Style vs. Substance and The Trump Effect

By Alexandra Fleksher

Does America really want another celebrity president? Yes, as long as it is Oprah.

Oprah Winfrey is as beloved as they get as a role model and source of guidance to her fans across the globe. She is also articulate, passionate, inspiring, self-assured, thoughtful and empathetic – all the right (and only?) qualities for a president – as well an African American female. If it’s time for a female president, and an African American one to boot, then Oprah is your candidate. Apparently.

Oprah, an excellent orator, stood at the podium at the Golden Globes and gave a very good, if not powerful, speech. She called for a “new day”, when girls and women will never have to say “me too” again. “For too long, women have not been heard, or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men, but their time is up,” she said at the awards ceremony to a standing, cheering audience.

Since then, there has been a flurry of support for Oprah 2020. There has also been some debate as to whether Oprah would actually consider running for U.S. president in 2020. Her best friend, Gayle King, made a statement that Oprah is intrigued by the idea but doesn’t think her friend is actually considering it seriously. However, plenty of celebrities are considering Oprah for president seriously.

From Steven Spielberg to Meryl Streep to Reverend Jesse Jackson, famous people are standing up to endorse Oprah for President. “I think Oprah Winfrey would make an absolutely brilliant president,” Spielberg said. “I think she’ll learn on the job the same way Bill Clinton learned – a former governor of Arkansas – or Barack Obama, a junior senator, learned on the job.”

Here’s the thing: Clinton and Obama had law degrees and political experience. They were governors and senators. Does the obvious really need to be stated?

That American citizens can elect a man with zero political experience or education to the highest office of our country is quite extraordinary. What happened to earning your stripes and climbing the ladder? Is there no value in process, requirements and credentials anymore?

It seems obvious that our children need to learn that in order to achieve and succeed, they need to put in the necessary efforts and meet certain expectations. That there is an order to things. (Of course, there are those that rise to success through connections and sheer mazel without any preparation or training, but it would be unwise to count on it.) If our children retort that Donald Trump became the President of the United States with zero qualifications, we have a problem.

The “Trump Effect” is the name of this cultural problem. Oprah Winfrey for President is a result of the Trump Effect. And it affects all of us in the 21st century, including religious Jews. There is a constant battle of style vs. substance everywhere we look.

As Orthodox Jews, we have the greatest connection to the greatest source of depth and wisdom in the universe, and that is the Torah. We have leaders and scholars who delve into its wellsprings and make its teachings and practices accessible to all of us. We know what substance is all about.

But when we are not connected to it – nay, holding on to it for dear life – we are easily distracted. We grasp for quick fixes, preferring the flash of charisma over soul and substance. We get caught up in the how’s and the motions instead of the why’s and the meaning. We seek what feels good for our guf, all, of course, in a kosher way, over what feels good for our neshama. Chas v’shalom, we don’t even recognize anymore what feels good for our neshama. Outer trappings, in the name of frumkeit, take on more meaning, and we lose sight what is essential and fundamental in our Yiddishkeit.

Many years ago, when I was dating my husband, I stayed at his rav’s apartment on Yeshiva Lane in Baltimore over Shabbos. I brought a glass candy dish as a hostess gift. The rav lifted it up carefully, eyed it from various angles, and proclaimed, “A perfect melding of form and function!”

My husband and I still chuckle at this story, but I will never forget it, as this rav’s statement was far more than just a comment about the design of a simple candy dish. It has been a lesson about life that has always remained with me. Isn’t so much of life about striving to find that balance between style and purpose? Appreciating the aesthetics but not trading them in for the substance which serves as the bedrock of everything we are and everything we do? For if we focus too much on the looks, our product may not function properly, or at all.

I am reminded of Rabbi Emanuel Feldman’s essential essay, “Tefillin in a Brown Paper Bag” in which he urges frum Jews, particularly rabbis, teachers and authors, to adopt a sophisticated approach to communicating Torah wisdom.

You may ask: so what? If it informs and occasionally even uplifts, then who cares if the phrasing is inelegant or the words inappropriate? What difference does it make as long as it does the job? The point is, however, that poor language cannot do the job, cannot inform or uplift in any lasting way. When language is inadequate, simplistic and one-dimensional, then ideas that are potentially sophisticated, profound, and subtle will, in the reader’s mind, be reduced to simplistic and one-dimensional proportions. Impoverished language cannot accurately reflect the wealth of great concepts.[1]

Style and form can be important values, no doubt. In fact, they are crucial elements, when applied to language, for example, in effectively depicting the sophistication and subtleties of Torah wisdom. But they must serve as the handmaiden. Style and substance must partner together, and substance must never be sacrificed for style.

Trump and Oprah, while vastly different in their communication techniques and abilities, are really one in the same when it comes to serving as a reminder about the importance of valuing substance over style in our culture. Let us take a careful look, from all angles, at how we can renew our appreciation for the grounding, integrity – and substance — our Torah wisdom and lifestyle gift us. Daresay, in many areas of frum culture, we can find a better balance.

Alexandra Fleksher holds a M.S. in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and a B.A. in English Communications from Stern College for Women. Her essays on contemporary Jewish issues have been published in various blogs and publications including Cross-Currents, Hevria, Klal Perspectives, Torah Musings, The Jewish Press and The Five Towns Jewish Times.

  1. Feldman, Emanuel. “Tefillin in a Brown Paper Bag.” The Shul Without a Clock. Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 137-141.

You may also like...

15 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    On policy, we can clearly distinguish among celebrities, and others, too. We can discover their places on the line between practicality and delusion. Between patriotism and treason. And so on. Our job is to get behind the facade and hype.

  2. Karen Heckert says:

    Excellent article – in both substance and style. However, last I heard Ms. Winfrey has indicated that she has no plans to run. That makes the enthusiasm for her candidacy even more curious. There are qualified people in both parties, so why are we electing/backing TV personalities with no relevant experience?

    Reading mussar about not being overwhelmed by hitzonius is wonderful, but we really need to start applying it to our own personal lives, and that requires a lot of work and (sometimes uncomfortable) introspection.

  3. Yossi says:

    You might call it the Obama effect as well. Bill Clinton had been governor, while Barack Obama was a highly polished and articulate individual who had accomplished little and didn’t particularly have a lot of responsibility.

    While clearly being articulate and intelligent, he was a movie star type of personality.

  4. Lisa Liel says:

    The idea that President Trump had no qualifications is odd. Decades making deals and getting stuff done isn’t a qualification? And a much better qualification than being a party politician?

    • Raymond says:

      Although I have come around to being one of Donald’s most enthusiastic supporters, there was a time when I was quite skeptical about his candidacy for the Presidency, based on his total lack of political experience. I am the first one to admit that I had been wrong in his particular case, as he has turned out to be an absolutely superb President, at least so far.

    • DF says:

      Agreed with Lisa Liel. The author of the article appears to be making the same mistake so many did in the election, of thinking Hollywood and media representative of everyday Americans. To their warped way of thinking, Trump was elected on the basis of celebrity appeal, so (they reason) Oprah can do the same thing. They simply cannot fathom that many voted for Trump because of the qualities Lisa Liel describes. Others, like me, voted from him because we believed what the country needed most at this time was someone to punch a hole in the stifling air of political correctness choking the life out of the nation. That he was a man of business, and not a career politician, was a huge plus. Agree or disagree, Trump’s so-called flaws, to our way of thinking, was precisely his greatest strength. These are matters of substance, not style.

      By contrast, does the author really believe Clinton and Obama were elected on the basis of substance? We can debate Clinton, king of the glad-handers, who trolled for votes by playing the saxophone in sunglasses on the Arsenio Hall show. But Obama,it cannot be denied by even his supporters, was voted in on the strengths of black voters and white guilt voters who cared nothing and knew nothing about him other than his race.

  5. Eli says:

    The Trump Effect makes an Oprah candidacy more plausible but the enthusiasm underpinning her support is more attributable to the Obama/Hillary Effect – i.e., a candidate’s qualifications are directly related to which historically aggrieved groups they belong to. Since Oprah can claim membership to two she’s seen as a shoe-in. Alas Jews don’t benefit from this but since the most popular Jewish politician in America today is Bernie Sanders that’s probably for the best.

  6. Yaakov says:

    One thing I would though in terms of the difference between the two: Trump, having grown up with a silver spoon, is a self-aggrandizer, whose moral failings are clear for all to see. Oprah, in contrast, rising from very tough circumstances, has used her platform to get in tune with and aid those less fortunate. A successful, yet charitable businesswoman via her own efforts, she has shown the intellectual and social aptitude needed to be President in the 21st century. I’m not saying that everyone should vote for her if she ran, but who cares that she does not have a law degree?

    • Alexandra Fleksher says:

      Oprah has many outstanding qualities, all of which you mention would be assets. What she is lacking is political expertise and experience. Journalism, entertainment and philanthropy are her fields. And by the way, only 4 presidents have had law degrees, so I agree with you that it isn’t essential or required. It seems necessary, to me at least, that you first need to be a leader in your field to achieve the highest position in it, and the field of the presidency is politics and diplomacy. Intellectual and social aptitude just isn’t enough. If it is, then Yitzchok Adlerstein 2020.

      • Bob Miller says:

        We ought to pray really hard for Mashiach. Every politician, with or without paper credentials, will let us down sooner or later. Meantime, adequate beats lousy.

      • Anyone who runs a business or any organization comprised of human beings, has to know an awful lot about politics and diplomacy — knowing how to work with other people to get the things you want done.
        Whether they are good at it or not is a different matter. But experience in the specific politics of governing isn’t needed if you have adequate experience in the politics involved in running a large business or organization.

  7. nt says:

    Is it historically true that there is a positive correlation between experience and presidential success? Abraham Lincoln was a good orator but not particularly experienced; John Quincy Adams was the son of a president, a senator, and a successful Secretary of State, and is considered by historians to be an unsuccessful president.
    Obama had a thin resume yet got elected by glibness and personality, yet managed to achieve major liberal policy goals in the face of ferocious opposition and electoral losses. Now Trump has been elected with no prior government experience but he has managed to pack a successful conservative 4-year term into one year, made many great appointments, and undone much of Obama’s damage. He has also started to correct failings of presidents of both parties by dealing with North Korea with open eyes, putting the U.N. in its place, and recognizing Israel’s right to determine its capitol.
    My favorite quote from Ronald Reagan is, “There are no easy decisions, just simple ones.” President Trump got elected because people realized he was the only candidate with the temperament necessary to break decisively from the mistakes of the past. That temperament also comes with the tendency to spout off and occasionally throw out hair-brained ideas, but that affects his poll numbers more than the real world.

  8. Raymond says:

    Given how Donald is well on his way to becoming perhaps the most pro-Israel President that this country has ever had, it is both surprising and disappointing to me that there are so many negative comments about him on an Orthodox Jewish website like this one. It makes me think that opposition to the State of Israel among the Orthodox is not confined to such fringe groups as the Neturei Karta as well as the Satmar Chassidim.

    As for the issue of style vs substance, at least the way I see it, it was Barak Obama who had all the style and none of the substance. He was quite an articulate, polished speaker with quite an engaging, even likable personality, but his values were so radical, so much against all that America has traditionally stood for, plus of course he was openly hostile to our Jewish State of Israel. Contrast that with Donald, who may be a little crude in how he expresses himself at times, but then again so was the great President Harry Truman, one of the best Presidents we ever had. Meanwhile, the actual content of Donald’s words are very substantial, very much in the traditional American mainstream, and of course his strong support of Israel has turned me into one of his most loyal defenders. Anybody who insults Donald, makes me feel as if the ones really being attacked are our Jewish people.

    Those of you who have not yet watched it, I cannot recommend strongly enough Vice President Mike Pence’s very recent speech to the Israeli Knesset. I do not recall ever being so moved to tears when watching any other politician speak. He positively transcended the often nasty world of politics, showing a love for our Jewish people unlike anything that I have never seen before by any political leader. Any Jew who watches that, yet still does not support the current Administration in the White House, is a Jew whose sanity I have to seriously question.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    We’ve seen Pence at our shul in Indy more than once. Most recently, when he was Governor of Indiana, he attended much of the service when his friend’s son was bar mitzvah.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This