Opinion: How Dr. Oz went from being Oprah’s protégé to Trump’s cheerleader
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.