be courted for a presidential run.
And that brings us to Oprah, whose Golden Globes speech won her the applause of the audience, and the fervent endorsement of Meryl Streep and other Democrats desperate for charisma in 2020. She’s a self-made billionaire, a philanthropist, a uniter instead of a divider, and beloved by millions. What’s not to like? But the fact that people are seriously considering Oprah as a candidate shows how low the bar has dropped for American democracy.
Her achievements are extraordinary, made all the more so by what she has personally overcome through life. But none of that has prepared her for the decisions that must be made when there are no good outcomes and the lives of millions are at risk. If she is serious about public service then she should run for mayor of Chicago. If she could do that job with grit and grace then perhaps she could try for a governorship or a Senate seat. From there, with experience and testing, she could become a powerful candidate for the presidency, taking into account her character, her charm, and her many other likable qualities.
On the other hand, there is Joe Arpaio, the controversial Arizona sheriff who was facing jail time for abusing his power and defying a court order until Trump pardoned him, and who has announced he is running for the Republican senate seat soon to be vacated by Jeffrey Flake.
Arpaio was entrusted with the protection of his citizens and with upholding justice under the law. In his tenure as sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona he styled himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” He consistently mistreated prisoners, discounted and ignored crimes against women, misused public funds, defiantly bucked a court order to stop illegal immigration roundups, and relished the power he wielded to terrify people of color. If he wins the seat for Arizona Trump will find a senator who is devoted to him, who is willing to flout the law, and whose stance on immigration and civil rights is illegal under current laws.
For elected office a candidate must possess character, vision, and prudence. Character would include, at the very least, courage, integrity, honesty, and compassion. Vision would be a capacity to imagine and to articulate plans for the future that understood historical patterns and present problems. Prudence would be the ability to exercise good judgement about the use of one’s power.
With time and experience it’s possible that Oprah could be that person.
As for Arpaio, his record should stand as disqualifying him for public office of any sort. He represents the worst of what people fear in a politician: blinding ambition, cruelty honed to a knife-edge, a willingness to bend the law until it breaks, and a profound contempt for those he considers his inferiors.
In a country of 343 million people, surely we can do better.