It’s an exciting week for fans of reality television. After a dramatic conclusion to Hannah B.’s season of The Bachelorette, we’re now in the middle of the third and fourth Democratic primary debates—guaranteed blockbuster ratings bonanzas, where pundits of all stripes are temporarily required to give a shit about people like Steve Bullock, Seth Moulton, and John Delaney: hollow suits and campaign-cash sinkholes with exactly zero chance of winning a single delegate.
To anyone appropriately tuned out of the race, Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign might look shipwrecked. She consistently bobs around 1 percent in national polls, and about 64 percent of registered voters have either never heard of or have no opinion of her. Despite this relatively low profile, Gabbard manages to stand out among the grim procession of Michael Bennets. Between consistent anti-war messaging, willingness to buck the party line, and a mildly hypnotic presence, she’s amassed a hardened core of dedicated supporters. Hers is an impassioned 1 percent, but it’s often unclear who they are.
With baggage to alienate most of the electorate, Gabbard often seems like a candidate without a constituency.
Once counted among the Democratic Party’s “rising stars,” the Hawaii representative had mostly drowned her image in a litany of bizarre stances and emerging liabilities well before formally announcing her presidential ambitions seven months ago. She scorned the party’s centrist wing by abandoning a prestigious DNC post to endorse Bernie in 2016, but has been deeply controversial on the left, largely thanks to her tacit support of blood-soaked despots like Narendra Modi, Bashar al-Assad, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as well as her troubling history of anti-LGBTQ lobbying for an organization run by her father. She doesn’t fit comfortably on the American political spectrum, oscillating from side to side on various positions.
With baggage to alienate most of the electorate, Gabbard often seems like a candidate without a constituency—which is why, before last month’s first-round debate, few predicted that she’d walk away with one of the night’s most-discussed performances. After fact-checking Human Ball of Clay Tim Ryan and decisively condemning the American forever-war, she earned a maxed-out contribution from Jack Dorsey and emerged as the most-Googled candidate of the moment.
I had spent that night ensconced in a crowd that came ready to believe, scoping out her supporters at a pro-Tulsi debate watch party. Coordinated by “New Yorkers for Tulsi,” a small cohort of grassroots volunteers, the event drew about a hundred people to The Craic, a cozy Irish bar in Williamsburg. “We just work in parallel with the campaign,” one organizer told me, explaining that the group had gotten together to plan and register the event with Gabbard’s campaign after spending a day with the candidate at a private donor event in early June.
Indeed, I had found the watch party through Gabbard’s official campaign website, which promoted it alongside dozens of others under a “supporter events” tab—but it was also advertised on PresidentTulsiGabbard.org, a portal for “an interconnected group of individuals who seek to actively enlist, encourage and motivate a groundswell of uniquely skilled, self-motivated grassroots activists and organizers” in support of the Hawaii congresswoman. The website is run by California-based activist James Roguski, who helped coordinate the watch party, and who says he speaks with organizers from New Yorkers for Tulsi on a near-daily basis. He also operates a small garden of sites dedicated to homeopathy, alternative medicine, fluoride, and 9/11 trutherism. Among other materials, PresidentTulsiGabbard.org hosts an open letter urging her supporters not to trust the mainstream media and instead to get their information from figures including far-right stepping stone Joe Rogan and David Icke, who is best known for promulgating the belief that humanity is secretly governed by shape-shifting reptilians from another dimension.
That so few layers separate the tinfoil blogosphere from Gabbard’s official campaign is probably at least partially attributable to understaffing. According to FEC data, the campaign had only made salary disbursements to eight individuals by the end of Q2, offshoring the bulk of its groundwork to a small army of freelancers, consultants, and volunteers. It presumably takes manpower to vet these kinds of connections, and I’d imagine it’s difficult to turn down free labor when you’re piloting a cash-strapped and flailing campaign—hardly unique to Gabbard—but it’s still worth questioning why her message is so resonant on the fringes of American politics.
Back in Brooklyn, an hour before the June 26 debate, The Craic was humming with giddy anticipation. An organizer dispensed plastic leis, a relaxed selection of tropical button-ups peppered the crowd, and a pack of guests huddled around a corner tray of fruit kebabs—later complimented by roving pans of Hawaiian pizza—as a stream of arrivals stocked the room. Seated in the middle of the bar, a young man laughed with his friends while clutching a ukulele and sporting a white hat with a familiar slogan: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
The guy in the MAGA hat, who asked that I call him “Sam,” told me he was unlikely to vote for any Democrat in 2020, but that he’d come out with a friend who was “obsessed” with Gabbard. I mentioned that I was surprised to find a MAGA hat at a Democratic debate party, and a middle-aged man from Long Island laughed at the sentiment. “I think you’ll find a lot of invisible MAGA hats here,” he said, adding that he was a Trump supporter as well.
Attendees were hesitant to speak with me, but they didn’t seem like paranoid conspiracists—just garden-variety nationalists. Almost everyone I talked to who had come for the watch party described themselves as either a current or a disaffected Trump supporter, and over the course of the night I encountered about as many “invisible MAGA hats” as I did plastic leis. An attendee and self-proclaimed Trump supporter named Kyrie tried to distill Gabbard’s appeal: “She has the most common sense out of most of [the Democrats].”
Kyrie couldn’t give a clear answer when I asked what he meant by “common sense,” but his friend Chris Ewald, one of the event’s organizers, took a stab. “She’s the strongest anti-war candidate on display,” he said, a “TULSI 2020” shirt leering from behind the lapel of a loose-fitting blazer. “She’s the most vocal candidate speaking against interventionist wars.”
Anti-interventionism has been at the heart of Gabbard’s campaign since day one. An Iraq war veteran, she has long highlighted the human and economic costs of America’s imperial adventures. She was a frequent critic of Obama’s foreign policy, calling on the president to scale back drone use and expedite the withdrawal from Afghanistan as early as her first congressional campaign. “We cannot separate foreign policy from domestic policy,” she said on Fox News more recently, “because we’ve seen how, since 9/11 alone, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on these wasteful regime change wars. That would end under a President Gabbard.”
Listen to Tulsi Gabbard talk about war, and you will hear about wasteful government spending. You will hear about post-traumatic stress disorder, the VA’s failures, and the tolls extracted from the bodies of American soldiers. You will hear about the cost of our bombs, and how they help to sow the seeds of terrorism around the world. You are unlikely to hear, however, about suffering abroad. You are unlikely to hear about the victims of imperialism, international solidarity, or the essential right of non-Americans to freedom, material security, or collective self-determination. Tulsi Gabbard rarely claims to oppose imperialism on principle—she merely pits herself against wars that don’t serve “legitimate” national security interests. Rather than empathy for noncitizens, her anti-war posture takes root in patriotic isolationism and the primacy of the state. It is deeply similar to Trump’s anti-war rhetoric from 2016 and thoroughly compatible with his nationalist vision.
This lack of solidarity with the plight of noncitizens might be why Gabbard has found herself at home with strongmen like nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and willing to align with horrendous figures like Assad and Sisi against “terrorism” abroad. It might also explain all the Trump supporters I found at her Williamsburg watch party. “We have to have strong borders,” a young woman in a vibrant, Coachella-style flower crown told me, elaborating that she supported Gabbard because Trump had failed to deliver on the wall. “America first. How could you not believe that?”
By the time the debate finally began, an enraptured crowd filled the room. Gabbard opened the night by ignoring a question about equal pay to give a response about 9/11, but the crowd forgave her dodge and erupted in cheers of “Aloha!”
It’s hard to begrudge anyone for nodding off to the comatose pablum falling from the mouths of most Democrats on stage that night, but it was clear from the outset that most attendees were uninterested in what you’d normally identify as “progressive” politics. Booker’s promise to reinstate DACA was met with scattered boos, and the only solid reminders that we were still in Brooklyn came when the crowd melted down every time Bill de Blasio started to open his mouth.
To be fair, I encountered at least one former Bernie supporter among the Trumpian majority. An aging anti-money-laundering compliance officer, he talked to me about Chomsky and socialist internationalism, positioning himself to the left of America’s fledgling progressive movement.
Rather than empathy for noncitizens, her anti-war posture takes root in patriotic isolationism and the primacy of the state.
It’s true that Gabbard has found well-intentioned support from some on the left. Weekend at Bernie’s-style candidate Mike Gravel, for example—whose teenage campaign-runners have pushed proposals to decriminalize sex work and cut military spending in half, among others—named her alongside Bernie as one of the Democratic contenders most likely to earn his eventual endorsement. And James Roguski, the grassroots Gabbard organizer and 9/11 truther, told me he’d done similar work promoting Bernie in 2016. But her most visible support has decidedly come from the other direction. Her debate performance won accolades from crypto-fascist luminaries like Tucker Carlson, Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec, and Paul Joseph Watson, and she dominated a post-debate Drudge Report poll by a 3-to-1 margin (with some help from trolls on 4chan and Reddit), speaking to Breitbart about it almost immediately afterwards.
Gabbard has also found fans among some of the internet’s most explicitly racist bastions of Trump support. During the debate, someone on /pol/—4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” discussion board, known for its density of racist, sexist, and neo-Nazi beliefs—commented that “Tulsi Gabbard is the only person on that stage with a soul.”
“She’s anti-war, anti-gay and doesn’t seem to be overtly anti-white,” wrote another. “If you hold Jewish capitalism over these issues, perhaps you aren’t as redpilled as you think you are.”
When Mother Jones reporter Ali Breland wrote about Gabbard’s warm reception among the alt-right, 4chan trolls made threads mocking him. One left him a personal message, in case he decided to check back: “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING F****T ASS LITERAL N****R.”
Of course, these aren’t all of Gabbard’s supporters. “Some people over email and Twitter said they were upset about what they saw as my story associating [Gabbard] with the alt-right, which wasn’t my goal at all,” Breland told me. “I get why you’d be frustrated with journalists pointing that out about your favorite candidate, although I think that kind of anger is misplaced.”
Even self-professed support from outright fascists doesn’t mean that Gabbard herself is necessarily right-wing, and it certainly doesn’t imply as much about all of her supporters. But it lends credence to alarm bells sounding against her coziness with foreign dictators, former opposition to LGBTQ rights, and “America First” anti-war posturing. The left should absolutely oppose, without concession, the global projection of American military power. But there’s no reason that we should ignore the complexity of international conflicts or make excuses for brutal dictators in the process.
Departing the debate party, I ran into “Sam” outside the bar—the lonely MAGA hat in a sea of invisible comrades. This time he was with his “Tulsi-obsessed” buddy, a stocky young man in a Lacoste polo who asked to go by “Tom.”
When asked if he used to be a Trump supporter, he told me,“I was, but now I’m on the fence, the big beautiful fence. . . . If its Trump vs. Tulsi, I’m voting Tulsi. If its Trump vs. any of these other whack jobs, I’m voting Trump.”
Tom expressed hope that Gabbard would come around to his perspective on issues like border security—he wants a wall—and “free speech on the internet”—he and Sam agree that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are silencing “mostly conservative voices”—but was largely impressed by what he described as Gabbard’s “tactical silence,” interpreting her unwillingness to engage certain issues as a wink to his corner. “Everyone else has in some way or another done some kind of pandering,” he said of the Democratic field. “Tulsi didn’t say much about Pride. . . . She’s not going to get wrapped up in identity politics.”
In conversation, the New Yorkers for Tulsi organizers framed themselves as independent progressives; egalitarians, wary of party dogma, who saw Gabbard’s right-wing appeal as a boon for her chances against Trump. Later, one of them remarked to me that they’d been surprised by the significant pro-Trump turnout at their party. After surveying the scene, I am indeed convinced that her message is entirely capable of courting far-right supporters, but worried that her vision aligns more closely with theirs than that of anti-war progressives.
New Yorkers for Tulsi is holding another debate watch party tonight, this time at Tara Rose in Manhattan. She’s likely to make progressive overtures, and to position herself as the lone pacifist on stage. It is true that the Democratic Party is depressingly thin on marginally palpable foreign policy positions, and that, with the DNC’s blackballing of Mike Gravel, she will likely be the most anti-war candidate on display this evening. But despite her Nation byline and experience as a Bernie surrogate, Gabbard’s is not a foreign policy of the left.