Whose side is Tulsi Gabbard on?
A pro-Assad, anti-war presidential candidate unsettles her Democratic rivals
A presidential candidate’s website is generally a place where promises are made, donations are sought and flattering photographs are posted. All of those things are on tulsi2020.com, the online home of the presidential bid of Tulsi Gabbard, a 38-year-old Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii. But the site also features some more surprising entries.
One page, a list of “Tulsi’s record on the issues” is full of exactly the kind of unremarkable clichés you would expect to find there: “People before Profits & Politics”, “Honoring & Empowering Our Veterans”, “Equality For All”, “Invest in Public Education & Our Teachers”, “Stand Up For Women’s Rights”.
Amidst these political bromides, one line strikes a jarring note: “Reports on Chemical Attacks in Syria”.
Click and you are taken to a page featuring an explanation of Gabbard’s scepticism regarding two chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian civil war in 2017 and 2018. “Both attacks resulted in multiple civilian casualties, and both were immediately blamed on the Assad government,” she writes. “However, there is evidence to suggest that the attacks may have been staged by opposition forces for the purpose of drawing the
United States and the West deeper into the war.” The page goes on to detail a fringe series of criticisms of the United Nations report on the two attacks and to cast doubt on the conclusion reached by both the UN and the US government: that such attacks were the work of the Assad regime.
To Gabbard, an active member of the Army National Guard — America’s reserve force — who has served in Iraq and this summer took a two-week break from the campaign trail to complete military training in Indonesia, the issue goes to the heart of why she is running for president. The central pillar of her campaign is a major shift in American foreign policy and an end to what she characterises as “counterproductive and wasteful regime change wars”.
“Bring the troops home” is hardly an unpopular or outlandish position in American politics today. Winding down America’s commitments overseas is something most of Gabbard’s Democratic primary colleagues promise to do. Every election since 2008 has been won by the candidate with the more minimal view of America’s role in the world. A reluctance to be drawn into further military obligations overseas has been a point of comparative consistency in Donald Trump’s first term. The last decade has seen the slow, bipartisan dismantling of American exceptionalism.
But Gabbard is willing to denounce what she sees as America’s foreign policy mistakes with unusual intensity. And, as demonstrated by her views on chemical weapons in the Syrian war, she has what to many is an alarming willingness to entertain the arguments of America’s geopolitical rivals.
In 2017, this comparatively junior congresswoman surprised many in Washington when she popped up in Syria. Hertrip, which her Democratic colleagues had not known about beforehand, included a meeting with Bashar al-Assad, not someone whose hand most aspiring presidential candidates are eager to shake. Gabbard has described the Syrian dictator as “not the enemy of the United States” and voted against a House resolution condemning his war crimes. Videos she released from her trip regurgitate regime talking points, leaving the impression that American interference and Islamist terrorism explain a war that has claimed more than half a million lives.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the causes of the Syrian civil war are not on the agenda at the Coos County Democratic Party’s annual Truman Dinner, a low-key gathering in New Hampshire’s rural north that receives outsized attention from presidential candidates thanks to this small state’s crucial role in the nomination process. (The residents of Dixville Notch, in Coos County, vote on midnight on primary day with the results announced shortly after, giving the area the gimmicky claim of being the place where the first ballots are cast and counted in the long race to the White House. Iowa nominates a week earlier, but by caucus not primary election.)
Most of the candidates have sent pre-recorded videos that play in the background as the crowd mingles. There are name checks for local organisers and anecdotes designed to reveal the candidates’ sincere fondness not just for the state of New
Hampshire, but specifically this small corner of this small state. Two candidates are there in person: Andrew Yang, the technology entrepreneur and political novice finding unexpected success with a campaign centred on the perils of automation and the need for a universal basic income, and Gabbard.
The Hawaii congresswoman has the kind of raw materials that any Democratic strategist would be desperate to work with. She is a young, non-white woman (her father is of mixed Samoan and European descent) in a party itching to promote young non-white women. She has a telegenic smile and striking facial features that seem almost tailor-made for “woman of destiny” poses that anyone running for president must be able to strike. Her demeanour, both on national television and at small local meetings, is cool-headed, measured and authoritative. Whether by happy coincidence or careful calibration, this reassuring manner counterbalances an energetic youthfulness underlined by frequent reminders of her fondness for surfing and Instagram posts of Gabbard squatting, planking and stretching.
Alongside her military service on her CV is a speedy rise through Hawaii politics that demonstrates seriousness and ambition. Gabbard became a member of the state’s House of Representatives at just 21, before arriving in Washington, DC, in her early thirties in 2012 as the representative for Hawaii’s second congressional district, which covers everywhere on the archipelago outside urban Honolulu. She served as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee until she resigned in 2016 to support left-winger Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid.
Even the unusual streak of silver that runs through her dark hair is politically potent. Gabbard has said that she started to go grey during her first deployment to Iraq and so opts not to dye it as “a remembrance of those who we lost there and the cost of war and why we fight so hard for peace.”
Her speech in Coos County sets out what is an almost boilerplate policy platform for a Democrat from the left of the party in this election cycle — Medicare for all, criminal justice reform, marijuana legalisation, a redistribution of wealth from the one per cent to the rest — and is infused with difficult-to-disagree-with themes she returns to wherever she is campaigning: patriotism, public service and “Aloha spirit”.
“I always start the conversation with Aloha,” she says, dressed in a white blazer. “And It is not just because that’s the way we do things in Hawaii. When we say Aloha, what we’re saying is that I respect you. I respect you and come to you with an open heart and I recognise that we are all connected. I come to you with an open heart and with respect, recognising we are all God’s children.”
Gabbard’s faith is one area where her backstory grows more complicated and, for a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, a lot less helpful. After her election to Congress in 2012, Gabbard was described as the first Hindu member of the House of Representatives. Though accurate, the claim conceals as much as it reveals.
Gabbard grew up in a family that followed a secretive Hawaii-based offshoot of the Hare Krishna movement led by a surfer turned guru called Chris Butler, or Guru Dev Srila Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa as he is known to his followers. Through his movement, which he calls the Science of Identity, Butler has preached a creed of, among other things, yoga, vegetarianism, environmentalism, sexual conservatism and a hostility to science since the 1970s. The group has in the past tried to make inroads into electoral politics via a party called Independents for Godly Government. More than one former adherent describes the movement as a cult.
In the 1990s, Gabbard’s mother served as the treasurer for the Science of Identity Foundation and both her parents have been listed as teachers by the organisation. In 1995, Gabbard’s father, Mike, founded an organisation called Stop Promoting Homosexuality America and once hosted a self-funded anti-gay radio show called “Let’s talk straight, Hawaii”. In 2004, when both Gabbard and her father were elected state officials, she accused reporters at Honolulu Magazine writing about her family’s ties to Butler of “acting as a conduit for the Honolulu Weekly and other homosexual extremist supporters of Ed Case [a political rival of Gabbard’s father].”
Today, the campaign is, unsurprisingly, defensive about this part of Gabbard’s life. The congresswoman now says she supports same-sex marriage and blames a “socially conservative” upbringing for her previous positions on gay marriage and a host of other issues. Her campaign website makes no mention of Butler’s Hare Krishna sect and says that her father, who studied at a Catholic seminary, “remains a lector in the Catholic church, while also practising yoga meditation.” Gabbard says she was raised in a multi-faith family, studying Hindu and Christian scripture, and sees herself as spiritual, rather than religious. However, in a 2015 video, Gabbard describes Butler as her “guru dev” and several members of her close campaign team — which includes her husband and sister — grew up in Science of Identity families.
The trip to Syria, her hardline isolationism and the unusual source of the social conservatism she has now largely renounced are part of a confounding series of details that make many Democrats especially wary of Gabbard — and more worried than they should be about a candidate polling in the low single digits. In a poll of party activists earlier this year in early-voting states by FiveThirtyEight, Gabbard was the candidate respondents were most likely to say they would not consider supporting.
That blue-on-blue mistrust has only been boosted by Gabbard’s unusual coalition of supporters. She is the only candidate more likely to appear on Fox News than on MSNBC. According to the most recent YouGov polling, she is the most popular Democratic candidate among Republican voters. This summer, conservative author Ann Coulter — an important voice in MAGA world — tweeted her support for Gabbard. When Coulter was asked by Buzzfeed News if she would consider voting for Gabbard in either the primary or even instead of Trump in the general election, she replied “possibly both”.
Joe Rogan, the UFC commentator, comedian and politically ecumenical host of one of the most popular podcasts in America, has said: “Tulsi Gabbard’s my girl. I’m voting for her.”
Gabbard’s isolationist foreign policy has also won her a libertarian following. Ron Paul, one of that movement’s leading figures, has identified her as his pick of the candidates on offer.
In Berlin, New Hampshire, the small crowd assembled to hear Gabbard’s stump speech on a sunny morning in a roadside restaurant, represents that diversity.
Some politicians manage to hold together an incongruous coalition by being different things to different people. But the striking thing about my conversations with Gabbard’s supporters is the unanimity with which they site her primary policy — an end to “forever wars” — as their primary reason for supporting her. A former Sanders supporter who “held his nose and voted for Hillary” in 2016 says he thinks Gabbard is “probably the best person in Washington on foreign policy”.
A self-described “right-wing” voter who “held his nose and voted for Trump” last time tells me he doesn’t know who he will vote for in 2020 but that none of the Democratic candidates other than Gabbard appeal to him. Of America’s interventions overseas, he says, “We’ve spent way too much time, way too much money and way too many lives not trying to win things.” One attendee tells me he will be casting his vote for Gabbard. “I have friends who said if she don’t run, they’d vote for Trump,” he adds. “God, please!” In other words, Gabbard has genuine cross-party appeal, just not necessarily of the sort that her party’s establishment are looking for. Rather than representing a lost bipartisan consensus that many in Washington still mourn, she is an expression of post-Iraq, post-financial crisis anger and a reminder of the breadth of the coalition that agrees on what the Democratic and Republican establishments have been getting wrong for so long.
If the ideological diversity of her supporters is one of Gabbard’s great strengths, it is also a weakness. She has the unhelpful endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. When Gabbard reached the polling and fundraising requirements for October’s debate, Duke tweeted: “The Democrats are in a hell of a tizzy cause Tulsi rises in polls and will be in the next debate! Why, because she exposes the insane rush to war waged by the Zionist dominated media and politics of America! I Can’t Wait!”
Mike Cernovich, the conspiracy theorist best known for promoting Pizzagate — the unlikely and unfounded claim that Hillary Clinton was involved in a paedophile ring run from the basement of a Washington, DC, pizzeria — told the New York Times he thinks that Gabbard has “got a good energy, a good vibe. You feel like this is just a serious person … She seems very Trumpian.”
Earlier this year, the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer boasted “We got Tulsi in the debates”, claiming credit after Gabbard reached an earlier fundraising milestone, and saying it had backed the candidate to “make the Jews go nuts”.
Needless to say, Gabbard has denounced such fringe endorsements. For some Democrats, however, her unconventional support base doesn’t just give them a general sense of unease but sets off a very specific alarm bell. In October, the Democratic establishment’s worst suspicions were stated explicitly by none other than Hillary Clinton. When discussing in a podcast interview the possibility of Russian interference in the 2020 election, she said, “I’m not making any predictions but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favourite of the Russians.”
“If the nesting doll fits,” was the reply when a Clinton spokesperson was asked to confirm if the former First Lady, Secretary of State and unsuccessful presidential candidate was referring to Gabbard.
Gabbard’s response was furious. “Great! Thank you Hillary Clinton,” she tweeted. “You, the queen of the warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain. From the day I announced my candidacy, there has been a concerted campaign to destroy my reputation. We wondered who was behind it and why. Now we know — it was always you, through your proxies and powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose. It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me. Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.”
Ironically, Clinton’s ill-judged intervention in a race she has been fairly quiet on was exactly the boost Gabbard — languishing on no more than a few per cent in the polls — needed.
There is little to suggest the overlap between what Gabbard says about America’s place in the world and what Vladimir Putin would find it helpful for Gabbard to say about America’s place in the world is the product of anything other than the candidate’s sincerely-held views. But when Democrats determined to succeed where they failed in 2016 size up the Hawaii congresswoman’s candidacy, they cannot shake an unsettling feeling that they just don’t know whose side she is on.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe