Oprah and the Politics of Consolation
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Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 2018 Golden Globes elicited widespread calls for the media mogul to enter the US presidential race in 2020. At the time, the passionate outpouring of support was generally interpreted as a reflection of Democrats’ desire for a liberal answer to President Donald Trump’s celebrity. Building on cultural sociology’s engagement with the symbolic dimensions of democratic power struggles, this article argues that commentators largely missed a crucial element of Winfrey’s appeal: namely, her focus on engaging the meaning of suffering, a task that has long been integral to the American president’s role. Moreover, Winfrey’s specific mode of engagement exhibits a striking homology with public representations of collective suffering in the United States, especially the suffering associated with terrorism. Drawing on a trauma framework, Winfrey encourages individuals to re-live past experiences of suffering and indeed to make such experiences the linchpins for their identities. Similarly, official memorials and museums cast episodes of terrorist violence as collective traumas—inviting visitors to re-experience these events and the grief they left in their wake, and portraying victimhood as central to American national identity. Identifying this homology not only helps to explain the appeal of a Winfrey candidacy, but also illuminates the role of suffering in contemporary US politics more generally.
KeywordsPolitics Suffering Trauma Terrorism Oprah Winfrey
The author wishes to thank James L. Nolan, Jr., Doug Bafford, and the students in the Brandeis Workshop for Critical Inquiry and Education for their engagement and feedback.
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