Oprah Winfrey Is the Most Charismatic Person in America—And Yes, She Really Could Be President

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey accepts the 2018 Cecil B. DeMille Award speaks onstage during the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards. Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Oprah for president. 

At first it was a farfetched joke—a distant fantasy. Then, after Trump won in 2016, it didn't seem quite so implausible anymore. And now, in the days following Oprah Winfrey's charged and inspirational speech at the Golden Globes, the prospect is being discussed by Democrats with breathless fervor. Could she beat Trump? Should she run? (Well...Would she? (The television star has not expressed any campaign plans, though her partner, Stedman Graham, has heightened speculation by saying that "she would absolutely do it.")

After watching the Globes speech, Jeremy Young turned to his wife in a state of vindication: He had been talking about Winfrey's presidential potential for years. Young is a historian who studies charisma in American politics. (His book, The Age of Charisma, examines the rise of charismatic leadership between 1870 and 1940.) In a fascinating tweetstorm, Young argued that Winfrey is the single most charismatic person in America, a rare celebrity who has "the kind of cultural cachet usually reserved for saintly figures such as Mr. Rogers or the Pope." (Even President Obama "seems like a potted plant next to Oprah's star power," Young observed).

Young's conclusion: Don't count her out. Winfrey could step into a presidential race and, despite her utter lack of governing experience, immediately become a front-runner.

Newsweek spoke with Young in between classes at Dixie State University, where he teaches, about Winfrey's singular and magnetic charisma and what this could mean for presidential politics.

You've said that Oprah is the most charismatic person in America right now. Can you talk about what you mean by that?
The way I think about charisma is as a relationship between leaders and followers. Charisma is a quality of behavior that a leader has, but it's also a way that followers respond to a leader. I think Oprah is the most charismatic person in America because she has the most devoted following in America.

There's a great book by Kathryn Lofton called Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. She says that Oprah doesn't make sense if you think of her as a celebrity. She only makes sense if you think of her followers as a religious movement. They're structured like a religious movement. They're organized into clubs. They look at her almost as a quasi-religious figure. There's just no one in America who has that kind of following who would be a remotely plausible presidential candidate, except for Oprah.

In what way do Oprah's followers resemble a religious movement more than a celebrity fandom?
It has to do with Oprah's message, which is one of uplift and self-help and the ability to improve your life through dedicated work on yourself. And followers respond to that. They don't just look at her as a celebrity. They look at her as someone preaching a gospel of good living that inspires them to be better people. While that doesn't have any strictly theological content, it is an almost religious approach to one's life.

What's the relationship between this sort of charisma and political success? Is this a requirement in order to succeed as a political candidate? 
It's definitely not a requirement. Throughout American history, the most charismatic candidates have been candidates who had trouble succeeding politically through traditional means.

Both Oprah and Trump would seem to fit into that category. Neither of them have political backgrounds, but they both have large followings that they're able to command.
Trump's is more interesting, in some ways. Trump didn't have this kind of following before he ran for president. There were a lot of people who thought of him as primarily a celebrity. The following didn't develop until he started holding political rallies. Oprah has that following already, just from her work on her talk show and through her media empire. 

Where does Trump fit into this. Do you think Trump is the most charismatic president of your lifetime?
No, because I was alive when Ronald Reagan was president—barely. I think Ronald Reagan was more charismatic. Trump is charismatic in terms of the way his followers respond to him and in terms of the way he channels their anger. But I wouldn't describe him as traditionally charismatic. He doesn't give a rousing speech. He speaks in the manner of a reality television star rather than with traditional eloquence. And he doesn't display a particular ability to communicate with voters that's unique except inasmuch as he's reflecting their emotions. 

Oprah is a lot more like Reagan in that way. Both of them are trained actors. Both of them are incredibly good at connecting on a human level with ordinary America. That's what charisma is really about: How do voters feel connected to their leaders in a massive, 300-million-person democracy?