In October, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, made her most significant political intervention to date. She marked her fortieth birthday by writing an open letter “as a mom” to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and asked Congress to legislate for paid family leave for new parents. Markle may have thought she was pushing at an open door: the Democrats were striving to include paid family leave in the Build Back Better Act. But this may not be the only open door Meghan is pushing at.
Seasoned observers will notice the Markle trademarks in the letter. There is the folksy appeal to her humble heritage: “I grew up on the $4.99 salad bar at Sizzler… I knew how hard my parents worked to afford this because even at five bucks, eating out was something special, and I felt lucky.” There is the sound of enormous privilege being checked ever so modestly: “Like any parents, we were overjoyed. Like many parents, we were overwhelmed. Like fewer parents, we weren’t confronted with the harsh reality of either spending those first few critical months with our baby or going back to work.”
She signed the letter “The Duchess of Sussex,” even though her husband’s grandmother has asked her not to use the title for political ends. But Meghan seems not to care about offending her in-laws: the duchess has set her sights higher than mere celebrity. After an enforced hiatus due to Covid-19, a domestic interlude which Meghan and Harry filled by producing a second child and some inspirational videos, the Sussexes are back. Her foray into lobbying in October, and her and Harry’s quasi-presidential appearance at the UN General Assembly in September, may be baby steps toward the greatest show on Earth: the White House.
There is nothing absurd in the notion that a supporting player in Suits might become the biggest player of all on the world’s stage. Ronald Reagan proved the electoral potential of a B-movie background and a pleasant demeanor. So did Donald Trump, minus the pleasant demeanor. Arnold Schwarzenegger made it to the governor’s mansion, but his foreign birth blocked a run at the White House. Meanwhile, Democrats are so enthralled by the celebrity presidency of Barack Obama that they have begged for encores from George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey.
As Meghan bestrides the world like a well-coiffed Colossus, the question isn’t whether she could run. It’s whether she’s already started her run.
“I do believe that Meghan is determined to find a place within the Democratic Party,” the American royal commentator Kinsey Schofield tells me. “It was reported in March that she met with senior Democratic officials to explore her options. Additionally, she has appeared alongside political personalities like Michelle Obama and Stacey Abrams during the ‘When All Women Vote’ voter registration event, and Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris during The 19th Represents 2020 Virtual Summit.”
Meghan, Kinsey Schofield says, “knows that you are who you associate with,” and is “purposely positioning herself alongside female, left-leaning leadership.” She is “incredibly intelligent and calculated when it comes to her career. She seeks out the right people and positions and abandons them once her circumstances change for the better.”
An experienced Republican campaign operative, speaking off the record, identifies two paths to high office for Markle. “One is using California as a stepping-stone. The other is jumping directly into the presidential hunt. If Joe Biden declines to seek re-election, she should simply decamp to Iowa, cultivate the common touch and try to persuade activists in the land of corn that she can revive the Obama model of combining vague progressivism with megawatt celebrity.”
The Republican insider warns that Meghan “could be a tough sell as a first-time candidate” and that celebrities such as Winfrey, Clooney and Warren Beatty all decided against exposing their private lives in pursuit of political ambition. Then again, Meghan’s life is already public, and it became even more public once she and Harry left the envelope of deference that surrounds the royal family in Britain. The US media show similar deference to politicians, especially Democratic ones. As an elected official, Meghan might recover some of her privacy by hiding in plain sight — which is where she is building her support.
As 2021 draws to its end, Meghan can look back on many victories and no obvious defeats. Events that would define an entire career for many celebrities happen to her on a near-weekly basis. In recent months, she has published a children’s book, made a high-profile visit to the United Nations, won a libel suit at the High Court in London, been interviewed on television by Oprah Winfrey and has, along with her husband, been named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world: her first appearance on the unranked chart since 2018. Omid Scobie and Carolyn Durand’s unofficially authorized biography of her and Prince Harry, Finding Freedom, remains a bestseller. Like any superstar celebrity, her face gazes out from a thousand magazines. She is living her best life, albeit with a calculating rigor that makes it hard to imagine that she enjoys it. Dinners chez Sussex are probably accompanied not by wine and laughter, but spreadsheets and staffers from her publicists, Sunshine Sachs.
“Meghan should start laying the groundwork now for a 2024 Senate run,” my strategist recommends. “Dianne Feinstein is almost certain to retire. This will open a coveted seat and launch a civil war inside the fractious California Democratic Party. Californian Democratic politics is dominated by ethnic tribalism and special-interest cash. The state’s expensive television media markets make campaigning statewide onerous.”
Politics is a hard game, especially for a mixed-race woman, but the Duchess of Sussex would have celebrity, money and recognition on her side. “She could float above the ugly racial sectarianism and sectionalism that will likely follow as regional candidates outbid each other in lefty mania to get media attention. In California’s jungle primary system, Meghan needs only to place in the top two vote recipients — an achievable feat in a very divided field — in order to advance to the November runoff, in which her celebrity status and name recognition would make her a force to be reckoned with.”
If she can make it to the runoff, the world is Meghan’s ethically harvested oyster. And if she wins? More than one of the well-placed figures I spoke with thought it possible that she could surpass Hillary Clinton and make the final step from the Senate to the presidency. “From the California senator, the path to a 2028 presidential nomination would be wide open,” my Republican source admits. “She could marshal the resources of America’s largest and seemingly bluest state to make a run for the White House.”
Kinsey Schofield believes that Meghan can go all the way: “She can see every step she needs to take to get to the White House.” There is, Schofield thinks, nothing to stop her: “Between her education, her contacts and her previous charity work, some might argue that she is more qualified to become president than some of the previous men that have held office.”
If Meghan Markle were to become president in 2028, she would probably be the first female president. For the first time, a woman of color would be parenting school-age children in the Oval Office. This is not the only glass ceiling she would shatter.
Monarchy and aristocracy would return to American politics for the first time since 1776 — albeit in the robes of celebrity. Tessa Dunlop, a historian and royal commentator, sees this dual appeal as crucial to the Sussexes’ campaign to conquer America: “The Harry and Meghan combination perfectly encapsulates a centuries-old dichotomy. Harry is an Old-World blue-blood heaved into the New World by his ambitious American wife. Meghan — a self-made woman of color — taking precedence over her prince chimes well with liberal America’s idea of itself. Their elective kingship would have both contemporary resonance and aristocratic heft. And it’s a role that Harry, as the little brother to the future heir to the throne, has been in training for all his life.” The prospect of President Markle with an anxiety-prone, socially embarrassing husband by her side is dramatic, but not unprecedented.
Meghan strives to give the impression that she is amazed that her overflowing goodness and decency could ever be misinterpreted, but others are more cynical. She is a divisive figure, and perhaps deliberately so. The American public’s opinion of the Sussexes has already divided along party lines. The watershed, Kinsey Schofield suggests, came in October 2020 when the Sussexes endorsed Joe Biden, then the Democratic presidential nominee, during TIME 100’s television special.
To her detractors, Meghan is a loathsome and pernicious presence, the embodiment of virtue-signaling wokishness and performative hypocrisy. In Britain, she is now widely detested. “She is a guttersnipe, pure and simple — devoid of class or breeding,” a well-known British socialite tells me. But no presidential candidate ever lost votes by getting snubbed by the Brits.
“No wonder she got the hell out,” Tessa Dunlop says. “She is a hustler, a capitalist, and a woman with ambition — something Brits have always been terrified of.” To her American supporters, many of them young and female, Meghan means empowerment. She brought progressive ideas — social justice, environmentalism, public displays of emotion — to the notoriously stuffy and closed British monarchy. She has rescued Prince Harry from a lifetime of repression and depression, and he has taken up yoga and juggling.
Meghan’s political genius lies in her understanding of why Americans responded so emotionally to Princess Diana. Diana portrayed herself as a free spirit, tyrannized by the hidebound, snobbish monarchy. Meghan has gone one better. She has convicted the British royals of racism in the court of Oprah, which is the real court of public opinion these days. In an age when celebrities are scrambling to claim victimhood or face irrelevance or cancellation, Meghan can claim to be the ultimate American victim. If she makes it to the White House, we will look back at the moment when Oprah dropped her jaw in faux shock as the instance when Markle went from celebrity to politician.
Perhaps the Sussexes have been playing a long game against the royals. What better and more damning way of avenging themselves on “The Firm” than to create a rival powerbase in the United States and win both the moral high ground and the kind of real executive power that Elizabeth II’s ancestors possessed but Harry’s father and brother can only dream of? The effects on the British monarchy would make 1776 look like a tea party by comparison.
Yet Harry remains the weak link, whether from personal recalcitrance or a reluctance to put the boot into his family. Doug Emhoff has already shown what is required of a First Husband: mildness, caution and even more self-sacrifice than is demanded of a royal. Harry is short-tempered around the press and highly protective of Meghan against criticism. Kinsey Schofield sees this as the couple’s Achilles heel: “Both Harry and Meghan are very sensitive, and would experience an unrelenting amount of judgment from the world… We would never be able to turn on the TV and not see Thomas Markle or Piers Morgan. President Trump would end up an anti-Markle political pundit.”
“Meghan didn’t jettison the role of British princess and all its trappings and international soft power without an alternative game plan,” Tessa Dunlop concludes. “Love her or loathe her, this one-time actress really might be the woman who brings The Crown into the heart of American politics.”
The first phase of Meghan’s ascent to power was winning the heart of a prince. The second phase was exchanging Windsor Castle for a mansion in Montecito, and royalty for celebrity. The third phase, Dunlop believes, has already begun. “When they visited the United Nations, it set a new tone: here was a power couple taking in important national sites, hammering home a vaccine agenda and pressing flesh with the UN officialdom. It is hard to see how this was pointing in any direction other than a political one.”
It is all for the cameras, but it is all for real. As it was for Reagan, artifice is at the heart of Meghan’s presentation. It remains key to understanding her. At the beginning of the movie Notting Hill, the 1999 picture about a romance between a Hollywood star and a posh Brit, we see Julia Roberts’s perma-smiling film star Anna Scott in a montage: grinning on the red carpet, posing for magazine covers. A voiceover calls her “Hollywood’s biggest star by far,” and Elvis Costello soulfully intones Charles Aznavour’s “She”: “She may be the beauty or the beast/ May be the famine or the feast/ May turn each day into a heaven or a hell.” The implication is clear: this protagonist is a big deal, but the prospect of terrible things happening as a byproduct of her fame is ever-present.
It is unclear whether Meghan Markle has seen Notting Hill, but the stage-managed announcement of her second pregnancy suggests she might have watched it more than once. Misan Harriman’s black and white pictures of Meghan and Harry looking at one another adoringly under a tree were almost an exact match for the final shot of the movie, where Julia Roberts cradles her stomach and rests her head on Hugh Grant’s lap under a tree.
Fittingly, Meghan and Harry shared their private joy on Valentine’s Day. Welcome to Meghan’s world, where artifice, pop culture and politics march in lockstep. Only a fool would bet against her going the distance.
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