It was during the early days of the #MeToo movement, a year into the Trump presidency, and the idea of a wildly popular and charismatic presidential candidate plucked from the world of talk television seemed not only possible, but desirable.
Though some close to Oprah whispered she was “actively thinking” about a presidential bid, a month later she told late-night host Jimmy Kimmel she was “definitely not running” — a line she had to repeat for months before the speculation died down.
Yet if the “Oprah for President” bubble burst in 2018, her impact on US politics persisted. Marianne Williamson and Dr. Mehmet Oz, elevated as lifestyle and wellness gurus through their appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” have transformed their Oprah anointments into political launching pads.
Williamson, a spiritualist and author who rose to fame as Winfrey’s spiritual advisor, vied for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, while Oz, the Winfrey show’s health expert, has just announced his candidacy for one of Pennsylvania’s US Senate seats.
Their candidacies are unusual not because they are entertainers-turned-politicians — a career arc with a long history in the US — but because of their emergence from the very specific cultural context of Oprah-world.
Since the mid-1980s, Winfrey has reigned over a media empire that prized emotional, confessional revelations, and helped construct a culture of wellness and spiritualism, now a prominent feature of middle- and upper-class life in the United States. And that culture is now merging with electoral politics, a sign of the new types of trust and authority shaping politics in the United States.
Winfrey was one of the first and most important figures in the influencer economy, emerging long before social media made “influencer” a legitimate (if oft-mocked) career path.
Though her talk show had been a sensation since it launched in 1986, it was not until she introduced her book club in 1996 that her economic power became apparent. Her words could move markets: she could pluck a book from obscurity and turn it into a bestseller overnight; endorse a product and send sales soaring; disparage hamburgers and crater cattle prices. After she gushed over a pair of aromatherapy slippers in 2002, the company’s sales went from 3,000 a month to 20,000 — a phenomenon that occurred so frequently it was dubbed “the Oprah effect.”
The same held true for ideas and personalities. Marianne Williamson became a household name in 1992 after Winfrey dedicated a show to her first book, “A Return to Love,” claiming she had experienced 157 miracles after reading Williamson’s work. Williamson would become a mainstay on the show, and her blend of spiritualism and pop psychology emerged as a defining feature of the Oprah self-help ethos, in which personal and professional breakthroughs came through storytelling, intense emotional work, and the sharing of intimate secrets and hardships.
That ethos may not seem to have much to do with politics, but Winfrey was debuting more than a set of ideas. She was demonstrating a way of understanding the world, one in which authenticity became a form of authority, where emotional experience became just as important as professional experience.
It was precisely those ideas that Williamson called on when she ran for president pledging “to harness love for political purposes.” And while she may not have won the nomination, her framework found its way into Joe Biden’s campaign. “May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight,” he said in his acceptance speech, “as love and hope and light joined in the battle for the soul of the nation.”
Oz likewise benefited from his association with Winfrey. The cardiothoracic surgeon appeared on her show more than 60 times, often in surgical scrubs, promoting his unusual form of spiritualist medicine. Charismatic and telegenic, Oz became the show’s official health expert for several seasons, offering up not only well-sourced medical advice but also pseudoscientific claims about supplements and other alternative medicines. His appearances were so popular that in 2009 he got his own program, “The Dr. Oz Show.”
Oz’s immense fame came from his ability to blend two forms of authority: his scientific training as a surgeon and the Oprah imprimatur. That enabled him to position himself as an insider-outsider, someone who carried all the credentials of a health expert that he then used to criticize western medicine.
But he was no pure critic. He touted so many unproven anti-aging and weight-loss supplements he was called before Congress in 2014 to testify about his place in the scam-medicine economy. Oz told a Senate panel on health and science, “I do personally believe in the items I talk about in the show. I passionately study them. I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact.” He also said, “I strongly support the need to look at whether the products are safe or not.”
That would not be his only brush with politics. As Donald Trump, another insider-outsider, vied for the presidency, Oz conducted a one-hour special featuring Trump, which ended with him giving the candidate a clean bill of health. Trump had a tendency to offer up unsubstantiated claims of his robust good health, and during the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have misled the public about his condition and exposed hundreds to the disease (something he denies).
Trump later appointed Oz to his Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, he became a regular on Fox News, where he blended well-supported claims about testing and social distancing with unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine, a favorite alternative treatment among Trump administration officials and Fox News personalities.
Now running for Senate as a Republican, Oz is continuing to lean on his reputation as both a credentialed surgeon and a television doctor as the basis of his campaign. But as with his show, he is relying more on the aura of expertise than his medical knowledge in drafting his political positions. Once an advocate of abortion access as a necessary and fundamental medical right, Oz has now come out in support of overturning Roe v. Wade — a position that puts him in line with Republican politics if not with his scientific knowledge.
But Oz’s claim to authority and authenticity, blended with his fame as a TV personality, makes him perfectly suited to this moment in US politics. Though like Williamson, he may fail to win his primary, he understands there is a sizable portion of the US electorate that has lost faith in traditional institutions — religious, medical, political, journalistic — and has sought out alternative authorities.
For decades, Winfrey served as that authority for millions. Now her proteges are following her lead, marching into the world of politics and an electorate intrigued by — if not completely dedicated to — the culture of influencers and celebrities Winfrey helped create.